Sending a child off to school is one of the scariest things a parent ever has to do. If that child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or any special needs, the fear is enhanced. Even though most special needs parents have more contact with their children’s teachers than other parents, it’s still hard not knowing what happens during the child’s day. Did my child eat? Was he/she happy? Did my child cry? Parents need to know things like this, but teachers are so busy, it can be easy to forget to share. The following ideas will help both parents and teachers build a relationship to benefit the child:
1. Simple respect
It sounds too easy, doesn’t it? But respecting the other person’s point of view will go a long way towards building a relationship. Never talk down to other people, and listen quietly as they are talking. Answer questions honestly, and if you don’t know the answer to something, simply say so.
Your child picks up on more than you know. If you are saying negative things about the teacher, he/she may feel there is no reason to listen at school. If you need to vent about the teacher, make sure your child is nowhere near you. Respect the position the other person is in. You may think that since the teacher has a degree and experience, he/she can “fix” anything, but this is simply not true. You know your child best and your ideas are just as important as the teacher’s input. Teachers, make sure you remember that. You have a room full of students and you care for each of them, but to parents, their child is the most important.
2. Understand everyone is doing the best they can
Parents of children with autism will tell you—they are tired. They are tired of meetings, of doctors, of therapy, of not getting enough sleep, of fixing certain foods every single day, of never having a minute to just sit and breathe. Teachers need to understand this. Some days, a parent may become upset about a simple situation just because it was the “last straw.” The parent isn’t necessarily angry at you, only at life in general. I’ve been in that position. I was just too tired to handle one more thing and when confronted with one, I melted. I’ve always apologized, and thankfully, have been forgiven.
Parents, you need to think about the position the teacher is in. Yes, you want your child to get only the teacher’s best. But there are 15 other sets of parents who want exactly the same thing for their children, and the teacher only has so much time and energy. You may think the teacher is lucky—he/she gets to go home at the end of the day and not think about autism until the next day. Again, this is another huge misconception! Teachers, especially ones who teach children with special needs, think about “their” kids all of the time. They are researching new ideas, asking questions—anything they can think of to help every child in their class. It’s also hard for a teacher to feel as if he/she is not doing enough. They become teachers to help children. You can help the teacher by simply saying thank you. Send a short note or drop off a candy bar. Small gestures go a long way!
3. Stay in touch!
In today’s world of cell phones and email, it’s easier than ever for you to stay in touch with each other. Parents, remember that your child’s teacher is busy and may not be able to answer you right away, but he/she will. When my kids were in school, we had a small notebook that went back and forth with them. We didn’t write much in it—only a few words, but it helped all of us feel connected.
I let the teachers know if Casey or Rob hadn’t slept well or if they refused to eat breakfast. It can help teachers so much if they simply know that your child may be exhibiting behaviors just because he/she is hungry or tired. They will know this may not be the best day to try something new, and this saves frustration all around. Your child’s teacher needs to know if someone has been sick, isn’t sleeping, or isn’t eating. Inform the teacher of any new behaviors you have seen at home or if you change medications for your child.
Tell the teacher if there is a death or divorce in the family. You may feel this is private information, but your child’s teacher can’t help him/her through the situation if he/she doesn’t know about it. It will also help the teacher be more understanding of unusual behaviors. You don’t need to go into personal details, just a simple note letting him/her know of the change.
Teachers, when a child is nonverbal, a quick note saying he/she had a good day or telling the parents something the child did or something that made him/her smile will make the parents’ day. We are starved for any details of the time our children are away from us.
Use email for longer issues, but a quick text works well, too, especially just to let the teacher know when the child may be hungry or tired. Parents, don’t expect a long conversation during the school day, but do send a text when you need to. Teachers, if the child had a good day, send a smiley face to the parents. It’s a three-second chore that can brighten a parent’s day, and he/she will appreciate your effort.
4. Be patient and positive!
A little patience and positivity will go a long way! Parents, remember that your child is not the only child in the teacher’s charge. Every other parent feels as you do and wants the teacher’s attention. If you need an answer right away, call the school/teacher. Otherwise, send a note with your child asking the teacher to call when he/she has time or send an email. Don’t expect a conversation with the teacher via text during the day. You want the teacher to focus on the children, not the phone. When your child does something new or reaches a goal, cheer! Thank the teacher! Simple appreciation is so important!
Teachers, you need to be patient, too. Your student’s parents are doing the best they can. You may think you can parent the child better, but simply being with the child for six to seven hours a day does not give you a clear idea of what the child is like 24/7. If you make the parent feel as if you think you can do better, you may be invited to babysit for an hour. When you see a parent feeling down about his/her child’s progress, be positive! Tell the parent something the child did—no matter how small. Give him/her a little bit of light; you will be surprised at what a difference that may make. Even on dark days, there is always something, even something tiny, to be positive about. Make sure to notice those positives and share with parents.
5. Think outside the box
Just because something has been done a certain way for years does not make it the best way for the student. Be able to share wild and crazy ideas! Neither can laugh at the other’s ideas—unless you are laughing with delight! The best teachers and most amazing parents are willing to try new ideas. You never know what silly thing may click with your child and open a whole new world. Be willing to explore ideas and try things at home that the teacher mentions. For many students, repeating tasks helps them learn, so parents help the teachers by attempting tasks at home, too. Teachers, if a parent finds something that works for his/her child be willing to try it.
I was lucky. With a few exceptions, I had wonderful teachers for my children. We were able to share ideas, laughs, and a few tears. I supported them, as they did me. My youngest graduated from high school six years ago, and those teachers are my friends. They check on the kids and enjoy hearing stories about their continued progress.
My children had a few teachers that were not good matches for any of us. If this happens to you, don’t be afraid to say, “Enough is enough.” Ask your school district about changing teachers for your child. Depending on your district, this may not be possible. You don’t need to be disrespectful of the teacher’s abilities—just state your concerns in a calm, polite manner. Teachers, you may get parents you simply cannot work with. The same idea applies to you. Talk to your supervisors and make arrangements for another faculty member to be nearby when those parents are expected. You will have to deal with them, unfortunately, but having someone else close by will give you a witness to any negativity that occurs. It may also keep the parents from becoming too out of control.
Everyone wants the best school experience possible for their children. This will only happen if parents and teachers work together! Be respectful, be positive, be patient, be open, and always, always communicate!
Jen Jones is a mom of three adult children. The oldest and youngest have moderate autism, so she has 29 years of experience with autism. She is a fulltime autism advocate and wants everyone to understand autism is not terrible, but always interesting. You can follow the family’s adventures on her blog and their Facebook page.
This article was featured in Issue 69 – The Gift of Calm This Season