Parents second-guess themselves all the time. Should I have let him go to that party? Was I too hard on her? Should I tell him to study more? Parents of children with special needs question themselves about day-to-day parenting decisions and much more. Parents of children with special needs have children with very specific emotional, social, and academic needs and often little or no training or education in these areas. While you don't need to know every strategy for educating your child, you do need to know how to communicate with your child's school. Consider this your general "To Do" and "Not-To-Do" list, which supports that communication. Remember- communication with the experts educating your child ultimately results in steps forward for his education.
Come to meetings with notes Keep a notebook or binder that comes with you to every meeting. Record the date, location, attendees, and reason for meeting for future reference. You may need to refer back to something a team member said and it's best to have all the facts. Meetings tend to move quickly and you may forget questions you had or points you wanted to make.
Take your time Ask as many questions as you need to ask. Don't let anyone rush you. If you need a term defined, say "Can you please explain that to me?" Do not sign anything if you don't know what it is. You may take your notes and reports home and look at them with your spouse before agreeing to any services or strategies. Make sure you understand what your child's speech, OT, and PT services look like, as well as his core academic curriculum.
Establish a positive relationship with your child's schoolCommunicate honestly and respectfully with your child's teacher. This may seem like an obvious suggestion but stop and think. Do you really feel comfortable speaking with your child's teacher? Do you feel like she understands what is important to you? There may be times when you disagree but having an established relationship makes those times much easier to navigate. Ask your child's teacher how best to communicate with her. Does she prefer email or a phone call? Does she prefer you to come in for a meeting or write a note? Also, ask what time of day is best. Some teachers schedule time for communication in the morning or during a period when the class is out at a special activity. Keep in mind, the teacher has many families to attend to and reaching her at her optimal time ensures you have her undivided attention. It also shows that you appreciate her time.
Rely on information from other parentsEven if it's someone you trust or consider "in the know." They may have misheard something or interpreted something wrong. Remember the game "Telephone" you played as a kid? The last person to hear something rarely gives an accurate representation of what the first person said. Go directly to the source and ask specific questions. You are likely to get specific answers.
Get down on yourself As your child grows, you will learn more about her challenges and strengths. Reach out to your child's teacher and therapists and ask for strategies and tasks you can use at home. Remember that your child will not be "cured" in a day. The teachers and therapists, in conjunction with you, are working towards a common goal and there are bound to be some missteps along the way. Your child's growth takes time and you will learn together how to steer her in the right direction. Pat yourself on the back for doing a good job!
Only communicate when you have something negative to sayNothing burns a teacher more than hearing people say "Oh how nice! You get out of work at 3:00 and you have summers off!" This is not why we became teachers and it is not what keeps us motivated. Your child's success is. (Also, I don't know many teachers who leave at 3:00 and who aren't setting up their classrooms most of August!) We love to hear that you see the progress we have so carefully crafted and nurtured. We love to hear that you liked the assignment we spent weeks planning. We love to hear that your child is excited about coming to school. This is what drives us. That and the "A-ha!" moments we get to see your child have when in our care keep us going. A simple "thank you" goes a long way.
Remember that you are your child's advocate and you must be informed about her education. Ask questions, gather information from reliable sources, and communicate often with the educators working with your children. It seems like an overwhelming list of tasks, but take it one day at a time and remember you too are still learning. You will continue to grow along with your child and meet success together.
Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Jennifer is an educational consultant who works with families and educators to establish healthy and productive routines in the home and school. Adapting behavior management techniques she implemented for years as a special educator, she helps parents and teachers adopt these tools to fit their unique needs and priorities. Jennifer also speaks to parent and education groups on current topics in education and children's health. Visit www.jennifercerbasi.com