We’ve all heard the horror stories of parents at odds with the school and their child’s teacher, especially if an IEP is involved. I’ve been lucky. I’ve never been in this situation. I’m part of a great school district with outstanding teachers but I think I play a role in the very positive relationships I’ve had with my son’s teachers over the years. My son has Autism. I’m going on 10 years of partnering with teachers. 2 years of head start before Kindergarten and now he’s entering the 7th grade.
I’ve got a few basic principles that I approach each year with.
1. “How Can I Help You?
As I meet my son’s new teacher, or in the case of middle school, teachers, I always ask them, “How can I help you?” We know our kids better than anyone else. Teachers know their classroom, their curriculum and the challenges they face working with a classroom full of kids more than anyone else. When I first introduce myself to a teacher, I ask them to let me know right away if they have any issues or challenges related to my son and make sure they know that our home program is all about supporting the IEP. If I understand what he’s learning at school, we can add supportive learning activities at home so that classroom time is as valuable as possible.
2. Help the kids in the classroom help my son.
Each year, I work with the special ed director to sit down with the class and explain my son’s situation to the kids he interacts with each day. When kids understand what is going on, they have an incredible amount of empathy. Over the years, I’ve seen kids go out of their way to say hello to my son knowing that he won’t say hello back, helping him get into line when he doesn’t understand that’s what the teacher has asked, picking him to be their partner on a class field trip, all kinds of support! And when the kids are helping out, it helps the teacher AND helps my son have more opportunities to interact with other kids, not just the teacher.
There have also been a few years earlier on where I had opportunities to speak up at back to school night, introducing myself to parents, telling them about my son and encouraging them to call if their children came home with any questions about Autism. I felt very well received by the parents who reached out to me.
3. Understand that the school has limited resources.
I know my rights. I know what my child needs and what he’s entitled to. I know how to be an advocate. But I also know that the teachers involved are human beings with only so much time on any given day. I know there are other students who also have needs to meet. If there is a problem and the teacher say they can’t solve it in a way I’d like, I ask to sit down and brainstorm ideas on how to solve it.
An example – when my son was in the 5th grade, he was NOT liking his math class. Each night, I ask him a basic set of questions like “What was your easiest class today?”, “What is your hardest class?”, “Did you eat lunch with anyone today?”. You get the idea. Math was consistently coming up negative so I emailed the teacher to see if she could help me figure out why. I didn’t accuse her of anything. I didn’t assume anything. I approached her with questions. It turned out that my son was coming back in from his pull out session in the special ed resource room towards the end of math in his regular classroom. Any child walking into that would be lost. And that raised 2 big problems: the time he was spending in math was wasted time AND it was making him feel bad. We talked through the situation and came up with a solution. My son was focused on reading in his pull out session. But 2 minutes before he was to go back, the special ed teacher would pull up the MATH assignment that they had worked on earlier in the day on a netbook. He was instructed to work on this assignment in the classroom after he returned. About 15 minutes after returning to math in progress in his regular classroom, the lesson would be finished up and ALL students would begin working for about 15 minutes on their math homework. My son was now doing what everyone else was doing – working on math homework. And his teacher knew what he was working on so she could check up on him just like the rest of the students in her class.
Sure, the school should have been on top of this. But after I facilitated communication across the special ed teacher and the classroom teacher, we had a plan and it worked. That’s all that mattered. Why focus on the problem? I brought the problem to their attention and we found a solution together.
4. Look out for the teacher. Watch for burnout.
In the same way that I watch out for the people who work for me at Microsoft, I’m looking out for the teachers that work with my kids. If my employees are overloaded and get burned out, they can’t do their best work. The same goes for teachers. When we meet at that first parent teacher conference or school meeting, I ask questions to figure out if the teacher is doing TOO MUCH. Yes, I don’t want the teachers doing too much for my son. It’s a long school year. I want to see the teacher be able to support my son for the whole year at a sustainable pace.
When my son was in the 2nd grade, at the first parent teacher conference, I asked how things were going with him. The teacher was very proud of how much she was doing for him to keep him engaged. But it was too much. In the science part of her daily class, my son was acting out. It was clear to me that the content was beyond his comprehension so his attention was wandering elsewhere and behavior problems were the results. There was no option to pull him out during this time. The teacher was working way too hard to keep him from distracting the rest of the class – which was bad for the ENTIRE class (and bad for integration efforts as a whole). I could not get an aide for him. So I got the school to agree to pulling together some worksheets that were related to things he WAS working on where he could work on them during science AND be accountable via his special ed curriculum. We had to juggle resources around for a single week so that we could jump start this new program but once it was working, it worked VERY well. My son was making better use of this time in the classroom. The teacher wasn’t being over extended trying to teach science AND manage a distracted student who couldn’t follow along. This part of the curriculum was NOT related to the IEP. We found a solution and that allowed the teacher to have more energy for ALL of her students.
5. Support Efforts at School From Home.
By working with teachers at the beginning of the year, I get details on the curriculum so that I can reinforce this content at home, and make better use of the time spent in the classroom. My favorite story on this was when my son was in the 4th grade and the class was learning about the states and capitals in the US. My son can memorize. At home, we got flashcards that help kids learn the states and capitals. His afternoon babysitter worked with him every afternoon. He learned this material so well that he was acing the tests at school and when they had contests in the classroom to drill on this content and teams were being picked, my son was picked first! He was the ringer. This was the first time that my son had a truly integrated experience with his peers in the classroom. And it opened countless doors in the classroom related to group projects and even skit day in the classroom at the end of that year.
6. Be solution oriented. And be part of the solution.
I use the IEP as a guide. When I don’t feel that goals are being met or that I see a plan that will support them, I call a meeting. I express my concerns and start a dialog about how to solve it. I always offer ideas on what we can do from home via our home ABA program. Often, the trick is getting more information from school coming home so that we can do more to help from home. In my son’s first year of middle school, math was a black hole. The teacher was not communicating despite all of my best efforts. No homework was coming home. When I looked at the IEP goals related to math, I had zero visibility into how we would meet them.
I could have simply complained about the teacher, demanded more home school communication, that sort of thing. But I just didn’t think that would go very far. When I had attended back to school night, I could see this teacher cared a lot about her students and had very good intentions. I just couldn’t tell if it went any further than that. When I approached our case worker from the perspective of wanting math homework to come home so that we could help focus our home program on the goals, it was an easy conversation. After all, we were signing up to do additional work! The math teacher changed her routine to include my son taking responsibility for bringing his math worksheets home. Completed worksheet went back to school so she could see we were putting the time and effort in. And the entire relationship changed for the better.
At the end of that first year, my son had the opportunity to join the middle school track team due to a fantastic PE teacher of his. This math teacher ended up being a huge volunteer supporting the track team. And this good relationship we had built extended onto that field. My son’s confidence soared from his track experience. And this math teacher was a key to making that a positive experience for him.
In summary, as our kids get settled into this new school year, think about how you’re really partnering with these amazing people who are teaching our kids. Ask them, “How can I help you?” and see what happens.