6 Ways Teachers Can Reduce Back-to-School Angst for Families of Students With Disabilities
Nine years ago I wrote these words. “Today I meet Yassy’s new fifth-grade team. It feels like a blind date. I hope we like each other.” This is how countless parents feel at this time of year. Their stomachs are in knots. Worry occupies their days, and keeps them up at night. All while doing their best to hide this from their children, who are excited for a new school year like children should be.
I never had these feelings of angst with my oldest child who does not have a disability. Never. But when you have a child with Down syndrome, or a number of other disabilities, school is much more complicated. Every single teacher, administrator, and specialist matters. Being fully included in a general education class is an exception, not a given. Year after year too many students, and families have to prove their worth to be educated with their peers. It gets very old, very fast.
In honor of those years, here is some advice for current teachers and administrators. This was learned from rock star teams, like the one we are forever close to from that fateful fifth-grade meeting.
1. Show up, with genuine hearts and smiles.
Through the years there were three times educators, and/or principals refused to meet before the school year started. This was always a very telling sign of educators who did not care, and did not believe in every child. These meetings were listed in my daughter’s IEP, and these educators knew that. They eventually met with us, but their negative attitudes precipitated terrible relationships and years. Remember that old saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
2. Welcome parents as part of the team.
There are numerous news stories and articles stating how educators need family involvement. They lament the numerous families who are not involved in their children’s educations. Yet, when it comes to students with significant disabilities — this changes dramatically. The clearest way to state this is rock star teachers become a team with their parents/families as soon as possible. But everyone else, they often do not. Communication is erratic, and families are not welcome or part of what can be a beautiful school year. That fateful fifth-grade team that I met nine years ago did everything in their power to make sure my husband and I knew we were an important part of our daughter’s team. And many rock star teachers that followed them did the same.
3. Presume competence. Never pre-judge a student.
This may seem like a given, but it is not. Too many students with IEPs are pre-judged before a teacher or administrator even meets them. I will always remember the teacher who stated before fourth grade that she “had seen other IEPs as long as my daughter’s, and that my daughter’s goals were too high.” After I got my chin off the ground, I simply said, “You have not even met her yet. On top of that, the IEP goals were written three months ago by a well-respected peer of yours. So no, the goals are not too high.” Sadly, right up to my daughter’s senior year, there were always educators I met at the before school meeting who did not believe. And it always showed. Parents — this is your big warning sign to pay close attention, and more often than not have your child reassigned to a new teacher for that class when possible.
4. Be organized.
Organized teachers can communicate and work with teams better. My daughter needed material pre-taught at home, which required me getting materials by the Friday before the next week. There were several years where she had teachers who were not organized, but cared deeply. Because these teachers were invested partners with us, they became more organized to make the pre-teaching process work. I will never forget that meeting nine years ago. The incredible team my daughter had asked me to wait at the end of the meeting. They left and came back in a few minutes with weeks and weeks of lesson plans. They truly were a dream team.
5. Communicate, in good times and bad.
Even though my daughter is out of school now and working, I am still conditioned to think that communication from anyone in her adult world is an “uh-oh” moment. Something is wrong. And you know what — that has not been the case! Yassy’s amazing fifth-grade team was the first one to ever contact me for just as many good reasons as concerning ones. It was a shock, every single time. Teachers, administrators, if you do more of this — you will truly be spreading joy throughout so many families who truly need it. And communication about concerning matters is just as important. It can be constructive, using a whole team approach.
6. Add fun to your students’ days.
I remember one of those fifth-grade teachers nicknaming my shy daughter “goofball,” always said with smiles as big as the love she had. She still calls her that to this day. I remember that fifth-grade team running a race with my daughter on a Saturday, just to get to know her outside of school. I remember the high school teacher who spent her own money to buy those huge balls you can sit on — and then placed them throughout the class for kids who like to fidget. Just seeing this class showed you someone who thought outside the box and had a fun side. I remember the middle school teacher who gave my daughter her love of math, and played a guessing game with her every day of what she had for lunch. I remember a middle school science teacher who brought in balloons and other celebratory things for students, just because. I remember a very special high school teacher, who was by then an administrator, showing up fully masked, outside on our doorstep, in June 2020 when the pandemic was still so new. She had some treats for my daughter, and a sunflower. This was not one of those planned visits so many schools wonderfully did. This was something she did for a small number of her students. And the class of 2020 will never forget the amazing parades that happened all over the country. Their towns celebrated them — they stood up through car roofs — and they had fun! I know my city continued that in 2021, and we all hope it is a new tradition.
Educators, administrators, it is within your power to flip the script now. Perhaps you have been leery of meeting a future student or family? Examine your conscience and be honest with yourself. Was that because of a pre-judged bias? Could you be more organized? Could you add some fun to your student’s days? Do you freely communicate with students and families? Walls will start to come down when these simple things start happening. And when walls come down, the magic happens.