The new school year can be a source of stress for many children and even more so for children with autism. There are new people to meet, new routines to learn, and all the while having to navigate this real-world environment we call school. Communicating with your child’s teacher is critical to your child’s success. After all, you do know your child better than anyone. You can be a tremendous resource that can help ensure your child has a smooth transition into a new classroom with a new teacher. Here are some tips to help facilitate good communication between you and your child’s teacher:
Communicate Early and Often
Introducing yourself to a prospective teacher can be a great way to make a good first impression but it can also set the stage for the rest of the school year. Try to meet them at the earliest opportunity to let them know you want to work together with them to ensure that your child has a successful year. This might mean attending an open house or reaching out to the school administration in the month before school begins to find out who will be teaching your child. Whenever there is an opportunity to meet with the teacher take advantage of it, this means attending parent teacher conferences, open houses and any other school led activities (e.g., spaghetti dinner). When deciding which is the best way to communicate, involve the teacher by asking them what mode they might prefer. From websites, to daily logs and/or apps there are a plethora of different tools that teachers may prefer to use to keep in contact with a parent of a child in his/her class. Make sure that you ask your child’s teacher which type of communication is best for them. The mode will likely be affected by the type of information you and the teacher decide should be included. Make sure there is a way to customize it to your child’s unique needs. Remember, this should be used all year long and the more frequent it is done, the better. Finally, offer to volunteer and help out on outings so that you are around as often as possible as a resource and sounding board.
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Stick to the Important Stuff
It is important to remember that your child is not the only child in the classroom and by prioritizing the things you need to discuss with the teacher it helps make sure you do not overwhelm them with too many questions and tips that they will end up forgetting. If you are communicating often, you will be able to address all concerns eventually, so begin with the most important and work your way to the other items you would like to discuss. If you set a meeting with your teacher make sure you set goals for what you want to accomplish during that meeting and that includes creating an agenda. At the beginning of the year prepare a pamphlet that describes important considerations for your child. This means describing their likes and dislikes, his/her strengths and areas of need, if there is a unique form of communication (e.g., tablet or sign language) and how it is used with him/her, any challenging behavior that may put them at risk (e.g., wandering or bolting) and what the triggers are for that. It is a great idea to also include tips and strategies that you use with him/her so that everyone is on the same page. The teacher may use this as a resource throughout the year so if there are ever any updates make sure to provide those as well.
Avoid Subjective Language
Make sure that the language you and your teacher use is specific enough to be useful. That means avoiding labels that are subjective. For example instead of saying “he had a good night” it might be better to say “he slept all night and did not wake up. He had 8 hours of sleep and is well-rested. He also ate his breakfast.” This will make it easier for the teacher to know how much to challenge your child on a given day. The same goes the other way around, encourage the teacher to use specific descriptions of the things they saw your child do and or say as opposed to labels that can mean different things to different people. This will help you see if the tips, strategies and goals that were discussed are working or not for your child.
Notice the Good Stuff
Not only is this important when teaching your child with autism, it is also important in all interactions with other people. Many experts talk about a 4:1 rule, meaning for every time you have to notice something that was a challenge (e.g., challenging behavior) we should try to notice at least four other things that are going well (e.g., I like the way you are sitting). As you can see from the example provided it can be simple things that we may take for granted, the point is to make an effort to pay attention to the things that your child but also the teacher is doing well. You might let the teacher know how grateful you are for the daily communication, that you appreciate the time they take to keep you up to date. You might let them know how much it means to you that they did something over and above their duties for your child. The point here is to try to notice the good even if you feel there is a lot of negative interactions. Looking for the good is always a good practice and it will lead to better communication between you and your teacher because they will feel that you appreciate the stuff that they are doing for your child.
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Be Professional and Courteous at All Times
Because your child has special needs it is unfortunately very likely that you will need to advocate for them at some point. This will require that you utilize some good interpersonal skills. As the wise Maya Angelou once said “People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel.” No matter what the discussion is, whether it be a difficult conversation or a contentious one, using professional language and tone is key to improving the situation for your child. Of course this is easier said than done but there are a few things you can do to keep your emotions from getting you the best of you. Always focus on the solution to the problem as opposed to the problem itself. Of course, gathering all of the necessary information to figure out how the problem came to be is critical but once you have that it is critical to focus on what you can do about it as a team. Focus on objective information and interactions because you can back those up. Finally, make sure that you hear the other person/people involved out as there is always another side to any story.
If you try to do all of these tips you are more likely to develop a great relationship with your child’s teacher that is mutually beneficial, but more importantly, leads to better outcomes for your child.
This article was featured in Issue 51 – School: Preparing Your Child for Transition