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Bloom Blog

How to break the ice when you're the new kid at school

By Louise Kinross

Switching schools is tough. In All About Me, a girl with a disability navigates her first day at an elementary school. The book is written by Desiree Da Costa, a former client at Holland Bloorview who is now a staff member registering children and families and scheduling clinics. As a young child, Desiree, who has cerebral palsy, went to our kindergarten program for kids with and without disabilities. Her new children's book is modelled on one she wrote at age six to introduce herself when she moved to a community school. We spoke about the book and her experiences in a mainstream class.

BLOOM: Why did you decide to write a children's book?

Desiree Da Costa: One day during COVID I was bored and I said 'I'm going to write a book.' I thought about it for a few minutes and it came to me that I should write a book about cerebral palsy, because there aren't enough resources about it, or books with characters with disabilities.

The book is based on the All About Me book that I created in the integrated education and therapy (IET) program in our school here. The idea just came to me, and the words rhymed, and I wrote the book in two to three hours. 

BLOOM: What's it about?

Desiree Da Costa: It's about a little girl with cerebral palsy starting Grade 2 and going to a new school where she's the only kid in her class with a disability. Her previous school was for children with disabilities.

She uses her All About Me book to explain cerebral palsy to her new class. She talks about why she uses a walker and a wheelchair, the things she can do by herself, and what she needs help with. She also talks about things she enjoys in general, because there are similarities between kids, regardless of whether you have a disability or not

BLOOM: In this story, the students welcome the new girl. I've talked to former Bloorview School students who didn't feel included when they went to their neighbourhood school. What was the experience like for you?

Desiree Da Costa: Everybody was nice and welcoming, but it was challenging for me to go from an environment where all your classmates have disabilities to a larger class where you're the only one with a disability. I really felt like I didn't fit in in that environment. It was more of a personal feeling. It wasn't that the staff or students didn't make me feel included.

I missed Bloorview. I thought it was nice in the IET that we were all different in our own way, but the same. The teachers and staff here were great and everything was unique and fun. In a community school you don't go to swim class or ride a bike. Even the hard stuff at Bloorview they made fun. I was used to being pulled out of class to do therapy, and going back and forth. I missed that. I felt very alone in my mainstream class.

After my initial shock or surprise at the new school, I got to a place of acceptance, or indifference: This is my new school and this is where I'm going to be. I didn't experience any bullying or anything like that.

BLOOM: Do you have advice for kids who are moving from a specialized to a mainstream school?

Desiree Da Costa: Visit before the first day, or have a test day where you get to spend time in the classroom and see how a mainstream class runs. I never visited my school before the first day, and talking about it is different from actually experiencing it.

If parents are considering a few schools, visit each one, and let your child be part of making the choice. 

Create an All About Me book your child can bring to school and read to classmates. It's a way to advocate for yourself, but also to break the ice.

BLOOM: Did they accommodate you at your community school?

Desiree Da Costa: Yes and no. The physical needs yes. I had an educational assistant (EA) assigned to me all day. But with the academic part, I didn't know how to advocate for myself, to say 'This is too much or too hard." I had an individual education plan (IEP), but no one talked about it in elementary school. It was like I was dumped in a regular class with an EA.

In later grades I would go to a class for support with language and math and my learning challenges with English. But those challenges applied when I was learning science or social studies, and I didn't get the support there.

It wasn't until I was in Grade 9 that a teacher went through my IEP and explained everything to me, especially my academic accommodations. My high school was great, and all of the teachers were receptive to my IEP. But it depends on the school you're at. 

BLOOM: Who did you write the book for?

Desiree Da Costa: All children. It's beneficial for kids with disabilities because they can relate, and see themselves represented. But it's also helpful for kids without disability because disability is a part of life. This book is another tool for people to learn from.

BLOOM: What do you enjoy most about your work at Holland Bloorview?

Desiree Da Costa: Meeting all of the clients. You get to know them and see them accomplish their goals. In outpatient registration we're on the second floor, so we also see inpatients who do therapy in the gym. Sometimes we already know them from when they were an outpatient. They may do something new and they love to share that with us. Some kids may tell their physio 'I want a walker like Desiree's.' That's really touching.

I've told some of the parents and kids about my book and they've bought the book and brought it back for me to sign. So there's a connection there. The check-in process is a small part of their day at Holland Bloorview, but it means something to them to come and say hi to Desiree and chat for a bit.

BLOOM: Do you have any general advice for parents?

Desiree Da Costa: I'm not a parent. But I'd say take things one day at a time. Allow your kids to talk about their emotions and feelings and really consider them, because having a disability is a lot.

Staff at Holland Bloorview will enjoy the illustrations in All About Me. One includes IET teacher Paul Alcamo playing the guitar with students. Like this interview? Sign up for our monthly BLOOM e-letter, follow @LouiseKinross on Twitter, or watch our A Family Like Mine video series