Over the past couple of years as a parent advocate, and as a parent of a child who has autism, I’ve attended a number of board meetings, district meetings and school meetings with parents. Heck, I even ran for school board trustee.
So I know that trying to make change in the education system feels like searching for a needle in a football field-sized haystack. Parents can be demoralized, and many feel forced out of a system that is supposed to be inclusive of all children. In the last couple of months, I’ve felt particularly defeated. Meeting after meeting, I hear the same things, and it’s incredibly frustrating.
Here are a few things I’ve heard at school meetings so many times, they’ve become like nails on a chalkboard. If you are a school professional (at any level), my hope is that you will consider these things when you communicate with parents of children with extra needs in the future.
1. “All students benefit from x intervention.”
There’s a difference between something being beneficial and something being a necessity. While a typical child may certainly do better with, let’s say, a visual schedule, a visual schedule might make or break the day for a child with special needs. This type of language diminishes the importance of specific strategies needed for our children.
2. “Lots of kids have trouble with x.”
This is only partially true. I also have a typically developing daughter, and yes, there are things she has trouble with. However, it’s not the same. Unlike my son, she does not have a lifelong disability that will constantly challenge her. Imagine telling someone with cancer that “lots of people feel sick.” That would be incredibly unsympathetic. Please don’t tell a special needs parent that their child’s challenges are just like every other child’s. They’re not.
3. “It is unrealistic to expect daily communication. Parents need to let go.”
Many typical children are fully capable of telling their parents what went on at school. They can communicate their feelings about the day, who they played with or anything special that happened. Many children with extra needs cannot. Daily communication is instrumental to ensuring problems don’t escalate, friendships are fostered, learning is reinforced — the list goes on. Without daily communication, parents of children with extra needs are left completely in the dark.
4. “Your advocacy is admirable, but you attract more flies with honey.”
Let’s get this straight: Most of us start with polite requests. Then we quickly realize we don’t need to make more friends or be popular. What we need are supports and services accessible to our children so they can reach their personal potential. In my own experience, I’ve tried many different ways to advocate, from being nice and sweet to firm and assertive. I’ve spoken using facts and I’ve spoken from my heart. It doesn’t really matter. When I look at the history of parents advocating for the needs of their children with disabilities, the sweet ones don’t pave the way for change.
5. “We have other children we are responsible for as well.”
I can’t help but laugh at this comment. Surprisingly, we know that our children are not the center of the universe. It might also surprise you to know that we would give anything not to spend all our time worrying about their education. Some parents of children with disabilities have more than one child. Do you think our children without disabilities are somehow less important to us? Of course not.
Parents of children with extra needs advocate for their children years before they have even entered the education system. We’ve been told, “No,” “We can’t,” “Everything is fine” and my personal favorite, “We are doing the best we can in a very over-taxed system,” so many times we’ve lost count. We are overtired, filled with guilt and maybe, just maybe, we know a thing or two about what might work for our children.
The greatest educational leaders I’ve met are the ones who’ve said, “What if these parents are right?”
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