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11 Steps to a Successful School Year When You Parent Kids With Disabilities

People feel significant amounts of stress at back-to-school time. I know this as a parent and a teacher.

Even more, I experience this in unique ways. First, I am a parent of a child with autism. Also, my school has a model program for students with significant support need, and I have taught many of these students. Finally, I have a disability. I have chronic pain arising from erythromelalgia and CRPS. I would like to offer 11 tips to parents of children with disabilities for having a successful school year.

1. Build relationships.

Get to know your child’s teachers and the school’s administrators. Teachers will be some of the most important adults in your child’s life. It will benefit you and your child to have a good relationship with the people at school.

2. Help your child build relationships.

I once had a student with autism who had good friends at school. This student’s mother asked me to contact the other parents to see about arranging a playdate. The kids became friends outside of school, too. Good friendships enrich the school experience for all students.

3. You are the most important advocate for your child.

No one knows your child like you. Please keep your child’s teacher informed of your child’s strengths and needs. Whether you are in an IEP, a 504 meeting, or a friendly conversation with an educational professional, you must speak up for your child. This can be difficult and maybe even intimidating sometimes, but your child needs you.

4. Teach self-advocacy.

When appropriate, work with your child’s teacher to help your child learn how to advocate for themselves. My wife and I taught my daughter specific self-advocacy steps. I had an amazing student with autism, and she was non-verbal. However, with the help of our entire team, she began learning over a period of years how to use assisted technology to communicate her needs and wants.

5. Trust teachers.

Your child’s teacher wants the best for your child. Teachers get in to the profession because they love children. They are highly educated, and they receive ongoing training. Your child’s teacher spends a significant amount of time in formal and informal meetings discussing ways to educate your child. Please believe in your child’s teacher.

6. Communicate.

Teachers want to hear from you. They need to know about your child’s interests, likes and dislike. If your child has had an especially difficult morning, please let the teacher know. I once had a student with autism who loved transportation machines like planes and busses. When we learned this, we were able to implement them into the student’s day.

7. Know your student’s plan.

If your child is on an IEP or a 504 plan, be aware of goals, accommodations and modifications. Consider carefully what the education professionals recommend and be sure to ask about growth as the year unfolds. Most teachers are doing everything they can to follow plans carefully, but you are your child’s advocate. Be sure you know how the school will measure and communicate goals and progress.

8. Work together.

Education is a team effort. There may be several people working with your child throughout the day: the classroom teacher, a special education teacher, speech therapists, counselors, psychologists, social workers, paras and administrators. All of these people care about your child’s success. Find out who works with your child, how often your child meets with them, how progress is being monitored, and how you can contact them.

9. Solve problems where they occur.

Questions, issues, and misunderstandings arise. Know your school’s communication policies. They are usually simple and in place to solve problems directly and resolve misunderstandings quickly. If you have a question or sense a problem, ask the people involved first. If something happened in the classroom, ask the teacher. If you have an issue with the speech therapist, contact that person. If you cannot find resolution, only then speak to an administrator.

10.  Understand the environment.

We all act differently depending on the setting, situation and expectations. I am a teacher at school, but I am a dad at home. In these environments, I have different roles. Children behave differently in school than they do at home, too. Plan to be surprised by how your child behaves in school. If there is an issue, never start off with, “My child would never…” In the educational setting, your child might. Likewise, children flourish unexpectedly at school in ways that parents might not foresee.

11. Show some grace.

We’re all human. People make mistakes, even teachers. Try to understand if something in the classroom did not go as expected. I know I have had unpleasant situations as a parent. However, I have been able to resolve the situations more effectively when I communicated directly and charitably. We all tend to get defensive when we feel that we are being verbally attacked. It’s true for teachers, too. This is why building relationships goes a long way. You and the teacher will understand one another when you have a positive working relationship. A little kindness and grace goes a long way.

I hope you can see that these steps apply to all parents as they structure a positive educational experience for all of their children — not just those with disabilities. Just a few simple steps can your and make your child’s school year successful.

Getty image by Ridofranz