BY DEANNA PICON
Parents and the teaching staff share a common objective: working together to ensure the best experience for your son or daughter.
Every fall, parents and students gear up for a new school year, with high hopes for a successful academic term. At the same time, teachers, therapists and administrative staff anxiously await a fresh school session filled with both returning and new students, classes, activities and challenges.
Parents and the teaching staff share a common objective: working together to ensure the best experience for your son or daughter. With that goal in mind, here is a different sort of teacher’s “wish list.” Not a list of school supplies, but a list of intangible things that could get your year off to a wonderful start. With a few easy steps and a positive attitude, everyone can transition effectively into the new school year.
ONE. START ON A POSITIVE NOTE
Your child’s educators want to develop a productive, working relationship. The beginning of the school year is the best time to get to know your child’s teacher, therapists and paraprofessionals. The classroom staff and students are settling in and becoming familiar with each other.
Remember, though, that this is an extremely busy time for the staff. Have a little patience with them, if they’re not as responsive to you during the first couple of days. Keep in mind that teachers have to process a lot of paperwork and student information forms as well as perform other administrative tasks as they get their class up and running. Since parents are the recipients of some of these forms, it’s likely you can sympathize because it takes time for you to complete them. All the while, they have to attend to the needs of their students and ensure they have a smooth transition.
TWO. PROVIDE VALUABLE STUDENT INFORMATION
During the first week of school, your child’s team would be greatly appreciative if you could send them a “cheat sheet” – a short list of communication skills, likes and dislikes, behavior triggers and discipline techniques, daily routines and all the other things about your child that only a parent would know. It’s also important to list all of your child’s medications and any side effects or behaviors that result from their use.
A teacher may have anywhere from six to 12 students in his/her class, each with a different set of behaviors. A therapist may work with as many as 50 students each school year. They care for your child and want him/her to feel safe and comfortable. However, it’s very challenging to learn about each student’s personality, likes/dislikes and behavior in a short period of time. Anything a parent can do to help them is very much appreciated. The “cheat sheet” can be written on a piece of paper or index card and be as simple as this:
• Child’s Name: Julie Daniels
• Communication Skills: Julie is non-verbal. When she’s hungry, she makes little sounds and holds her stomach.
• Physical Abilities: Julie walks slowly. She likes to hold someone’s hand when she walks.
• Food and Meals: Julie doesn’t like sandwiches and orange juice. She likes apples, chocolate milk and hamburgers. She needs assistance with eating utensils during meals.
• Behaviors: She doesn’t like loud sounds. Julie covers her ears when it’s too loud. If she gets upset, take her to the bathroom and let her play with the water in the sink basin for a few minutes. It calms her down very fast.
This may not seem like a lot of information to you, but this insight into your child and his/her behavior is priceless for everyone. And, by helping the teachers and therapists do their jobs, you’ve opened the door to forming a positive relationship.
THREE. BUILD SOLID PARTNERSHIPS
Educators want the best for your child. They will be more helpful and involved when you not only tell them, but also demonstrate that you want to collaborate. Work to support each other rather than working against one another.
It’s important to set realistic goals throughout the school year based on your child’s abilities and strengths, as well as limitations. Be open to the staff’s assessments of your child, especially as it pertains to what works and what doesn’t. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, especially regarding areas you’re not familiar with.
It’s important for everyone to respect each other’s boundaries, as it relates to caring for your son or daughter. The teaching staff recognizes that you know your child better than anyone. But equally significant is the fact that they spend several hours a day with your child and see him/her in a variety of situations. Your child may behave differently in school than s/he does at home, so it’s advisable for everybody to take the child’s entire behavior and routines into consideration when discussing what’s best for your son or daughter.
By working cohesively as a team, everyone can give your child a chance to be the best person s/he can be. Even if progress is gradual, you’ll all celebrate the small achievements along the way and the efforts your child is making toward success.
FOUR. MUTUAL RESPECT IS ESSENTIAL
The teaching staff’s goal is to be honest, open-minded and amicable with you, so it’s nice to return that same courtesy. Discuss the best methods for communicating and developing a successful team. Listen to each other and be respectful, even if disagreements or minor problems arise. If everyone treats each other in this manner on a daily basis, trust will develop over time.
FIVE. COMMUNICATION METHODS
Daily communication is the best way to stay on top of what’s going on with your child in school. The most effective way to correspond with your child’s teacher, classroom staff and therapists is also one of the simplest – a notebook. You can buy a regular notebook at any department or office supply store, for probably less than a dollar.
Purchase a business folder to place school bulletins or notes that may be sent home by the school’s administrative staff. Interesting material may include flyers and brochures regarding educational seminars, parent workshops, and resource fairs, as well as information about agencies in your area that provide services for individuals with disabilities.This notebook can be a highly effective communication tool for both you and your child’s educators. It can take less than five minutes a day to use it.
It’s a good idea for your child’s therapists to use the communication notebook as well. Some therapists may want to create one for themselves; others are fine with the teacher’s notebook.
The teaching staff realizes how overwhelming and demanding parents’ lives are, so they probably won’t mind communicating via text messages or e-mail if it saves you time and energy. Discuss what works best for all.
Staff members are often willing to speak with parents on the phone during their break, but it’s important to ask and schedule an appropriate and convenient time to call. For example, first thing in the morning is probably not a good time because the classroom staff may be serving breakfast for the children and everyone is busy. A better time may be after lunch, when things are a little less hectic and the school day is winding down.
SIX. REGULAR & HONEST COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Every day, the teacher should write a brief note summarizing your child’s activities. It may not be more than three to five sentences. Once the teacher has done his/her part, it becomes your turn. Needless to say, most teachers work hard and don’t get much spare time during the day. So if s/he took time at the end of the day to write you a brief note, you should do the same. It’s a matter of mutual respect and consideration.
Your note can also be brief. You can comment on the day’s activities or address any special concerns you may have. There doesn’t have to be an agenda. Most teachers just appreciate your interest and input.
However, what most teachers are interested in is anything that might affect a child’s mood or behavior in school. No detail is too small or insignificant. For example, if your son or daughter had a restless night or upset stomach, and didn’t eat as much dinner as s/he usually does, please let them know. This way, if your child acts differently than s/he normally does, the teaching staff has an idea of what’s going on and how to handle it.
Please notify the administrative staff if there are any changes in your child’s medical condition or with their physicians and/or health care providers. They need to make sure that all contact information is current in case of an emergency. That includes personal changes, such as a new home or cell phone number as well as mailing address.
It doesn’t need to be more complex than this to establish and maintain ongoing communication. Just a few minutes of all team members’ time can reap huge benefits throughout the school year.
SEVEN. REINFORCE CLASSROOM WORK AT HOME
Your child’s educators work very hard to help your child achieve his/her goals, but it’s equally important for you to support their efforts by reinforcing them at home. It’s advisable for everyone to be on the same page and use the same system. Work together to develop a behavior plan that can be implemented in school and at home.
For example, if your son or daughter is rewarded with a snack or token for doing a good job at school, it’s best for you to do the same at home. Consistency is a key component of a student’s success.
In addition, look for activities that your child does in school that can be easily transferred to a home setting. If your child wipes his desk in school, s/he can probably wipe a placemat or table after a meal.
EIGHT. DROP BY OCCASIONALLY
Most teachers and therapists welcome the opportunity for you to see your child in school, among their peers and participating in academic activities. They know that it’s one thing to read about what your son or daughter is doing, but totally another to see it in person.
So don’t wait for an official IEP meeting or Parent/Teacher conference to meet and discuss your child’s education. Schedule a few visits during the year when it’s convenient for you and your child’s teaching staff.
NINE. UTILIZE THE THERAPY TEAM
All of your child’s therapists can be equally helpful and valuable to you, regardless of whether they specialize in speech, physical, or occupational therapy. Take advantage of their expertise and feel free to ask questions.
When you speak or write to each therapist, tell him/her what areas you think your child needs help in. They’ll welcome your input. And after they’ve had time to evaluate your child, ask them to follow up with you and discuss their assessment to determine, together, what should be done to help your child. Also, ask them to explain the kind of exercises or activities they will be working on in school.
Try to observe one or two therapy sessions to gain ideas on various techniques you may be able to work on with your son or daughter at home. It’s best to share your comments after the session is over because you don’t want your child to lose focus on tasks during therapy.
TEN. PARTICIPATE IN A WINNING TEAM
Teachers and therapists can be some of your best allies. They are dedicated and caring professionals who want to help you and your child in any way possible. You and they are on the same team, and it’s always nice to show your appreciation for all their hard work. An acknowledgment doesn’t have to be expensive. Send a box of cookies as a snack for the class. It’s the thought that counts.
A NEW START… A FRESH BEGINNING.
Now, with this inside knowledge on hand, you, your child and his/her teaching staff are on your way to having the most successful year yet! Make it an A+ school term!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Deanna Picon is the founder of Your Autism Coach, LLC, which provides personalized guidance, support and seminars for parents of exceptional children. She is a parent of a non-verbal, young man with autism. Deanna is the author of The Autism Parents’ Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. She can be reached at www.YourAutismCoach.com or @yourautismcoach.