Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
As the start to the new school year approaches, those familiar feelings begin to creep up. There are mixed feelings. For parents of kids on the autism spectrum, the mixed feelings involve fear, anxiety, dread, excitement, and hope. With some pre-planning, parents may be able to address the negative feelings and focus on the positive hopes for the upcoming year.
First, it is important to recognize that a spectrum of feelings is healthy and expected. Whether new to the educational journey or experienced after many years, parents are concerned about how their child will handle a new teacher, a new place, academic expectations, sensory issues, transitions, and social interactions. Feeling slightly nervous or downright terrified are all normal responses for parents at any stage after their child has been diagnosed.
Just like children on the spectrum do better when they know what to expect and have a plan of action, so do parents and teachers. Before the kids even step foot into the classroom on the first day of school, parents can take steps to prepare their children and the teacher(s) for the transition into a new year. Following are some suggestions to ease everyone into a new situation and set up a parent-teacher-student partnership that (hopefully) ensures a successful year.
- Write a letter to the teacher. Emails are often the easiest means of communicating. Sometimes a typed or handwritten letter, delivered to the teacher prior to the first day of school, is a better way to make an introduction beyond the quick face-to-face early meeting. Tell them about your child. How does he learn best? What does your child like? What are his strengths? Are there incentives that work to keep her motivated or focused on a task? How can the teacher recognize, and help stave off or minimize, an impending meltdown? If the teacher is uninformed about the autism spectrum, be sure they have access to basic information to guide them. Offer yourself as an expert on your child, but also offer to guide them to any resources that you both feel may assist with classroom expectations and transitions between activities. There is a lot more understanding of autism than ever before, but that does not mean you should expect your child's teacher to be an expert in autism or educating students on the spectrum.
- Keep communication lines open. Making sure the teacher truly understands that you want information is critical. Not all parents want details about daily hiccups or even major successes. If you want details, let the teacher know that is what you hope for, without proclaiming it as an expectation. Let the teacher know whether email or phone conversations work best for you. If your protective instincts sometimes come off as hostile, let them know that, too! Sometimes our hypervigilance can be negatively received by those who do not know us, or our intentions, well. Until your child's teacher gets to know them and you, it is difficult for them to interpret how you will take criticism, suggestions, questions, or praise.
-Be prepared for opportunities to make changes when a plan is not working. An IEP or 504 may have detailed plans and expectations, but sometimes circumstances change, personalities clash, or new challenges arise. If you and your child's teacher have a healthy relationship, it is often easy to make a minor adjustment and see if the small tweak has the desired effect. You may find that a big production involving the special education coordinator, school psychologist, and the complete team is not always necessary.
While not every educational experience is harmonious, there are steps we can take as parents to help ease the transition into a new school year. Small gestures make a big difference for teachers who are often overwhelmed with an entire classroom of new personalities. If you can find a positive way to make you and your child stand out before the new year's chaos begins, many of the worries and fears can be greatly reduced.