Updated: Apr 17
Welcome Centre for new students in Ontario
At what age do kids start school?
When do kids start reading and writing?
Schooling in Canada - how does it work?
School lifestyle & adjusting
Support for Special Needs children in mainstream schools
1. WELCOME CENTRE FOR NEW STUDENTS IN ONTARIO
When you arrive in Canada you will start the process of finding a home and schools. Once you know where you are going to live, you will know which region you belong to! Go to your region's website and find the welcome centre. Make an appointment for your children. We found this to be very informative and reduces anxiety levels for sure! I was blown away when we got the the Halton Welcome Centre, a lovely lady came to us and welcomed us in Afrikaans! I nearly cried. This is a great process in assessing your children/s academic level. You can channel all your questions to the staff at the Welcome Centre, they are very helpful. A question we had was whether my daughter would have to take French in Grade 9. In this instance, the school gave her the credit for French since she had Afrikaans as a second language in South Africa. Make sure you check this website to see which documentation to take along with you and what will be covered at that meeting.
DOCUMENTATION REQUIRED FOR THE WELCOME CENTRE MEETING:
Proof of child’s age
Proof of address (two documents required)
Proof of child’s citizenship or immigration status
If you are not the child’s parent, or if you have sole custody, please bring proof of custody (court order)
2. AT WHAT AGE TO KIDS START SCHOOL?
The school year in Canada runs from September to June. The calculation of when your child starts school is calculated within a calendar year, so, January to December. In South Africa, kids start school the year they turn 6. Starting school at 4 means that kids have already adjusted to a more formal school routine and syllabus. If your kids are say 4 or 5 years old when you come to live in Canada, it would be wise to get them up to speed on certain things. I got some really great tips for you from my friends who came over with small kids. Stay tuned!! Please don't panic though, thousands of kids have transitioned into the Canadian school system without a hitch! It is good to have this information and be alerted to these things and prepare your kids so they don't struggle.
3. WHEN DO KIDS START READING AND WRITING?
If you are not living in Canada and this system is new to you, you might be panicking and thinking your child is 4 and definitely does not read! Here are some tips that you could start working towards to help your kids for when they get to Canada and integrate into school. At the age of four you will need to start working on:
Recognising letters, the letter name and the letter sound (phonics)
Basic sight word recognition. A good goal, according to child literacy expert Timothy Shanahan is that children should master 20 sight words by the end of Kindergarten.
Start to put simple words together.
Write or type words on paper of objects around the house, such as TOILET, WALL or DOOR and paste them on the items so that your child can start to recognise the words and associate them with the item (accidental reading). It is also fun. You will not believe how quickly they will pick it up.
Flashcards with sight words.
Start introducing very simple picture books with basic words.
Ask your child to tell you about their drawings/paintings thereafter write their words on the art. This will connect written text to speech.
USEFUL APPS AND DOCUMENTS:
ABC KIDS - Tracing & Phonics (RV AppStudios)
4. SCHOOLING IN CANADA - HOW DOES IT WORK?
TYPES OF SCHOOLING SYSTEMS:
PUBLIC SCHOOLS (INCLUDES CATHOLIC SCHOOLS & FRENCH IMMERSION)
The public schooling system in Canada is rated as top 10 in the world (see www.fixourschools.ca for more info on rankings and rating for all provinces in Canada). We have been blown away by how schooling is done in Canada. My girls have thrived in the public school environment and exceeded their expectations versus their schooling in South Africa. You are not required to wear school uniforms at public schools. Go to this website, Public School Board Directory Ontario, to find the school board in your region.
There are some incredible private schools in Canada. In Oakville I know of a few, Appleby College, Kings Christian Collegiate and Rotherglen Elementary. It really depends on your situation and child. For the list of all private schools in Ontario, search your region's website.
Catholic schools are publicly funded in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Kids are required to wear school uniforms at catholic schools. The Catholic School Board operates independently to the public schools, so that even sporting tournaments are separate from public schools. Go to this website above to find the catholic school board in your area.
Home schooling - perfectly legal, obviously kids must pass the government-mandated exams to have their education officially recognised.
2 STREAMS OF SCHOOLING WITHIN THESE SYSTEMS:
Bonjour!!! This is bilingual education for kids who do not speak French as their first language, instruction is in both French and English. Most boards offer French Immersion from grade 1 and some from senior kindergarten.
Kids will learn French as a second language at school, starting from Grade 3 or 4 to Grade 9. Students will have an option to drop the subject after Grade 9.
Please note that every province in Canada has its own cut-off dates in terms of grades, school hours, etc. these are set by the local school boards. Check on your local school board website for this information.
JK & SK (Junior and Senior Kindergarten): age 3 to 5
How to go about finding a school: Students must reside within the designated attendance boundary of the school they are attending and meet the minimum transportation eligibility, such as distance requirements, as follows: Kindergarten – must reside 0.8 km or more from their school. Grades 1-8 – 1.6 km or more from their school.
School hours (Ontario) are the same as elementary school.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: Grade 1-8
Most days parents will walk their kids to school (the little kids!) and even sometimes arrive on a sled in the snow (pulled by their parents) - unless the weather is really bad. The older kids walk to school or take the yellow school bus. It is encouraged to reduce traffic congestion by using the bus or walking to school.
School hours (Ontario): 08:45am - 3:05pm (check?) Times may differ across the board.
MIDDLE SCHOOL: Grade 7-8
In many areas, Elementary schools incorporate grade 7 and 8 so that kids do not need to attend 3 different schools. However Middle School is only grade 7 and 8's. It is great to have this as an option. My friend's daughter loves her middle school - it's smaller and she prefers it. Smaller schools can be very beneficial for some kids, both socially, emotionally and from a learning point of view.
School hours: Times may differ across the board.
HIGH SCHOOL: Grade 9 - 12
In South Africa primary school is from grade 1 to grade 7 and high school starts from grade 8. This can be a huge adjustment for teens who have already done their first year at high school and come here and have to be a junior again in Grade 9!
School hours: 8:10am - 2:45 (times may differ across the board)
SCHOOL SEMESTERS FOR MOST SCHOOLS:
A year is divided into 2 semesters. In each semester, there are 4 subjects (total 8 subjects/credits per year)
4 classes per day (each 75 min) with a 75 min lunch break!!!!
Minimum requirement to pass high school - 8 credits x 4 years = 32 credits + 40 volunteer hours.
5. SCHOOL LIFESTYLE & ADJUSTING
When you land in Canada, specifically Ontario, and find a home, your kids will attend the school in the catchment area. You can literally type in your address on the school board website e.g. Find-my-school-Halton, and it will spit out the school options for your kids!
Canadian kids speak differently, play different sports and have a completely different outlook on how life is done in comparison to you and your kids.
Embrace the fact that your kids will have a Canadian accent within weeks! If they are really young, it comes very quickly - they are little sponges! As for older kids, they feel the need to fit in and so will definitely become Canadian very quickly. My kids would speak “South African” at home and “Canadian” at school. Also, it avoids the whole “where are you from?” story. When kids just want to fit in and not stand out (well for some!!).
It is completely normal for kids to leave the school grounds for lunch in some elementary schools. Each school will differ on this with regard to which grades may do this and the duration of time off school premises. As for high school this is the norm. Kids will walk to friend's houses and eat their lunches there or make pizza or popcorn! At high school, kids are driving and can walk or drive to nearby plaza's for a bit to eat or they go to the local grocery store that often has seating to have lunch.
Discipline is extremely strict in South Africa in comparison to Canadian schools. It can be quite an adjustment for different character types in this environment of inclusivity and freedom of expression. Regardless, kids will find the friends that they can relate to and that are more like them. In many cases, your kid is often seen as the new cool thing! Cool accent, cool stories etc…!
To help with adjusting, let your kids invite friends over and get to know the parents, it will also help you to put yourself out there and get to know more people. It is not an easy time for any child to adjust, no matter what their age is. I sometimes think that the older they are, the more difficult it is for them. With teenagers friendships are the sole reason for living, it's part of life and how they start to forge ahead in life. It is most definitely heartbreaking to tear them away from their friends to immigrate and for them to start again. For smaller children, they battle to express how they are feeling and may act in ways you never imagined. Some kids become angry and throw fits and some become reclusive. We don't ever know how it will turn out, but one thing I do know with confidence is that time is a healer. It is the oldest, cheesiest saying ever, but it is so true. I could ask at least 10 South Africans who came over to Canada with kids under 5 and they would agree with me. It is amazing what a year or year and half can do!!! For some it's 3 years and they feel settled as a family in all aspects of their lives. Perhaps the takeaway from this is to know that it will take time and to be aware of how hard the transition can be for our kids, let alone the adults!
Get your kids involved in sport or clubs. There are so many options for kids to get involved in sport and clubs at school. One truly amazing thing is that music is offered from elementary school level and is part of the school syllabus. Your child will have the opportunity to learn how to play the piano, trumpet, guitar, bass, flute, recorder, clarinet - you name it! At no extra cost to you. Should you start school later in the year, it is sometimes difficult to pick an instrument because it has already been selected. This you can discuss with the school directly. Volleyball is huge here. If you daughter has been playing netball, the option would be volleyball or basketball. They could also try something completely new and play soccer (girls soccer too)!
At high school, there is a whole new world of sport: lacrosse, boys & girls volleyball, boys & girls basketball, boys & girls rugby (very popular for girls to play rugby), track & field, cross country, field hockey, ice hockey, cheerleading, curling, ski & snowboard, baseball, badminton, softball, crossbow, wrestling, golf, hiking, swim, tennis & ultimate frisbee! Take that all in!
High school clubs include some of these clubs or groups (they differ from school to school): art club, auto club, band jazz, strings, chess, creative writing, debate team, engineering, French club, improv, knitting, math society, photography & yearbook, programming, choir, social change/justice, sound & lighting, stock market, robotics & woodshop.
6. SUPPORT FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN IN MAINSTREAM SCHOOLS
Not only are you in the process of moving or thinking of moving countries, but you also have a special needs child. It may be that you have other children too or even a newly diagnosed child, or you are a single parent. Perhaps your other children are struggling with their special sibling. I realise this is a sensitive area and exhausted parents can easily become overwhelmed with the newness of a new country never mind all the help your special child may need. I have given commentaries from two of my very good friends here in Canada that have special needs children to give you some insight.
If I can be of any encouragement to you, know that there are countless agencies out there that can help and are online such as the Autism Society. Make contact with the respective agencies and let them guide you as to how to approach things. I could list a few, but do not want to leave some out!
COMMENTS FROM MY SOUTH AFRICAN FRIEND, LIVING IN HALIFAX, WHOSE DAUGHTER HAS DOWN SYNDROME
What is very encouraging and impressive is that the elementary schools incorporate the special needs kids in mainstream classes but with their own facilitator based on the needs of the child.
They also have a learning centre with one or two teachers that help to support the child academically. So, for example, if a child with sensory challenges is overstimulated in their classroom they would be taken to the learning centre to do activities which calm them down or to continue their classroom activities in a quieter environment. Once they are more settled they return into the classroom.
This system works very well to incorporate the child in an environment with peer support and acceptance. My daughter's teacher read a book on Down Syndrome to the class so they would better understand her challenges and how to incorporate and support her in all the class activities. They also get all the therapy sessions at school such as OT, physio, speech therapy and a psychologist. This is all covered by the education department!
An IEP (Individual Educational Program) is set up for each child so that the school has goals that they plan to achieve with the collaboration of the parents. It's mind blowing. We are so impressed.
Special needs kids are placed into their grades dependant on age and not ability.
In the child's case above with Down Syndrome, a school bus picks her up and drops her off after school. The bus is a smaller version of the yellow school bus and will have a facilitator on the bus to monitor the children. (Having a facilitator on the bus is not available in all provinces, unless you request this with the school directly).
COMMENTS FROM MY FRIEND CAROLYN, LIVING IN OAKVILLE, WHOSE DAUGHTER, MACKENZIE (ZEE!) IS A "COMPLEX, MEDICALLY FRAGILE, SPECIAL NEEDS" CHILD
Children that have similar special needs to Zee would include: non-verbal, autism, wheelchair bound, epileptic, technologically dependant (e.g. requires feeding via G tube), etc.
Mackenzie, now 19 years old, is non verbal, wheelchair bound and fed via a G tube. After much research, the family found a great set up for Zee at one of the Catholic schools in Oakville. This school has a "snoezelen" room which is truly amazing. Not all schools have this. This is a sensory room with lighting, music and sensory toys where children can "decompress".
Because of Mackenzie's dependency on technology, she has an EA (Education Assistant) that is available to her and others in the same class. The EA's are trained by a nurse on site, according to the needs required for the individual children. EA's are trained for rescue medication. Rescue medication is administered in case of an emergency only. Only scheduled medication, g-feeds, and the like, can be given by a nurse.
When her seizures increased and got really bad, a trained EA would ride with Zee to and from school (carrying rescue medication). This EA is assigned only to Zee and no other kids on the bus. If a child needs a one-on-one to ride with them on the bus, then parents need to make contact with the SERT (Special Education Resource Teacher) and the LHIN (Local Health Integrated Network).
Zee also uses a different bus. This is a wheelchair bus and equipped with a lift and a specially trained driver/operator. The bus arrives at the front of the house (so there is no designated stop & wait area as there are for other buses). The staff greet her off the bus at school. She is also dropped off in front of the house after school.
A wheelchair bus is not necessarily a special/exceptional needs bus, as not all people who are in wheelchairs have special/exceptional needs, don't assume anything!
I have seen with my own eyes how the EA held onto Zee's little hands and looked into her eyes, smile and say goodbye after a day at school! Super special to see the level of care.
TIPS AND ADVICE FROM CAROLYN:
The EA does everything from PSW (Personal Support Worker) work (including diapering) to helping her participate in school activities/education.
We send extra clothes and diaper supplies and all other personal hygiene that is required including a sling for lifting her in and out of a chair.
The nurse goes to school to administer any medications and G-tube feed.
Parents need to coordinate with the LHIN (Local Health Integrated Network) to access the needs of the child to be able to determine what is needed for the child to attend school and if the school meets the requirements for the child:
Is nursing required?
EA and other staff, are they trained for specific tasks like giving rescue seizure medications?
Does the child need one-to-one support to ride the bus?
If your child uses a wheelchair, does it meet the standards for safe transport on a bus? School transportation can visit your home to determine this.
Is special equipment available to meet the needs, whether it is sent in from home or if the school has it?
Is the school accessible?
Does the school have a proper fire escape plan if child is in a wheelchair?
Parents and teachers need to meet to discuss the IEP (Individual Educational Program) and to determine if the school of choice has a separate special needs learning environment and educational resources if required. Not all schools accommodate special needs for whatever reason.
Special/exceptional needs kids can remain in school until the age of 21.
WHAT IS AVAILABLE TO YOU WITH SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN?
Kids can go away to a respite camp for a couple of days or it can be 'in-home" respite care. This is a great way for you as parents to have a break, especially when you are the primary care givers.
I have listed a few of the funds below. Some are income-based, you will need to apply. I recommend you have a look at Children Support Solutions, for more information and for funding options for specific special needs e.g. MS, autism, epilepsy etc. that can be accessed.
SSAH - Special Services at Home. From the website: "Funding provided through SSAH helps families pay for special services in or outside the family home as long as the child is not receiving support from a residential program. For example, through SSAH funding a family can hire someone to:
Help their child learn new skills and abilities, such as improving their communication skills and becoming more independent; and/or
Provide respite support to the family - families can receive funding to pay for services that will give them a break, or respite, from the day-to-day care of their child."
ACSD - Assistance for Children with Severe Disabilities. Assistance with sensory items, technology, home based hobbies & activities, PPE (personal protective equipment), Essential service delivery fees, Behavioural support plans and related interventions
Some examples of Service Providers: (search your region's website for service providers in your area)
For special needs support, go to this website: www.children.gov.on.ca
SPECIAL NEEDS: NEXT STEPS & PAPERWORK ADVICE:
You will need approval in order to receive funding and therefore you will need to do your homework and get all the necessary paperwork in place. The more you can do from your country before moving here, the better! Speak to your home doctor and get an assessment report. Basically the report states that the doctor knows everything about your child and that he/she gives consent to share information with the new doctors.
Once you have the correct paperwork, it will be important to get in touch with the LHIN (Local Health Integrated Network) as soon as you can.
Make sure that you bring as much equipment and medicine along as you can. Supplies are expensive and if you have no medical insurance for the first 3 months, it will be important to have everything you need. Whether it be syringes, tubes, pumps, (things break!), medicine, bring it all until you can get funding for these items in Canada or at least be legible for OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan).
GREAT RESOURCE TO HELP YOUR KIDS LEARN FROM HOME:
One of my subscribers sent this link to me, so thank Daniel Frazier (a mother of 2), for this great little piece of invaluable information. Blog post written by Julia Olech.
IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS FOR ALL SCHOOL GOERS:
IMMUNISATION records (this is so important - do this now before coming to Canada). You will need this information right through their school career. If these are not up to date, the board will suspend kids from school. There is a very long process before that happens, so don’t panic! They will also send you letters to communicate the information they have for your child. You can visit or call your local region or go to the website. A nurse will be in touch with you if you are concerned about updating immunisations. It can be confusing as immunisations differ from country to country, which may mean that your child might need to have some shots done before they go to school (these can be done with by your home doctor).
I hope this will help you to settle your nerves and know that in the end, all schools here in Canada are driven to help your children succeed.
FAQ Friday with Canada Abroad - Episode 5 - Medical inadmissibility.