Brand New RegEd Teachers: Top 5 Ways to Keep Special Needs Parents Off Your Back

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My home phone rang the other day right before my kids got home from school. For those of you who do not know what I mean by “home phone”, its that thing that plugs into a wall and has the # symbol that cannot hashtag anything. When the home phone rings, I typically keep doing whatever I am doing unless I am feeling a bit of whimsy to cleverly torment the telemarketer that is likely on the other end. The only other time it rings is when someone at the school does not know to call my cell…which often then strikes fear in my heart. So I picked up.

“Mrs. K?” Gulp. “Yes, this is”. It was A1’s new science teacher calling to say: “First of all….let me tell you I think he is hilarious. He made this cartoon strip ….”. He then went on to disclose all the other things drenched in awesomeness…while I was waiting for the “Second of all….” part. That part never came. He called me to tell me I had a cool kid. And that was it.

Now, I am not naive and am more likely paranoid based on unfortunate previous experience and also because I am too old to pull off ingenue status with any competence. That same morning I had to send an email to kindly remind another teacher to carefully review A1’s IEP and Health Plan as there were some important things not being followed. Coincidence to hear from the science teacher the same day? Probably not…I am guessing he may have just been reminded that he had a kid in his 4th period class who has an IEP and a Health Plan. Maybe not…but as I said…doe eyed ingenue does not work as well with crows feet.

Unfortunately, what struck me most about this amazing phone call is that in the 3 years that my younger A2 has been in public school…my very speech impaired child…I have never ONCE received a phone call from a regular ed teacher just to tell me about his day in their class. And let me be clear about 2 things. Real clear since this won’t apply to everyone. 1. A2 tries to tell me about his day. Every day. And we CANNOT understand him. 2. I have ASKED them for communication. Over and over. Every year. In front of other people. To almost no avail.

So teachers…this advice is completely free of charge. The key to keeping us special ed parents at bay.
1. CONTACT US FIRST: Before school even starts, call to introduce yourself and ask about our kid. Give us your contact information. Assure us you are the extra eyes and ears for a kid who has no voice.
2. DON’T ASSUME THE INTERVENTION SPECIALIST IS JUST TELLING US EVERYTHING. My kid has a whole 30-60 minutes a day of direct IS time required in his IEP in our high-end-award-winning-district. My severely learning disabled child. The paraprofessionals who are with him most of the day are not permitted to communicate with me directly due to their classified employee status. We often get second hand info from our IS that sounds something like “had a great time in music class learning new songs”. The small tidbits we do get…well…that’s all…thats all we get to know. The nuances are never there for us…if they are making a new friend, if someone hurt their feelings if they thoughts something was cool or interesting. And those things are definitely happening in my child’s world and no matter how hard he may try to share those things with me, if I have no context, I will not know at all what he is telling me let alone what questions to ask. The paras also are not allowed to attend IEP meetings even at my request. Were you aware of any of that? A2’s IS has 10 kids who can’t tell their parents anything about their day. She is ALL of their voices….and she is trying very hard to be all knowing. But why? This is a team approach. While you do have 25 kids in your room, if they are lucky and have parents who actually ask them about their day, their kids can tell them. You have so much you can tell us and I guarantee all of us want to know.
3. INVITE US IN: To volunteer, to be a fly on the wall, to talk about our kids to your class. Did you know that neither you nor any of his other caregivers during the day are allowed to divulge any information about our child to the other children due to HIPAA? And there are SO many questions from children aren’t there? If you have an inclusive classroom, the information a parent can provide the children can be invaluable to the inclusive environment. Offer to include the IS to help that parent if they express interest but are uncomfortable.
4. RECOGNIZE WE UNDERSTAND YOU ARE BUSY: We are not out to get you or have a “gotcha” moment. I cannot imagine being a teacher right now. Huge classloads, jobs dependent upon test scores that are dependent on more than just your ability, differentiated instruction, outliers flying under the radar, helicopter parents, uninvolved parents. A 10 minute phone call once a month to tell us something we wouldn’t know without your call. If you do that once a month without fail you will likely never hear from us. But your principal will almost definitely hear from us. To hear how awesome you are.
5. INCLUSION AND INTEGRATION ARE DIFFERENT: This doesn’t mean let them also have a desk and have peers help them hang up their backpacks (though we recognize the value in that too). I mean if you take a picture of our kids to put on a bulletin board make sure it is a good one like everyone else. If you are in reading to the class and you ask a question the other kids can answer, figure out a way to ask a question that could include our kids’ ability to answer. While you have kids who can fall through the cracks, ours have absolutely no way to mountain climb out of those crevices without you. I am sure like us you don’t want them just to be a warm body at another desk. Ask their IS for strategies…that is why they are there.

BONUS #6 also at no charge: THE MOST DIFFICULT PARENTS ARE LIKELY YOUR BIGGEST ALLIES: Yep. We are the wave makers, the getter-doners. We figure out what you want and need and we try to get it for you especially if it will benefit our kids. Sometimes you don’t even need to tell us what that is. We figure it out. Assume nothing regarding our motivations.

For those of you who went into regular education vs. special education–those days are long gone. Inclusion is not just the responsibility of your Intervention Specialists. Much like us parents of kids with special needs…we started out in the exact same place as all the other parents in your room. Maybe even as you did too as a parent. Our journey veered off years ago but the desire to get to know the same thing we would have if everything turned out as expected has not.

The Tail Wagging the Dog

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Our dog is a bit of a sonofabitch. He is playful and fun and sweet and well behaved. Until he is not. And it always catches us off guard. 30 rounds of chasing the ball and joyfully bringing it back is often followed by a random and somewhat humiliating drive-by where he passes me up, runs 3 yards over and pees on the neighbor’s dog. The ability to look nonchalant and nonplussed at the same time after your dog just defiled someone elses’ beloved pet is something that only the parent of a child with Autism can pull off with Merylstreepworthy street cred. As I breathlessly call his name while chasing him in circles with what I believe to be an audible background soundtrack of the Benny Hill theme song, I will often submit myself to the idea of giving him back to the service dog agency. Wally came to us in a somewhat miraculous way. I relinquished the idea of a service dog for A2 years ago when I learned that an application was only the first step in a lengthy and costly fundraising and training endeavor…a cruel (but necessary)paradox for a middle class family supporting a child with a disability. So when I saw a post in a local Facebook mom’s group about this agency’s need for foster families for their breeding program it was a no brainer. He had been through an advanced training program, came with the bright orange “do not touch” vest (that as it turns out that as a whole people just ignore) and most importantly neither of my children reeled away from him in fear of barking or jumping. I could get used to having to drive out to the agency on a moments notice for his doggie duty or the fact that as an intact male he has a certain
“je ne sais quoi” that at times makes me feel uneasy explaining to groups of gathering and inquisitive elementary school kids.

While this dog is not trained specifically for A2, I had notions of things. Wonderful things. He would have the gumption of a sheepherding dog and rustle A2 back off to bed at night allowing all of us a full nights sleep. He would have Lassie-like receptive and expressive language skills to alert us if A2 wandered off…or fell in a well….or were lost in a canyon. He would be A2’s best friend and would play ball, endure endless tummy rubs and kiss away tears. But alas….Wally is not trained to endure colossal meltdowns or high pitched screaming…and A2 is obsessed with Wally’s nails needing trimmed and is wholly mortified by his noisy and explicit grooming habits. It often feels more like they are roommates who met out of necessity on Craigslist.

We wanted Wally to be for A2….but really, we wanted him to be for us. We needed extra eyes, extra sleep and fuller hearts knowing A2 had a friend. But its not looking like this part was meant to be.

The surprise twist here is that I did not anticipate that Wally is here for A1. And with precision timing. We didn’t see that one coming at all. I have watched A1 learn to use inflection in his voice to get him to follow a command or gain his attention. Wally’s presence is forcing A1 up out of his gaming chair to take him on walks or throw a ball or frisbee. He is quickly using perspective taking in a way I have never noticed in questions such as “Do you think Wally likes me? How can you tell?” or “Mom….I feel so bad…I wish I could give him some of my sandwich…Is this how you feel about me with my Celiac when other kids are eating gluten around me?” My beautiful, slow to warm boy who would rather not touch or be touched is slowly but voluntarily petting, patting, feeding and cuddling Wally. Though it took me years to understand and accept that A1’s needs and worldview are just very different than mine I have always known that forcing my motherly agenda would only reinforce his discomfort. And in a very rare moment–maybe the second time in his life just last night while watching TV he scooted closer to me on the couch, leaned in, and rested his head on my shoulder.

So Wally, you are off the hook. I will humble myself as I once again issue the world’s most awkward apology and assure the neighbors that we have no intentions of keeping their dog since you have clearly claimed him as your own just as long as you keep doing the stealthy, stellar job you were given to do here with us.