Cynthia Lockrey

@cynthialockrey | contributor
Cynthia Lockrey is a changemaker + communications expert. She is the author of two patient advocacy books – Your Child’s Voice - A Caregiver's Guide to Advocating for Kids with Special Needs as well as Bed Rest Mom – Surviving Pregnancy-Related Bed Rest. Cynthia is passionate about advocating for the needs of children in education and the medical system, as a volunteer, speaker and parent. www.learnpatientadvocacy.com
Community Voices

Why Will Smith Has it Wrong, Violence ≠ Advocacy

Like millions of people around the world, I gasped when Will Smith got on the stage during the Academy Awards and slapped Chris Rock across the face. This after Chris Rock made fun of Jada Pinkett Smith’s medical condition – #AlopeciaAreata .

As an advocate and mom of a child with diverse needs, I wish I could say this is surprising behaviour – from either man. Sadly, turning disabilities into punchlines is way too common.

But reacting with violence does not equal advocacy. Rather, it distracts from the real conversation – understanding and accepting a medical condition or disability.

Listen, I get it. There are times when my frustration level is high and I would love to scream and shout (but never hit). Yet I don’t.

Why? Because we have enough obstacles to overcome in having an honest and open dialogue about living with a medical condition or disability. Using violence just gives people another reason to tune out.

Yes, what Chris Rock said was out of line. But it’s nothing compared to what disabled individuals and their families hear each and every day.

I continue to hear the R word from educators, health professionals and random strangers. It’s even still learnpatientadvocacy.com/blog/2021/3/1/yes-your-advocacy-can....

Way too many of the conversations I have about my child are deficit based, instead of recognizing and building upon their strengths. Anyone who has attended an IEP meeting (individualized education plan) knows what I’m talking about.

And this deficit-based approach too often transcends to family, friends and even strangers.

I empathize with Jada Pinkett Smith living with a visible medical condition as well as having a husband who made Chris Rock’s comment more about him than allowing space for a conversation.

Lead, don’t be, the conversation

Imagine if he hadn’t jumped on stage and used violence, but rather used his star power to issue a statement the following day, taking the opportunity to educate people about alopecia. He could’ve explained that 1 in every 500 to 1,000 people in the US or nearly 2% of the general population are affected by alopecia at some point in their lifetime.

He could’ve shone a light on the condition, breaking down the stigma and showing the beauty and grace of his wife. Imagine how that would have lifted people up who are living with the condition, showing they aren’t alone in their struggles.

Heck, in his acceptance speech or media interviews, he could have educated people on alopecia. He’s in a privileged position where people listen to what he has to say.

But instead, he went for a quick hit, swore, and made it about him. Making matters worse, less than an hour later, he gets handed an award and has standing ovation.

For those of us fighting in the learnpatientadvocacy.com/books/how-to-make-patient-and-famil..., I could never imagine hitting someone, swearing at them, then getting accolades. Nope. I’d likely get arrested and slapped with a restraining order.

Be the example

Each and every time I advocate for my child, I try to learnpatientadvocacy.com/blog/2022/1/3/why-kindness-never-go... and use storytelling to bring issues to light. I know any perceived bullying on my end will add yet another obstacle to getting support.

Sure, in the moment I may want to scream. But rarely does this result in any positive action.

We need to look for opportunities to raise awareness, educate and break down barriers. Sometimes these appear in the moment and others emerge overtime.

Instead of giving Chris Rock or Will Smith any more attention on this horrible incident, I ask you – how are you shining the light on what matters to you?

For me, I will continue writing, speaking and advocating for not only my child, but all autistic kids and their families. I will do so with dignity, kindness and love. And when I do get hit with hate, which happens too often, I will not drop to their level as my child deserves better.

Pink Shirt Day Ignores High Bullying Risk for Kids With Disabilities

February 23 is Pink Shirt Day and February is also Kindness Month. Both get lots of coverage at schools and in the media. The growing awareness of Pink Shirt Day has shone a spotlight on bullying. But has it moved the needle in preventing bullying? Not for diverse learners and kids with disabilities. While these students are most likely to be bullied, Pink Shirt Day ignores their high bullying risk. In 2021, a report by UNESDOC on violence and bullying in educational settings looked at the experience of children and young people with disabilities. What they found isn’t pretty. 1 in 20 children are living with a disability Girls with disabilities attending a rural school in the U.S. are 4x more likely to be bullied and boys with disabilities are 2.5x more likely compared to their non-disabled peers 3 in 4 children with emotional disabilities in elementary schools in the U.S. have been verbally abused at least once in a previous month Learners with disabilities are also subjected to psychological and physical violence from teachers with 75% of students (in the US) having been physically restrained and 50% involuntarily confined As a mom of diverse learners, I’ve seen these stats in real life. We had to pull one child from the public school system after years of ongoing bullying. School was no longer a safe place, and it was impacting their mental health. This included being bullied by kids wearing pink shirts on Pink Shirt Day. So, if schools know kids with disabilities are at greater risk of bullying, what isn’t more being done to prevent this? The same reason why there is no mention of February being Inclusive Education Month – because the needs of diverse learners and kids with disabilities are often overlooked and undervalued. Growing up, I saw my autistic brother get kicked, called a freak, and bullied on a daily basis. He had no friends, dreaded going to school, and had no safe space that was free from bullying – from the school bus to the classroom to the schoolyard. Meetings with school administration only stopped the bullying in the short, not the long term. Being at a different school from him, I was powerless to help him, but felt the emotional impact of my brother being relentlessly tormented. Fast forward a few decades to when my kids entered elementary school. I hoped things had changed. They haven’t. The physical, emotional, and psychological bullying, by students and staff, is relentless. They are either the target of the bullying or are witnessing another student being bullied. New Conversations I feel a big piece that is missing in preventing bullying is the conversation about inclusive education and the gifts diverse learners bring to the classroom. Much of the conversation about disabilities is deficit-based and reiterates false biases – kids with ADHD can’t focus, autistic kids have meltdowns, kids with diverse needs are disruptive to the classroom, and more. When a child with disabilities or a diverse learner is bullied, too often the first question is, what did they do to provoke the attack? The boy with Tourette syndrome must have irritated his classmate with his ticks, or the girl with ADHD had her chair pulled out from her because she was wiggling too much. The blame is often placed on the child being bullied instead of the aggressor. It’s time to shift the conversation to how to support these amazing kids. This starts with talking about the strengths of diverse learners and kids with disabilities. It includes acknowledging and celebrating what they can teach others – empathy, curiosity, patience, a new way of looking at things. We need to break down assumptions and misconceptions that have been passed from generation to generation. These are the assumptions teachers bring to the classroom, parents and caregivers hold and pass on to their kids, which perpetuates for another generation. Wouldn’t it be great to celebrate Inclusive Education Month like we do Pink Shirt Day? Talk about the amazing accomplishments of diverse learners like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jane Austen, Thomas Edison, Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan, and more. These are the people who gave us musical masterpieces (Beethoven and Mozart), made us laugh (Jerry Seinfeld and Darryl Hannah), reinvented the world around them (Albert Einstein and Tim Burton), and brought beauty to life (Michelangelo and Vincent van Gogh). Our schools need to build up and support diverse learners and kids with disabilities and find meaningful ways to end bullying. Pink shirts are not enough.

Pink Shirt Day Ignores High Bullying Risk for Kids With Disabilities

February 23 is Pink Shirt Day and February is also Kindness Month. Both get lots of coverage at schools and in the media. The growing awareness of Pink Shirt Day has shone a spotlight on bullying. But has it moved the needle in preventing bullying? Not for diverse learners and kids with disabilities. While these students are most likely to be bullied, Pink Shirt Day ignores their high bullying risk. In 2021, a report by UNESDOC on violence and bullying in educational settings looked at the experience of children and young people with disabilities. What they found isn’t pretty. 1 in 20 children are living with a disability Girls with disabilities attending a rural school in the U.S. are 4x more likely to be bullied and boys with disabilities are 2.5x more likely compared to their non-disabled peers 3 in 4 children with emotional disabilities in elementary schools in the U.S. have been verbally abused at least once in a previous month Learners with disabilities are also subjected to psychological and physical violence from teachers with 75% of students (in the US) having been physically restrained and 50% involuntarily confined As a mom of diverse learners, I’ve seen these stats in real life. We had to pull one child from the public school system after years of ongoing bullying. School was no longer a safe place, and it was impacting their mental health. This included being bullied by kids wearing pink shirts on Pink Shirt Day. So, if schools know kids with disabilities are at greater risk of bullying, what isn’t more being done to prevent this? The same reason why there is no mention of February being Inclusive Education Month – because the needs of diverse learners and kids with disabilities are often overlooked and undervalued. Growing up, I saw my autistic brother get kicked, called a freak, and bullied on a daily basis. He had no friends, dreaded going to school, and had no safe space that was free from bullying – from the school bus to the classroom to the schoolyard. Meetings with school administration only stopped the bullying in the short, not the long term. Being at a different school from him, I was powerless to help him, but felt the emotional impact of my brother being relentlessly tormented. Fast forward a few decades to when my kids entered elementary school. I hoped things had changed. They haven’t. The physical, emotional, and psychological bullying, by students and staff, is relentless. They are either the target of the bullying or are witnessing another student being bullied. New Conversations I feel a big piece that is missing in preventing bullying is the conversation about inclusive education and the gifts diverse learners bring to the classroom. Much of the conversation about disabilities is deficit-based and reiterates false biases – kids with ADHD can’t focus, autistic kids have meltdowns, kids with diverse needs are disruptive to the classroom, and more. When a child with disabilities or a diverse learner is bullied, too often the first question is, what did they do to provoke the attack? The boy with Tourette syndrome must have irritated his classmate with his ticks, or the girl with ADHD had her chair pulled out from her because she was wiggling too much. The blame is often placed on the child being bullied instead of the aggressor. It’s time to shift the conversation to how to support these amazing kids. This starts with talking about the strengths of diverse learners and kids with disabilities. It includes acknowledging and celebrating what they can teach others – empathy, curiosity, patience, a new way of looking at things. We need to break down assumptions and misconceptions that have been passed from generation to generation. These are the assumptions teachers bring to the classroom, parents and caregivers hold and pass on to their kids, which perpetuates for another generation. Wouldn’t it be great to celebrate Inclusive Education Month like we do Pink Shirt Day? Talk about the amazing accomplishments of diverse learners like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jane Austen, Thomas Edison, Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan, and more. These are the people who gave us musical masterpieces (Beethoven and Mozart), made us laugh (Jerry Seinfeld and Darryl Hannah), reinvented the world around them (Albert Einstein and Tim Burton), and brought beauty to life (Michelangelo and Vincent van Gogh). Our schools need to build up and support diverse learners and kids with disabilities and find meaningful ways to end bullying. Pink shirts are not enough.

Why Asking for Help Can Strengthen Your Parenting Skills

When my kids were babies, I used to dread the baby groups where there was always a mom who would brag about how her child slept through the night or was potty trained over a weekend. All this while I was struggling with a child who woke every two hours for his first three years. In a world where too many people project Instagram-perfect lives, it can be hard to show the messy side of parenting. There’s enough judgment already from family and friends without pulling back the curtain and letting people see the struggles, challenges, and downright hot mess days. But here’s the thing about parenting – none of us really knows what we’re doing. It’s OK to admit we need help. Team Approach I recently was reminded that strengthening your parenting skills begins with asking for help. You see, I’m raising a teenager. Anyone who’s been there, done that is likely shaking their head, expressing sympathy. In addition to the hormones, my child also has some disabilities. These needs throw an added twist into parenting, as I’m not sure which behaviors are caused by adolescence and which are the result of ADHD. After a few challenging days, I decided to reach out for help and booked an appointment with a parenting counselor. Honestly, this was the best hour of my week. It was so liberating talking openly with someone who wasn’t there to judge, but rather offer a fresh perspective and valuable insight. One of the nuggets from our time together was the importance of building a team to support my child. We spent time looking at all the adults who play a positive role in their life – teachers, coaches, mentors, and more. The counselor reminded me that my husband and I don’t need to go this alone. Rather, we need to purposefully surround our child with trusted adults and peers who can help them navigate adolescence. In short – I didn’t need to have all the answers. I know this sounds simple, and maybe obvious for those of you with grown children, but when you’re in the thick of the rollercoaster years, it can be murky. Add the stress of scrolling through Facebook seeing the amazing things your friends’ kids are doing on a day when you’re struggling, and it gets murkier. Honesty First Here’s what I wish. I wish parents and caregivers felt empowered to share the messy days, along with the award-winning days. I wish we would normalize the parenting struggles that we’re all encountering. So how do we do this? By being honest with ourselves. For me, it’s stopping myself from saying I’m fine when someone asks how I’m doing on the rough days. It’s also about leaning into uncomfortable conversations with friends who you know are having challenges, thinking if they want to talk about it, they will (while being secretly relieved, knowing they likely won’t start the conversation). By bringing our challenges, fears, and struggles into the light, we’ll find we aren’t alone. There are others who have stumbled along this road, or are currently riding the rollercoaster. By admitting our weaknesses, we’re able to find new approaches, or at least unload. My hour with the counselor helped me find my footing and reminded me that asking for help as a parent is a sign of strength, not weakness. I’ve scheduled monthly sessions and am working to build my own team of supports. At the end of the day, there’s no easy detour around the bumpy parts of parenting. But by understanding my blind spots, and getting help navigating the road, I won’t be alone on my journey. I may never have the Instagram-perfect life, but by reaching out and asking for help, I’m able to reduce stress for me and my family.

Why Saying 'Change Takes Time' Harms Students With Disabilities

As a mom of a child with autism, and an advocate, the saying “Change Takes Time” is one I hear way too often. Honestly, it’s a cop-out for not doing the hard work needed today and sloughing it off for tomorrow. A couple of years ago, I was at a meeting with our school district’s new superintendent of education. In my report for our inclusive education committee, I raised some of the concerns we’d heard from parents. Not enough educational assistants (EAs), students only being allowed to go to school for two hours a day due to lack of supports, limited resources to help diverse learners, and more. After I spoke, the superintendent (aka top educator), waved her hands and said “Everything you’ve said isn’t new to me. I’ve heard it repeatedly over my 25-year career. Change takes time.” I was gobsmacked. Did she just say she’s heard the same concerns for 25 years and isn’t worried that little progress has been made? It was like I said the kids were complaining about the cafeteria food instead of highlighting the numerous barriers kids with disabilities face. Saying change takes time minimizes the real issues and harms kids. I should know, as I’ve had a front-row seat on the molasses of change my entire life. Less talk, more action My brother went through the special education system in the 1980s and 90s. This was a time when kids with disabilities were shuffled off into their own classrooms, only seen at recess. Forty years later, not much has changed. We’ve simply moved these kids from segregated classrooms to floundering in “inclusive” classrooms while taking away many of their key supports. While the shift towards inclusive education looks good on paper, the reality is kids with disabilities continue to fall behind. Many are pushed through the system. Those that do graduate often don’t have the basic requirements to attend post-secondary education, despite their diploma. Why? Because they didn’t get the supports needed to go from surviving to thriving. After all, change takes time. This is a mantra I’m so tired of hearing. It’s the same mantra my parents heard for decades, as they advocated for supports for my brother, who in his mid-40s is still living at home due to a shortage of assisted housing. This is not the future I want for my son or the other 10% of kids with disabilities. There have been so many reports written on the lack of supports for these kids that we could stack them to the moon. The problem is every time a new government is elected, instead of taking action on the reports written for previous governments, they strike up a committee to write a new report. Our kids are stuck in an endless loop of committees, report writing, and changes to governments. Change is needed now! So, here’s my hope. Governments and educators must stop saying change takes time and roll up their sleeves to make the change. We don’t need any more reports – we need action. Yes, I know action takes money, but not taking action is more expensive. For every $1 spent on prevention, we save $10 on treatment. Wouldn’t it be great to have a meeting with the superintendent of education and hear how kids with disabilities are being supported instead of brushing off real issues by saying change takes time?  The time for change is now. As a mom, I will continue fighting for my child and pushing for the change we need today. Change that will make education truly inclusive by ensuring all kids with disabilities not only have a seat in the classroom but have the supports needed for them to actively participate. The next time you hear the phrase change takes time, I encourage you to ask what changes are happening today. Even a small change can make a big difference.

Why Saying 'Change Takes Time' Harms Students With Disabilities

As a mom of a child with autism, and an advocate, the saying “Change Takes Time” is one I hear way too often. Honestly, it’s a cop-out for not doing the hard work needed today and sloughing it off for tomorrow. A couple of years ago, I was at a meeting with our school district’s new superintendent of education. In my report for our inclusive education committee, I raised some of the concerns we’d heard from parents. Not enough educational assistants (EAs), students only being allowed to go to school for two hours a day due to lack of supports, limited resources to help diverse learners, and more. After I spoke, the superintendent (aka top educator), waved her hands and said “Everything you’ve said isn’t new to me. I’ve heard it repeatedly over my 25-year career. Change takes time.” I was gobsmacked. Did she just say she’s heard the same concerns for 25 years and isn’t worried that little progress has been made? It was like I said the kids were complaining about the cafeteria food instead of highlighting the numerous barriers kids with disabilities face. Saying change takes time minimizes the real issues and harms kids. I should know, as I’ve had a front-row seat on the molasses of change my entire life. Less talk, more action My brother went through the special education system in the 1980s and 90s. This was a time when kids with disabilities were shuffled off into their own classrooms, only seen at recess. Forty years later, not much has changed. We’ve simply moved these kids from segregated classrooms to floundering in “inclusive” classrooms while taking away many of their key supports. While the shift towards inclusive education looks good on paper, the reality is kids with disabilities continue to fall behind. Many are pushed through the system. Those that do graduate often don’t have the basic requirements to attend post-secondary education, despite their diploma. Why? Because they didn’t get the supports needed to go from surviving to thriving. After all, change takes time. This is a mantra I’m so tired of hearing. It’s the same mantra my parents heard for decades, as they advocated for supports for my brother, who in his mid-40s is still living at home due to a shortage of assisted housing. This is not the future I want for my son or the other 10% of kids with disabilities. There have been so many reports written on the lack of supports for these kids that we could stack them to the moon. The problem is every time a new government is elected, instead of taking action on the reports written for previous governments, they strike up a committee to write a new report. Our kids are stuck in an endless loop of committees, report writing, and changes to governments. Change is needed now! So, here’s my hope. Governments and educators must stop saying change takes time and roll up their sleeves to make the change. We don’t need any more reports – we need action. Yes, I know action takes money, but not taking action is more expensive. For every $1 spent on prevention, we save $10 on treatment. Wouldn’t it be great to have a meeting with the superintendent of education and hear how kids with disabilities are being supported instead of brushing off real issues by saying change takes time?  The time for change is now. As a mom, I will continue fighting for my child and pushing for the change we need today. Change that will make education truly inclusive by ensuring all kids with disabilities not only have a seat in the classroom but have the supports needed for them to actively participate. The next time you hear the phrase change takes time, I encourage you to ask what changes are happening today. Even a small change can make a big difference.

Why I Want to Break Up With Public Education (and Can’t)

I come from a public-school-educated family. Growing up, I only knew two kids who went to private school and that was in the Toronto area, far away from my hometown. So, when it came time to enroll my kids, I never considered anything other than the public educational system. That is until this system became the biggest hurdle to my child’s success. And I decided, like any bad relationship, it was time for a breakup. Or at least a partial breakup. I now have a foot in each door — one kid in public school and the other in private school. Action Not Words As an advocate for kids with disabilities and diverse learners, it wasn’t an easy decision to pull my oldest out of the public school system. I’ve fought long and hard in this system to educate staff and administration on the gifts these kids bring to schools. I’ve advocated for my kids to get the (minimal) support they need. And I’ve spent countless hours in meetings with other families and administrators in hopes of making inclusion a reality instead of a word that gets thrown around. And I’m continuing to fight. Hard. But I also no longer trust the public system to keep my child safe – physically or mentally.  For us, the tipping point was years of bullying with very little preventative action. Pink shirts and anti-bullying slogans don’t stop kids from coming home with trauma to their bodies and minds. It was time to put my child’s safety first. Fast forward to the orientation day at my child’s new private school. As the parents were mingling while their kids were on a tour, I struck up a conversation with a mom about her decision to enroll her child in private school. Turns out we had identical stories – our kids had been bullied for years, with little intervention or support. All while their self-esteem whittled away. We chose a private school not just for their smaller class sizes (less room for bullies to hide) but also for their commitment to truly providing a safe and welcoming environment. From our new school’s website, to conversations with staff, to watching their interactions with our child, it’s clear they not only talk about kindness, but live it in their day-to-day actions. My story about pulling my child from public education to keep them safe is not unique. Sadly, this story is playing out in homes across the country. Cultural Shift While I’m so grateful that one of my children is in a safe environment, I feel like I’ve had to make Sophie’s Choice. While I’d love to be able to afford to pay for both kids to go to a private school, that’s not possible. Although my son has an educational assistant, and more in-classroom support, I still worry about his safety as he gets older. The supports he does have are the result of so many hours of meetings, emails, and working with his team to advocate for his needs. Listen, I know that public education is limited in the supports provided to kids and that the system is stacked up against kids with disabilities and diverse learners. But what I don’t get, is why public education is unable to provide safe spaces for these kids. Or at the very least, show leadership in creating a culture where kindness is the norm, not bullying. Through my professional work in strategic planning, I also realize it takes a long time to change the culture of organizations. But when a parent has to choose between having trauma inflicted on their child on a regular basis, or dipping into savings or a line of credit to ensure their child is safe, there’s something wrong with the system. This is not the end, but rather the beginning of my breakup with public education. Like all breakups, I have mixed emotions, raw moments, and some teary eyes. I also see a brighter future than I ever could’ve imagined for my oldest child. I will keep fighting for my youngest child who remains in public education, and for the health and safety of other kids. I’m hopeful one day the system will change. Until then, I will sleep better at night knowing my oldest is in a safe and nurturing environment.

4 Back-to-School Advocacy Tips for Parents of Kids With Disabilities

Wouldn’t it be great if you could send your child back to school in September, trusting they would get the support they need to reach their full potential? Or at least make it through the day. While many parents of diverse learners wish for this, sadly with overstretched education systems, this isn’t the reality. Every August, I get myself ready for a new school year. A new year of transitions for my child, new routine and new round of advocacy. With a new classroom teacher, and yet more decreases to in-school supports, the beginning of the school year is often fraught with anxiety, emotions and stress — for both me and my child. Why does a new school year have to be such a battle? Too often schools have to wait until a child is struggling, melting down or in crisis before they receive the support they need (and deserve). This despite all the diagnoses, letters from healthcare professionals and therapists, and funding designations. Having a few years of bumpy September transitions under my belt, here are four tips to help you sharpen your advocacy skills for a new school year. 1. Start early. Don’t wait until school starts to have a meeting to discuss your child’s supports. Most schools are open one to two weeks before classes resume, with principals and teachers getting prepared. Reach out and ask to meet with the principal and, if possible, the new classroom teacher. Just like we frontload our kids to help them prepare for new situations, it’s important to frontload the school team. Let them know how your child is doing, any challenges they’ve had over the summer, and how best to support the transition in September. For my child, September is extremely challenging. The change in routine and way too many new transitions often result in meltdowns. When he has an EA to help him navigate all the changes, he finds his footing in a couple of weeks. But without proper support, the meltdowns are frequent and it takes weeks for him to get settled. 2. Help create a roadmap. In my meeting with the school team, I talk about the transition pieces he struggles with and the impact it has on not only him, but his classmates. While he may be the only one screaming, he’s definitely not the only student struggling. Often, the transition pieces help others in the classroom adjust. Some transition pieces I recommend for kids who get overwhelmed quickly are delaying the class entering the school or going first (so they aren’t trying to navigate a busy hallway), not rushing transitions (letting students have some space to get into the new routine) and checking in on students who need extra support to see how they’re doing before they get overwhelmed. 3. Make connections. Many diverse learners and kids with disabilities spend the summer months getting extra support. This can include tutoring, therapy (ex. speech, OT, physio), counseling, and more. Sending an email to the principal outlining the summer supports can also help with the transition. If possible, have your summer team write a letter summarizing the work that was done, any challenges or struggles as well as any successes. Our child receives private speech therapy throughout the summer. Knowing there’s limited in-school therapy, I have our private therapist summarize the sounds that need to be worked on so the EA can hopefully help at school. It also helps the classroom teacher have a quick summary so she knows what to expect and is aware of any speech challenges. The key to these letters is to be as concise as possible (bullet points are great). They shouldn’t repeat what’s in the IEP (Individual Education Plan) but rather give a snapshot of current gains and struggles. 4. Be present. The most important thing to help your child succeed is to be present. This doesn’t mean you have to be at the school every day, but rather you play an active role. This can include: requesting a meeting with the classroom teacher in mid to late September to check-in on how your child is transitioning picking up your child from school once a week so the teacher sees you and is able to have casual conversation writing a thank you email to the classroom teacher – saying how your child is doing, mentioning anything they are enjoying (start with positive) as well as struggles volunteering in the school for field trips or in-class helper (if allowed with COVID restrictions) talking to your child to see how they’re doing and truly listening to what they’re saying and not saying checking in with therapists, tutors and other people who work with your child to get their impressions If you have concerns, don’t wait to address them. It’s much easier to make adjustments early on versus waiting until a problem escalates. While I’d love to put my child on the bus in September and not have to worry, our experience has taught me the importance of advocating early. By taking the time to frontload the transition, while developing positive and respectful relationships, I’m helping not only my child, but others who struggle with a new school year. And with all the changes in the world around us, our kids all need a little bit of extra support.

Embracing the Gifts Students With Autism and ADHD Bring to the Table

It amazes me that in 2021 there’s more focus on the deficits versus the gifts diverse learners bring to the classroom. Despite there being so much talk about embracing diversity, it rarely includes neurodiversity. Growing up, I was fortunate to go to public schools that had many programs for neurodiverse students. Even though they were segregated in separate classrooms, which thankfully has changed, I still learned many lessons from my fellow students. Patience. Compassion. Curiosity. I truly believe my interactions with diverse learners were a key part of my own educational process. Fast forward a few decades, and I find myself questioning if our education system has yet to truly embrace the gifts of diverse learners. Classroom benefits As a mom of a child with autism, I am constantly advocating for supports for my child. Supports that will not only benefit my child but other kids in the classroom. You see, many of the modifications that are needed for neurodiverse kids are modifications that others also need. But since they don’t come with a designation (and the associated funding) their needs are often overlooked. One simple modification is light covers. A typical classroom has a series of harsh fluorescent lights, which can be pretty intense. While it’s pretty easy and affordable to install light covers to soften the glare, this rarely happens without a parent’s advocacy. Even then, it often takes a diverse learner and a doctor’s note to make this happen. But here’s the deal – these light covers also help kids who have sensory issues, migraines, or are just bothered by sitting under harsh lights all day. In terms of the gifts diverse learners bring, I’ve found that the behavior adults may focus on is accepted by other students without question. Looking at a child with ADHD, the movement breaks, wiggle chairs and need to release energy is that child’s norm. Often the other students in the classroom pay little or no attention to this need to move. As for those extra movement breaks – they help all students release some of that extra energy. Have you tried sitting behind a desk all day? It can be confining! Many neurodiverse kids also bring a unique perspective to classroom learning. I know many kids with autism who are huge fans of Minecraft. To help them connect with the classroom lesson, a teacher may make a link to Minecraft, something that interests them. And since Minecraft is such a popular game, it will also help the other Minecraft fans sit up and listen. Life skills In terms of the patience, compassion and curiosity I learned as a child, the diverse learners also taught me to slow down, be calm and listen. I learned my way wasn’t the only way and that we all have our own unique learning styles. These early learnings have helped me a lot in my training, speaking and teaching. I know I need to use a variety of tools to make a connection based on the unique needs of participants (even if I don’t know their needs). This includes a mix of storytelling, experiential learning and case studies. I also know that going slow is key to making progress. I leave space for conversations and reflections instead of just plowing ahead with the material. Community approach For our schools to truly embrace the gifts diverse learners bring to the classroom, we need the entire school community to be supportive. This means parents, caregivers, teachers and support staff, not just the kids. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for parents to request “that child” not be in their child’s classroom or question why the child is even in the school in the first place. They see diverse learners as a hindrance to their own child’s education. When these conversations continue at the dinner table at home, the judgments and negative assumptions about diverse learners are picked up by kids and perpetuated. Too often, schools feel uncomfortable calling out these biases and leaning into real conversations about diversity. While pink shirt day and rainbows are important, so is celebrating the gifts kids with autism, ADHD and other neurodiversities bring, instead of letting the challenges dominate the conversation. I’m not wanting another color shirt day, but rather conversations about neurodiversity to be as common as conversations about bullying, sexuality and race. I want schools to take an honest look at the role they’re playing in perpetuating the stigma versus breaking it down. I also want parents, caregivers and educators to celebrate the gifts diverse learners bring to the school community. Gifts that other kids recognize, but that often get overshadowed by the challenges. By doing this, we will build a community that honours and respects all students. And students will gain important life lessons that will strengthen their character and create a more inclusive future for all.

Embracing the Gifts Students With Autism and ADHD Bring to the Table

It amazes me that in 2021 there’s more focus on the deficits versus the gifts diverse learners bring to the classroom. Despite there being so much talk about embracing diversity, it rarely includes neurodiversity. Growing up, I was fortunate to go to public schools that had many programs for neurodiverse students. Even though they were segregated in separate classrooms, which thankfully has changed, I still learned many lessons from my fellow students. Patience. Compassion. Curiosity. I truly believe my interactions with diverse learners were a key part of my own educational process. Fast forward a few decades, and I find myself questioning if our education system has yet to truly embrace the gifts of diverse learners. Classroom benefits As a mom of a child with autism, I am constantly advocating for supports for my child. Supports that will not only benefit my child but other kids in the classroom. You see, many of the modifications that are needed for neurodiverse kids are modifications that others also need. But since they don’t come with a designation (and the associated funding) their needs are often overlooked. One simple modification is light covers. A typical classroom has a series of harsh fluorescent lights, which can be pretty intense. While it’s pretty easy and affordable to install light covers to soften the glare, this rarely happens without a parent’s advocacy. Even then, it often takes a diverse learner and a doctor’s note to make this happen. But here’s the deal – these light covers also help kids who have sensory issues, migraines, or are just bothered by sitting under harsh lights all day. In terms of the gifts diverse learners bring, I’ve found that the behavior adults may focus on is accepted by other students without question. Looking at a child with ADHD, the movement breaks, wiggle chairs and need to release energy is that child’s norm. Often the other students in the classroom pay little or no attention to this need to move. As for those extra movement breaks – they help all students release some of that extra energy. Have you tried sitting behind a desk all day? It can be confining! Many neurodiverse kids also bring a unique perspective to classroom learning. I know many kids with autism who are huge fans of Minecraft. To help them connect with the classroom lesson, a teacher may make a link to Minecraft, something that interests them. And since Minecraft is such a popular game, it will also help the other Minecraft fans sit up and listen. Life skills In terms of the patience, compassion and curiosity I learned as a child, the diverse learners also taught me to slow down, be calm and listen. I learned my way wasn’t the only way and that we all have our own unique learning styles. These early learnings have helped me a lot in my training, speaking and teaching. I know I need to use a variety of tools to make a connection based on the unique needs of participants (even if I don’t know their needs). This includes a mix of storytelling, experiential learning and case studies. I also know that going slow is key to making progress. I leave space for conversations and reflections instead of just plowing ahead with the material. Community approach For our schools to truly embrace the gifts diverse learners bring to the classroom, we need the entire school community to be supportive. This means parents, caregivers, teachers and support staff, not just the kids. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for parents to request “that child” not be in their child’s classroom or question why the child is even in the school in the first place. They see diverse learners as a hindrance to their own child’s education. When these conversations continue at the dinner table at home, the judgments and negative assumptions about diverse learners are picked up by kids and perpetuated. Too often, schools feel uncomfortable calling out these biases and leaning into real conversations about diversity. While pink shirt day and rainbows are important, so is celebrating the gifts kids with autism, ADHD and other neurodiversities bring, instead of letting the challenges dominate the conversation. I’m not wanting another color shirt day, but rather conversations about neurodiversity to be as common as conversations about bullying, sexuality and race. I want schools to take an honest look at the role they’re playing in perpetuating the stigma versus breaking it down. I also want parents, caregivers and educators to celebrate the gifts diverse learners bring to the school community. Gifts that other kids recognize, but that often get overshadowed by the challenges. By doing this, we will build a community that honours and respects all students. And students will gain important life lessons that will strengthen their character and create a more inclusive future for all.