Who remembers the television commercial for school supplies in which the parent dances down the aisles, the children pout, and a voice-over croons “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”? For most of us, school starts next week. And for most of us, we’ll breathe a sigh. But for those of us whose children have special needs, that relief is mixed with a healthy dose of trepidation. Will my child get a great teacher or one of the ones who, it seems, “don’t get it” – the ones who do not get the importance of communication, who do not get the parents’ frustration, who do not get the fact that the child I love wishes appropriate classroom behavior came easily?
On Monday my autistic daughter starts high school (talk about trepidation!). After years of working with her teachers and years before that of being a teacher, I’ve got my own protocol for connecting with teachers in a way that encourages them to interact more positively with my daughter and with me. I remember the parents I liked—and did not like—when I was a teacher. It was never a matter of the student’s behavior or intelligence; it was more of a feeling: will this parent work with me, or will the call morph into a confrontation about the time I took three days to record a grade? I wanted to feel safe calling the parents. So the trick now is figuring out how to communicate to my daughter’s teachers that I’ll be the good kind of parent who supports them to be the good kind of teachers.
Much of this work begins before school starts for the kids. Teachers have meetings the first few days, but the Friday after lunch is generally given as time to organize their classrooms. On the first day of in-service, I always leave a note asking for a meeting, explaining the purpose, and providing my contact information. If I do not receive a reply by the next morning, I find out when teachers have a break during the day, and I go to the school to ask, in person, for a conference. It may seem aggressive and overbearing to be so insistent on a meeting, but the only year I felt safe enough to let it go (last year), I learned my lesson. More on that as I continue.
When I meet my child’s teacher, I know that I am creating the first impression for what will, hopefully, become a long and productive relationship. About one-fourth of this meeting will consist of me imparting information about my daughter. The other three-fourths will be about psychology, about communicating my respect for the teacher and my interest in nurturing a collaborative relationship. I smile, thank the teacher for his/her time, acknowledge the amount of preparation that has been done and still needs to be done before school starts, and promise to be respectful of the teacher’s time.
After showing the teacher a photo of my daughter, I outline the topics I’d like to cover: 1) my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses; 2) her interests; 3) the strategies we find successful at home; and 4) scenarios that prompt more dysregulated behavior. In conclusion I ask the teacher how s/he prefers we communicate in the future
Although this information is the formal content of my meeting, the underlying message is always, “I don’t expect you to know everything. I don’t know everything. I would like for us to work together, to problem-solve together, to learn together. I know that my child is not easy. I will not blame you or accuse you if you call me to discuss a situation in class.”
Last year I did not meet my daughter’s one new teacher. After eight years in the same school and most of the middle-school team returning, I decided we were “safe.” The new teacher came in with fifteen years of experience teaching high school. Surely the rest of the team would talk with her about the students with special needs, and surely after fifteen years she had her routine down.
Wrong. By the third day of school my daughter was complaining about how mean she was. I tried to set up a meeting with her, but then came the strike. After the strike I tried again to set up a meeting, and she asked me why I needed one already. I told her I wanted to review my daughter’s IEP, and it was then that I realized she had never read the IEP. She did not realize my daughter has autism! The case manager (whom I trust) insisted that she’d provided the IEPs well before the first day of classes, but clearly this teacher did not review them. She was obviously overwhelmed by the transition to my daughter’s school, and she told me to ask the resource teacher when she, the gen-ed teacher, had a break in the day because she could not keep up with the schedule. Lesson reinforced: don’t wait until classes begin to talk with the teacher.
I was trying to figure out what was so mean about this teacher and why my daughter would scream, “She’ll kill me if my homework is wrong!” Once I realized that, despite fifteen years in the classroom, the teacher had no experience with autism, I tried explaining how literal my daughter is. The teacher asked, “You mean when I do this (slashes her finger across her throat) your daughter doesn’t realize that I’m telling the students to quiet down?” (Take a deep breath, Barb) “No, she thinks you want to kill her.” Lesson reinforced: Make sure the teacher knows what sets off my child and what strategies work—and clearly do not work—to redirect her.
Ultimately I developed a decent rapport with the teacher. She was never my favorite, but we managed to establish a relationship in which we could listen to each other.
Now high school is starting. Seven teachers. Some of the names aren’t even on the schedule we received. The school is supposed to hire an aide by Thursday at the latest. I have spent the summer in contact with the case manager, who seems wonderful and even gave my daughter her cell phone number during orientation. We have lunchroom logistics solved (eat in the resource room), a senior assigned to bring her to class Monday morning, and an introduction to her homeroom teacher. The meltdowns at home are ramping up and I know we’ll have large bumps in the road, but supports are in place. I’m counting on the case manager. We have established a relationship that gives me confidence she will help both my daughter and me survive the transition. I wish myself luck. I wish my daughter luck. I wish the school luck. Good luck to you, too!