All parents anticipate the dreaded, back-to-school supplies list. It’s the first day and your child comes home with a book bag full of information. After reviewing everything, you rub your tired eyes, and wonder when you’ll have the time to pick up notebooks, pencils, hand wipes, and all the other things your child will need this year.
On top of that, you have to add the items on your own parental list. You’ll need new running gear for when you’re bustling from one end of town to the other in an effort to get everything done, scissors for all this year’s red tape, and an industrial forklift to help you carry extra burdens.
Before you hit the extra strength aspirin, though, it might be a good idea to take a step back and look at this coming year with a fresh perspective. With a few simple steps, you can transform the school year for both you and your child. All you have to do is start.
1. Be An Active Partner
Getting to know and develop good, working relationships with your child’s teacher, classroom paraprofessionals and therapists is one of the smartest and most effective things you can do for yourself and your child. Most times, teachers and classroom staff spend more time with your child than you do during the day. They observe your son or daughter in a variety of settings and time-periods in school.
In fact, by staying on top of what your child’s professional team has to offer, you can make a huge difference in your child’s life both personally and developmentally. They can offer advice on which academic activities and lesson plans are best suited for your child as well as provide information about how your child behaves socially amongst their peers.
But you have to do your part as well and help them understand your child. Nobody knows your son or daughter better than you do, so it’s advisable to give them a “cheat sheet” – a short list of communication skills, likes and dislikes, behavior triggers and all the other things that provide insight into your child and his/her behavior. It can be written on an index card or simple piece of paper. It may not seem like a lot of information to you, but this knowledge about your child is priceless for the teaching staff.
Keep in mind, it’s best to form these partnerships early in the school year, while your child and teaching staff are learning about each other.
2. Keep the Lines of Communication Open
All of these educators and therapists will be more helpful and involved when you come forward as an engaged partner. Tell and show them that you want to work together. Be open, honest and approachable and they will be the same in return. Discuss best practices for communicating and building a successful partnership.
One of the most effective ways to keep in touch is also the simplest – a notebook. Every day, your child’s teacher should write a brief note summarizing your child’s day, in as few as 3 – 6 sentences. For example, a listing of the academic or physical activities your son or daughter participated in. Once the teacher has done his/her part, it’s your turn. You can comment on your child’s activities or address any other issues you may have. A specific agenda isn’t necessary.
There are other options, such as communicating via text messages or e-mail, if you prefer not to write. Discuss with your child’s team and see what is most convenient for all. And don’t forget the phone. Most teachers and therapists don’t mind speaking with parents during their break. In fact, most welcome your interest and input.
3. Get Involved and Meet Others
It’s also a great idea to become part of school activities, a parent support group or the PTA. You can be involved as little or as much as you want, but it never hurts to put yourself out there and see what’s available. You might be able to influence the development of academic programs for your child, become a voice for special needs children, or simply support other parents like you. Who knows? You might even walk away with a few, new friends or a place to send your child for a play date.
4. Know When to Speak Up
Every parent wants to ensure that their child has the best and most successful experience possible. But if you’re not happy with your child’s educational plan or you feel that your child’s needs aren’t being met, you can seek to change the situation.
Whether it’s a problem with the IEP (Individualized Education Program), another student or the teaching staff, you have to advocate for your child and your family before the issue escalates. Speaking with the principal or administrative personnel can go a long way toward resolving your concerns and avoiding bigger problems down the line.
5. Celebrate All Milestones
Every achievement, no matter how small, is something to rejoice about.
Like everything else, your child’s progress will ebb and flow. However, by working closely with teachers and therapists and setting credible goals, you can give yourself something to celebrate with every step, instead of lamenting that the finish line is still so far away. Focus on what your child can do and praise him/her constantly. Be proud and know that you’re making headway, even if it’s not as fast as you might have hoped.
6. Remember You’re Human
The special education system will be frustrating. Regardless of your child’s age, there’s always a new challenge—finding the right school, the right program, the right services. It never ends.
Things will get done, and if mistakes are made, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll manage the bus driver and the afterschool activity schedule just fine as long as you don’t let it consume you if something goes array. Just remember to cut yourself some slack.
7. Loosen Up
You need a break. And you know what? Your son or daughter does too. While you’re driving yourself crazy making sure their schedule is managed and everything is going smoothly, your child has been working hard towards completing goals.
You both need some “down time.” Do something small like watching a show or cooking together. Go to a local park or see a movie. Just take some time for yourselves. You’ve earned it.
Pat Yourself on the Back
While you’re lying in bed at the end of the day, what is it you’re thinking about? Your child’s concerns and successes? What you’ll make for dinner tomorrow?
We’re all guilty of this, but when you go through that mental checklist, be sure to add a few more thoughts before you close your eyes. You have been so patient, resilient, and hard working. You’ve contributed to your child’s education in a meaningful way.
So, when you make your school shopping list, don’t forget to add a few things you may have not accounted for—a megaphone to cheer on yourself and your child, a refrigerator frame magnet to show off all the awesome things your child will do this year, and a mug that says “#1 Parent.”
Deanna Picon is the founder of Your Autism Coach, LLC, which provides personalized guidance, support and seminars for parents of special needs children. She is a parent of a non-verbal, young man with autism. Deanna is the author of “The Autism Parents’ Guide to Reclaiming Your Life,” which is available at www.amazon.com. She can be reached at www.YourAutismCoach.com.
This article was featured in Issue 37 – Making Educational Strides