A Winning School Year

For parents, having a school experience that works for our kids is the equivalent of “winning.” That’s especially true for parents of children with disabilities – we are aware of their vulnerability, and we often feel pressure to help them grow as quickly as possible.

There’s been lots of great advice about preparing our children (and our schools) for a successful school year. Ideas like coming in early to meet the teacher and see the space, writing social stories about what to expect, making sure the teacher knows about our children’s strengths as well as support needs, knowing our rights regarding inclusive education…all prepare our children for the most successful year possible.However, there is something else to consider.

We’re part of a team, particularly if we have a child who needs extra support. We have to work closely with educational staff to make the most of what school has to offer.

Sometimes teamwork is really difficult, but laying a good foundation at the beginning can help. Here are some things I’ve learned over the last few years:

1. Encourage your child’s teacher to build a direct relationship with your child.

On occasion, a school will delegate care for a child with a disability to the child’s educational assistant (EA). We sometimes like this as parents, thinking our child will do well with one person devoted to their support. In actuality, this is a mistake. It tends to isolate the child from the rest of the class, and discourage interaction with the child’s peers.

Although an EA may be there to support a particular child, it’s better to see the school staff as a team. The teacher is the person responsible for each of her students’ well-being and educational support, and she is the one with the most training (other than the resource teacher). Tapping into her expertise and experience will mean a better program and more connections to what the whole class is learning. And it also means our children have the opportunity to build relationships with more people.

To encourage this relationship, directly communicate with the teacher yourself. It may be easier to talk with the EA or resource teacher, but make sure it’s balanced. While it’s good to have a positive relationship with all the school staff that work with your child, don’t neglect to build a collaborative and supportive relationship with your child’s teacher. It’s worth it.

2. Communicate

Relationships are built through communication. And for our children’s needs to be met, we do have to do a lot of educating and explaining.

The first thing to check on is the best time and format for communication. Teachers have many concerns, responsibilities and “to-do’s” running through their heads. But most want to be as helpful as they can, and they will appreciate the opportunity to give you their attention when they can do justice to your questions or concerns. What policy does the school have for parent- staff communication? Check with the teacher, and make a plan.

Also consider whether written or face to face is better. When you’re building a relationship, it’s easier to avoid misunderstandings in person. On the other hand, written communication can be easier logistically.

To start off the year, it’s a good idea to make sure your child’s teacher has good information about both autism in general and about your child. Paula Kluth is my favorite – this year I gave a copy of “You’re Going To Love This Kid” to my daughter’s teacher.

Also share strengths (what is your child good at? What do they enjoy? What is interesting to them?) and strategies that help them cope. This could be shared in chart form or a letter. Ask how your child’s strengths will be developed, as well as how weaknesses will be compensated for and/or strengthened.

3. Respect Expertise

We were really happy with our daughter’s teacher last year…and I’m expecting good things from this year’s teacher too. But I don’t expect it to be good in the same way. No two teachers are the same, any more than any two children are the same. I’m actually looking forward to seeing what new areas of growth can emerge under the guidance of a new teacher and her unique skills, experiences and personality.

I have to be careful here to recognize that a teacher who has been working for three years is going to have a greatly different set of skills and experiences to offer compared to someone who’s been working for twenty. But everyone has something to offer…the enthusiasm of a newly-trained teacher can go a long way.

You know about your child; teachers know about managing groups of children to foster learning. Some have more background and training for inclusion. If they don’t know about something, likely they are willing to learn. Be careful to respect limitations we all share; it takes time to understand new ideas and learn new things. But almost every teacher has every child’s best interest in mind.

If something isn’t going well, start by finding common ground. What do you agree on? If something isn’t working, find out the reason behind it. Maybe there’s another way to address the initial problem.

3. Be appreciative. What’s going right? Thank them for it.

This is the most important part.

There are always going to be things we wish were different. But few people respond well to criticism unbalanced by appreciation.

Each teacher has unique gifts and strengths to offer her class. Look for them. Thank her for them. Support her in any way that seems useful and encouraging.

Touch base regularly for a few minutes, and be willing to listen yourself. If there’s a way to make her day easier, do it…

Because at the end of the day, your child’s teacher is investing her life in the growth of your child and your child’s classmates.

May your school year be one of growing…in knowledge, and in collaboration and friendship.

Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.

Vince Lombardi