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5 Ways Teachers Can Help When They Suspect a Child Has Special Needs

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Editor's Note

Hi there, this is just a quick note to let you know that you’ve reached one of our older stories here on The Mighty, and it contains some outdated language. We’ve updated our editorial guidelines, and no longer use “special needs” to refer to children or adults with disabilities. “Disabled” is not a bad word, and children with disabilities have human needs, not special needs. You can learn more about the reasons for this change here. We’ve updated our vocabulary, and we hope you will, too.

As a teacher, I see my co-workers trying to figure out how to approach parents when they suspect a student might have special needs. As a parent of a child diagnosed on the autism spectrum 13 years ago, here are some insights:

1. Show empathy and compassion.

How would you feel if you were told something is “wrong” with your child? No matter how gently you bring up your concerns, that’s what parents may hear. Answer the question honestly, as a parent if you are one, and if you’re not, think about getting heavy news about a loved one.  Do you feel it: shortness of breath; racing heart; eyes burning with tears; denial; anger; reluctant acceptance; fear; blame?

Parents may need to muddle through lots of emotions before they potentially take action. Give them the time they need to adjust (even if it takes years as it did for us.) Recognize that each parent will need varying amounts of time to adjust, and be realistic about the fact some parents may never be able to accept what is being suggested to them. In any case, it is more important to treat the behavior than it is to have a formal diagnosis. Please don’t critically judge a parent’s actions or inactions. They may not hear you say it to their faces, but they feel it, and so do the children.

2. Know your role.

You’re professional teachers, not diagnosticians. As a teacher, you have more accessibility and proximity to learning differences than the average person. In order to get a proper diagnosis from a trained professional, teachers are often invited by parents to provide input via forms, letters, and documentation. This can give teachers the illusion that you can predict the outcome of learning difference identifying behaviors in children. Although a teacher may correctly identify a child’s diagnosis, autism, ADHD, and many other conditions are highly complex and take a great deal of time to diagnose through the collection of data from multiple resources, observations, and tests. Therefore, teachers should be careful about labeling a child without the use of all the proper tools and education. Keep open communication with the parents and your boss, and log all instances pertaining to your concerns. This information may come in handy one day.

3. Be patient.  

When working with special needs children and their families, you are going to need to be patient with the child’s behavior, the parents’ actions or inactions, and yourself while you navigate through the very brief relationship you will have with this family. You may be working with the child and his or her needs for a school year, but the child and his or her family will be working with them for life.

4. Be proactive and supportive.

You can positively affect the lives of these families with your actions. Don’t tell parents their child “needs help” and leave it up to them to make everything better for their child. They can’t do it alone!  They need your help! Take a class. Read a book. Join a group. Learn techniques and strategies for working with behavioral and learning differences. Hug a parent. Hug the child (if they’ll let you.) Embrace the child’s talents, skills, and positive qualities. Teach your other students acceptance by practicing your own. Share good experiences with your families and peers in addition to vocalizing the difficult ones. Ask questions. Ask for help. Don’t pretend to know it all – each case, child, and family is different and may require different approaches.

5. Don’t take it personally.

If your ego becomes wounded because the family has rejected your professional opinion, get over it – quickly! This is about the child and the family, and what you can do to help them while the child is in your class. What happens outside of class is up to them. If you disagree with their reaction and/or decision, do not take it out on the child or the family. Don’t openly complain about or criticize the family or make cynical remarks. Be content that you have planted a seed of acceptance and have faith one day that seed will sprout and grow into action. It may not happen right away, but everyone deserves the right to get to their destination at their own pace in their own way. You can only provide guidance and hope. Keep in mind it can take time for families to come to the decision to take action. Until they do, keep records of your observations. The data you compile can be helpful for the evaluation process should it come to fruition, and you can then let your ego bloom and feel proud of the contribution you have made.

The Mighty is asking the following: Share with us an unexpected moment with a teacher, parent or student during your (or your loved one’s) school year. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 6, 2016
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