As a parent of someone with a severe disability, I know firsthand the emotional ups and downs I personally faced, but it wasn’t until I became a special education teacher that I realized teachers need mentoring, too. I noticed gaps in both training and communication, and I couldn’t help wondering if only teachers could understand what parents are facing at home—the emotions, the fears, the stress—we’d be able to support each other that much better.
“…if only teachers could understand what parents are facing at home…we’d be able to support each other that much better.”
I started mentoring new teachers to help them understand a parent’s point of view. I found that if we empathize with each other and have honest conversations, we can have better relationships and more effective IEP meetings. Ultimately, we’re all on the same team, and we share the same goal—to do what’s best for the child.
I wanted to share some of the advice I wish I had known early in my career (and in my experience as a mother). Whether it’s your first IEP or your 14th, I believe this will help both teachers and parents.
“Whether it’s your first IEP or your 14th, I believe this will help both teachers and parents.”
First, remember that your teacher, no matter how good his or her training, may not be familiar with your child’s diagnosis, and may need your help to better understand your child’s needs. No one knows your child better than you do, so it’s important to pass along as much information as you can. Bring a list of support groups and resources about your child’s specific disability.
“Bring a list of support groups and resources about your child’s specific disability.”
Second, establish a weekly communication method with the teacher. What do you as a parent want to know about classroom activities, etc? And how will you share what is happening at home with the teacher? It can be a simple sentence at the end of the week like, “working on feeding herself,” or a visual checklist. And it’s important to establish this up front. The more you know about what goes on in the classroom, especially if your child is nonverbal, the better you can apply it at home.
Focus on positive progress (no matter how small!). Consistency is key. It took me a very long time to admit that I was often the one holding my daughter back. It was hard to step back and stop doing things for her. Those weekly notes from her teacher, in a text or in a notebook, helped me help my daughter become more independent.
Finally, ask about the dynamic within the classroom—many of us never think of this one! It’s such a simple question. What are the other students like? What types of challenges is the teacher facing? This simple question will create instant connection, instant empathy. It’s often difficult for a new teacher to talk to parents. This question goes a long way to show you want to understand your teacher’s point of view.
“This simple question will create instant connection, instant empathy.”
In any one class, a teacher may have a child who is a reader, a child who is a non-reader, a child who is also physically disabled, a child with a behavior or seizure disorder, an autistic child, or more. Parents often don’t feel heard or respected, but imagine how much more teachers will listen if you show interest in them, too? Asking the teacher to share about his or her classroom opens up an honest conversation, helps you relate to each other, and sets the stage for you to work together for your child—as partners.
When I look back on the day my daughter was diagnosed and remember the stages of grief I went through to come to acceptance (to learn to love her for who she was, not who I thought she’d be)—that was a long and difficult journey. I’m grateful for the support I had and for the chance to mentor teachers to help them see a mother’s point of view.
I believe we all have the best interest of the child at heart if we can only learn to respect and empathize with one another. If we support each other and communicate openly, we will reach the goal we all share—to help our children succeed.
To learn more about Susan’s book, What’s So Special About Special Education? Practical Tips for Teachers to Work Effectively With Parents, click here.