Knowing how to work with parents of students with special needs is just as important as knowing how to help the students. Robin Hartman, educator and mother of a son with Autism, says, “I know I am a difficult parent to deal with which is why I thought I would give some tips on how to deal with the parents of children with special needs because we are super sensitive about our children.” Read her story below where she lays it all on the line and shares her concerns, fears, and respect for those teachers who make a difference in the lives of students with special needs.
by Robin Hartman, Guest Author
As I take education courses, I feel myself at odds with some of the information because I look at things as a parent. I look at the needs of my child first, even when sometimes his needs could hinder the academic progress of the class by causing disruptions. However, as I parent, I view his disruptions as an indication that his needs not being met. Granted, this is an issue because this places no responsibility on the child for not choosing the appropriate behavior. I also realize I tend to find fault with the teachers simply because I probably could have or would have handled the situation differently. However, I can honestly say that the teachers have helped me immensely with raising my child with Autism. It has taken me awhile to trust their judgment.
Originally, I failed to remember that the teacher has a role, they are a specialist in the field, and my child is not the only student he or she is dealing with in the classroom. The teachers are there. They have the full picture of the situation. But, as a parent, I will also look at things as though my child, because he is my child, will be the most important student in the teacher’s classroom.
I know I am a difficult parent to deal with which is why I thought I would give some tips on how to deal with the parents of children with special needs because we are super sensitive about our children.
8 Tips for Working with Parents of Special Needs Children
1. Open up communication before a situation arises.
As a parent, I will not trust a teachers’ judgment until I get to know them. I view myself as being on the teacher’s side once I know the person. But if I see them as a stranger who is being mean to my baby at our first meeting, there may be a problem. If I have to come to the school because of my child’s inappropriate behavior or their lack academic successful and this also happens to be the first time I have spoken directly to the teacher, I am not sure whether my child is at fault.
Also, if I have to come to school to address a particular situation I was completely unaware of, I would feel that I should have been contacted before the situation became a huge issue for everyone, before the situation has crippled my child’s grades or hindered your classroom’s behavioral compliance.
I am the kind of parent that likes to hear updates about my children as much as possible. I want to know what he or she is struggling with, what they are excelling at, and what they are enjoying. Remember, sometimes the communication from the teacher is the only window into the child’s school day because children with special needs (well even typically functioning children) do not share information about their day with the parent.
2. When opening up communication, always start with a compliment about their child.
Parents will not get tired of hearing how awesome their child is. A teacher should never begin the discussion about how the student is struggling with decoding and compliance until he or she has given an overview of how absolutely adorable the parents’ child is and maybe even start with a cute story.
I always enjoy hearing little funny stories about my child, especially if it is something that I can identify as his behavior but never experienced that particular situation. This helps me know that the teacher knows my child and found his behaviors a refreshing gift, something charming and cute, rather than a strange abnormality that needs to be trained out of him.
For example, he once yelled at his teacher for not writing their math textbook. They were not sure why he got upset about it but he was convinced she was stealing. She had to talk him through the situation, explaining how teachers order textbooks for the classrooms that everyone uses based on the district’s curriculum to insure that everyone learns the same material.
Considering I teach writing courses, I think he overheard a discussion I had about plagiarism.
I knew that based on the story, the teachers could handle him and truly loved him. They showed true patience with the situation by talking him through the logistics of his assumption; however, someone else may have just silenced him in order to move ahead.
3. Do not tell a parent to teach the child to behave.
I always work with my child’s school to make sure there are at home consequences for inappropriate school behavior. Make sure you work with a parent to institute some type of communication and consequence arrangement.
Telling a parent simply to talk to your child about this or that behavior is not appropriate. It shows that the teacher did not deal with the situation, cannot deal with the situation, and believe the parent can magically with a simple discussion make the child act appropriately when the parent is not present.
I am a pretty good parent, but I do not have that kind of authority over my child when I am not present. Many parents with children with special needs will struggle connecting the talk or correction with the inappropriate school behavior that more than likely the child cannot remember demonstrating. Do not leave every correction up to the parent. The teacher needs to be given the authority to correct the child’s behavior. Reminding and connecting the at home consequence with the behavior at school while the child is illustrating that particular behavior helps quite a bit. Thus, the teacher has the authority over the situation. The parent does not step in to have to take care of the situation.
Also, when asking a parent to discipline their child it could also imply that the teacher feels disciplinary actions are being made at home. As a parent with a special needs child, you would not imagine how horrible people can be about my child’s behavior. I feel the looks when he acts up. Unlike other disabilities, you cannot see Autism written across my child’s face, and while I am happy that disability is not what people immediately see when they look at my child, some adults do not sympathize with what I am going through at first glance because a melt-down looks so similar to a tantrum. Many people, from a distance, just see a bratty kid throwing a fit because a parent fails to parent. Parents of children with special needs are treated like this all the time; people even get vocal about their disapproval of other parents. Teachers should avoid the “parent your child”, “make them behave” bandwagon advice pile on.
That does not mean parents should not be open to advice about how to deal with a particular difficult situation. Just wait for a parent to ask. I have learned so much about when it is and is not acceptable to baby or comfort my child and when to be stern in order to push him to complete tasks that are new and frustrating.
4. Educate the parent.
If you are helping parents understand their child’s disability, it is helpful to make sure they have access to plenty of information: handouts, websites, reading material or lists of reading recommendations about the disability. Remember, you are a professional with vital information.
It would also help to remind the parent about your expertise, what you studied, your qualifications, your teaching experience, and so forth. While you do not need to go into your whole resume, it is helpful to remind a parent their child is in strong, capable, well-educated, and well-experienced hands. I have recently gotten into the habit of asking the educators their background. It makes me feel better.
Also, know that someone outside of education is not fluent in the same terminology. I remember how inept I felt being at a teacher meeting hear the educating team discuss ARCs and IEPs. It is helpful to explain the common concepts that you know that are new for the parent. It makes us feel in the loop and a part of the educating team.
5. Never mention medication!
A teacher may have experience with similar children but he or she should never directly state that someone’s child needs to be put on medication. If you think the child should be on medication, you need to request a counselor/specialist who will observe the child and make the appropriate recommendation.
That does not mean that medication is off the table. Just go through the appropriate avenues and show the parent the accommodations and behavioral interventions you have tried and the multiple observations made by various specialists before coming to the conclusion that medication is necessary.
The request for medication should never come directly from the teacher because the parent will feel like you do not want to deal with the child; you just want the child to shut up and stop being a problem.
6. Never mention new labels.
That is great that the teacher has an understanding of disabilities. But make sure the teacher does not mention five or six new disabilities which will be used to label their child. Many disabilities have similar traits.
For example, my child is Autistic; he is not depressed. He is having self-esteem issues now that he is old enough to perceive his differences. He does not have AD-HD; He does not want to focus on the writing assignment because he struggles with decoding and he is getting frustrated about that. My child is not Oppositional Defiant. If my son is refusing to do his work, there could have been a break in his routine, something could have happened with another student or maybe the class is loud resulting in his desire to shut down.
Do not try to diagnosis or RE-diagnose a child. A parent will eat you alive. I know I would.
7. NEVER make a joke about a person’s child and always use the appropriate language.
This should be a given but I would like to address this situation anyway because I once had a person ask if I talk. I did not understand what she meant at first because her question was so incredibly strange. She laughed and went on to say that she wondered if I talk because my son did not. She was not a teacher, and I would prefer not to state her position as to not stereotype those in her situation. I made sure I understood whether she was aware of his disability before getting upset.
This is when I discovered that some people are skeptical that disabilities exist. Based on ignorance or stubbornness, they do not see that other people are different if they do not look different. They just see a bad kid who will not behavior. When making jokes about someone else, it only shows the person’s ignorance and lack of compassion.
Showing compassion in the language also helps. Try to avoid stereotyping a behavior and using terms like “That’s Aspy” or “A Downs Kid” because it shows that the teacher defines the child by their disability. Get in the habit of using child first language like child with Autism, Student with special needs, and child with Down syndrome.
8. Keep the child around capable and trained individuals: teachers, substitutes, bus drivers, student aids, assistants, and volunteer parents.
I like to meet every single person who has contact with my child, because I have a fear that someone will be mean to him, someone will not talk to him appropriately, or they will say something that he does not understand and expect him to comply with instructions that do not compute. Fortunately, his education team surrounds him with the most compassionate people.
When there is something that gets him upset, his educating team and I try to figure out the function of his behavior which includes an overview of everyone he works with, when his behavior changed, and who observed it. I am comforted that every person he has contact with understands his triggers, works with him to keep his day smoothly transitioning, and they all love him. I put him on the bus each day knowing that no authority figure will hurt him, dismiss him, or bully him.