Make the Most of School for Your Special Needs Child
Be present. When my son transitioned from preschool to elementary, his case manager stressed the need for me to hang around his school. “It’s important that you volunteer,” she said. Unsaid: You can more effectively support your child’s experience if you’re physically onsite. Teachers often have the best intentions, but they get busy like the rest of us. If they see you at school, they’re more likely to communicate and remember your child’s specific goals.
Be pleasant. No matter how you feel about your child’s teachers, an “us vs. them” mentality will not serve your child’s needs. Remember, teachers and parents share the same goal: encouraging the most effective behaviors for maximum learning. Choose your words and tone carefully.
Be assertive. Being pleasant doesn’t mean you don’t advocate for your child. Teachers are experts in education; you are the expert on your child. If there’s a social or academic issue, don’t be afraid to communicate. The teacher’s job is to educate ALL students up to national and statewide standards. Your job is to make sure YOUR child gets what he needs.
Be grateful. Don’t forget to let teachers know what they’re doing right. Children with special needs come with their own sets of gifts and challenges, so be vocal about what’s working. Teachers benefit from positive reinforcement as much as their students.
Choose your battles. At any school, public or private, your child’s experience won’t be perfect. While you must persistently (and pleasantly!) insist on the best, be realistic about what’s important. For example, if your child is being unfairly singled out or falling behind academically, address this. But if the teacher asks him not to wear light-up shoes or a hoodie because they’re too distracting, maybe you need to let that go.
If you feel uncomfortable addressing negative aspects of your child’s experience, consider taking an advocate with you to parent-teacher meetings. Advocates can be educational consultants, social workers, or lawyers and generally charge an hourly fee. Effective advocates can address your child’s needs without the emotional attachment that can derail parents.
Be consistent. Check in with your child’s teachers periodically. A quick informal meeting over a lunch or planning period is a great tool for updating, problem solving, and maintaining services. Email is also effective. In addition to quick meetings with teachers, drop by for lunch with your child if the school allows. Just like extended care facilities, the patrons who get the best service tend to be the ones whose relatives drop by at both regular and random times.
Be supportive. Always ask the teacher how you can support your child’s goals at home. Can you reward your child for good behavior at school? Can you discuss a behavioral misstep? Can you augment your child’s learning with flashcards, organizational aids or extra study?
Be prepared. Before any parent-teacher conference, look over your child’s records and refresh your understanding of his goals. Make notes of topics you wish to discuss and the way you’d like to discuss them. If it’s a yearly meeting, request a advance copy of the proposed document and compare it to last year’s plan. What’s changed? Your child’s teacher should point out and explain changes but if she doesn’t, come in knowing what they are.
Learn the lingo. If your child is in a special needs program, learn the terminology. Your child may have an Individual Education Plan (IEP), an Individualized Health Plan (IHP) or a 504 Plan. Research exactly what these plans cover. The modifications your child receives are called services. Services are based on goals outlined in your child’s IEP or other document. Goals drive your child’s placement in an educational setting. Strategies or modifications are the methods used to help your child stay on track with typically functioning peers.
Use “we” rather than “you” whenever possible. Maybe your child with dyslexia feels rushed to complete her work. So you ask, “How can we help her feel less anxiety with time limits?”
Remember the big picture. Like parents, teachers juggle many demands – shifting educational standards, limited budgets, class sizes, disparate learning styles and schedules. Remind yourself: teachers are doing the best they can.
– Melanie Marlowe
Melanie Marlowe is a writer and teacher in the Atlanta area and the proud mom of two boys, one of whom has Asperger’s syndrome.