Category Archives: Teacher Stuff

10 Keys to Success in Working with Special Needs Parents

IMG_4722Every now and then, I come across articles giving suggestions for interacting with parents of special needs children.  Usually, they’re written by an educator or a special needs parent and are well-meaning.  But I’ve noticed that they’re usually missing something.  Either they don’t have a clue what special needs parents go through or need.  Or they don’t have a clue what the real life of a teacher is like or the precarious position they are operating from when advocating for students and advising parents.  So, the suggestions are incomplete because they’re either unrealistic or coming from a place of not knowing.

I’ve had the unique experience of sitting on both sides of the IEP table.  I’m both a veteran teacher and the parent of a high needs child with nonverbal autism.  And that gives me insight that’s both helpful as well as painful.  It’s difficult to sit in on an IEP now – either my own child’s or someone else’s – knowing what I know.  I want to jump in and say things that might not be welcome.  I want to fight for services I know there is little money for.  I want to bang my head on the table, knowing all too well how what I’m hearing will come across to the child’s parent.  I want to lash out, because I know when I’m being “handled.” I know, because I’ve been – and am – in their shoes, both the educators’ and the parents’.

Here is what I wish my colleagues knew about how to forge positive relationships with parents of special needs students:

  1. Assume nothing. Over the years, we meet a lot of parent types.  And like everybody else, we tend to categorize them.  We quickly infer whether they have an education, are likely to help their children with homework, or if they know anything about their child’s disability.  We then react or condescend accordingly.  Be careful about that.  I’ve met highly educated parents who know little about their child’s differences.  And I’ve known poor parents with terrible grammar and threadbare clothing who’ve researched their child’s condition tirelessly. People will surprise you, so make no assumptions based on appearance, community standing, or diction.
  2. Understand that the child you work with isn’t the child they live with. You’re seeing just a snapshot of that child in an environment that can be stressful, unfamiliar, and unforgiving.  The child you believe to be distant may be quite loving at home.  The child you believe won’t communicate at all may very well communicate with his siblings.  Remember that no one is the same in all settings. Not even you.  Once you learn what a child is capable of outside of school, work to create a similar comfort level in the school.
  3. Give them a chance to talk. Special needs parenting can be a lonely affair.  While friends are posting about baseball wins and science fair prizes, our children’s successes aren’t easily appreciated by all.  But parents of children with disabilities have the same need to brag on our children, to voice our fears, and to soak up all the little stories you can share with us.  It matters.  And this meeting with you may be the only chance they have all year.
  4. Ask for their insight. Just because they might not be fluent in educational or therapeutic terminology (or they may be), it doesn’t mean they don’t have unique insight into their child.  Listening to how the child functions at home and in the community can inform how you approach instruction, behavior management, etc.  There’s no lab quite like living with a child with a disability.  Respect their experience, and benefit from it when you can.
  5. Reward their child. Often, special needs kids aren’t recognized in front of their peers and their community.  This is defeating to everyone. The students need their accomplishments celebrated. Even if they aren’t cognitively capable of understanding the award being given, everyone can benefit from applause now and then. Peers need to learn to appreciate different kinds of success.  Parents need a moment to feel proud and take pictures.  Our communities can always use a smile.  Don’t forget your special needs students when it comes time to celebrate.  You may have to come up with creative and unusual rewards.  But do it.  And do it up big.
  6. Give the gentle nudge, and then walk the first step with them. If you want the parent to register with an autism center, special needs athletics, or a parent support group, take it one step further beyond merely mentioning it.  Facilitate an introduction, if possible.  Send a link by email.  Ask for a flyer and personally hand it to them.  Sometimes the daily life of a special needs parent is overwhelming.  You intend to do things, but other stuff gets in the way.  If you can, help them get started in things you think might benefit them and their family.  It might be just what they need but don’t quite have the energy to initiate.
  7. Offer support services for their other children. Alicia Arenas gave a wonderful TED Talk about “glass children” – the children of special needs siblings.  These kids have their own needs that are often unmet.  They may go years without ever being able to speak to anyone who knows where they’re coming from.  Start a support group for siblings of disabled students right in your school.  Give them a place to share their experiences.  This will support the entire family and earn you brownie points with parents who worry just as much about their typical kids – but, by necessity, must focus more attention on their siblings.
  8. Surprise them with positive emails and text messages. It’s funny how many school districts frown upon this sort of thing.  But they’re foolish to do so.  There is nothing that will put a parent in your corner quicker than to send random positive pictures and texts home.  I don’t have time to talk on the phone.  But a text in the middle of my day showing him participating in circle time with a “He did ____ today!” melts my heart to goo.  A teacher or aide taking time to do that convinces me he’s loved – which will go a long way to forging positive parent-school relationships.  Learn how to use the little emoticons and apps that will cover other kids’ faces from the photo and text happy things about your students.  It’s a sound investment.
  9. Help their peers to interact with and understand their children. Teach acceptance.  Talk about differences.  Start a lunch buddy program.  Read stories aloud that will foster empathy.  Push, cajole, and fight for the emotional well-being of their children in school.  Not only will this do much to increase parents’ confidence in the school, it will have a direct impact on the child’s school performance.
  10. Tell them the truth. If you know that services they want for their child will not be approved by higher-ups, do not lie and say they are unavailable in your school.  Technically, there is no such thing as “not available” – if a student with a disability requires it to learn.  Tell the parent to call for an IEP meeting, make your recommendations to the staffing specialist/ESE director/principal, etc., and make the higher-ups address the request.  Yes, advocating for students and not incurring the wrath of administrators is a balancing act.  But by playing a part in dishonesty, you are ultimately perpetuating the cycle of students in your district not getting needed services.  And that’s not why you became a teacher.

IEPs and some interactions with special needs parents aren’t always fun.  Lack of funding and awareness are to blame – although the system pits parents and schools against one another.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  My son’s IEP team laughs, shares cute stories, celebrates successes, speaks honestly about expectations and struggles, and generally functions beautifully.  But that didn’t happen magically or overnight.  In the end, positive school-parent relationships are key.  Invest in that, and you invest in both your students as well as your own happiness as a professional.

Best Picture Books about Autism

A few weeks ago, I was asked if I might be willing to come in and talk to a group of kindergarteners about autism. Of course, this isn’t just any group of kindergarteners. It’s my autistic son’s peers. So, I wanted a read aloud or two, and I wanted them to be good. Being a school librarian, I know that there are an awful lot of children’s books out there. So, I asked the most qualified people I know –my readers — to offer their suggestions on my Facebook page. I got a lot of them.

I couldn’t afford to buy them all, so I ordered several that seemed to fit the age group and read them all in one sitting. No, I didn’t like all of them. I’ve included only the ones here I’m recommending. Simply because I don’t find negative reviews useful to an audience of readers who already have limited time. I tend to shy away from the preachy ones, believing that children are much savvier readers (and listeners) than we give them credit for. And I like books that are a bit subtle and lend themselves to fruitful discussion. Because that’s where you reach hearts and minds.

1. Looking after Louis by Lesley Ely, illustrated by Polly Dunbar

lookingLooking after Louis is the story of a little boy, Louis, who is autistic and is a student in a regular elementary classroom. His friend, an unnamed little girl, narrates the story as she and her classmates try to understand Louis and some of his unusual behaviors. Louis repeats what others say. He colors pictures that others don’t understand. He runs about through the children’s soccer game. Though the children are sweet and generally accepting of Louis, they do begin to notice that Louis is allowed to do some things they aren’t – and point it out. But then a moment comes along in which everyone recognizes Louis’s effort to communicate something special to him. That leads another child to invite Louis to play with him, but it isn’t recess. His teacher, understanding that this is a teachable moment, allows them to go outside with Louis’s aide. The little girl at first resents what she views as special treatment, until her teachers gives her a moment to consider her opinion. Ultimately, she decides that sometimes it’s okay to break rules and expectations for special people – thus supporting the idea of inclusion in the regular classroom. It’s okay that some things are different for students who require it, but everyone can be friends.

I really liked this little story, mainly because the range of emotions for these children is honest. At times, they are encouraging of Louis. Sometimes, they are bewildered. And others they are a little resentful of what they view as unfair. However, because of their teacher’s open and accepting handling of Louis, they learn about the true spirit of inclusion. This would make a great read aloud that could lead to a productive conversation about differences. Instead of telling, this book shows what a tolerant and welcoming classroom should look like – a point in its favor and one that distinguishes it from preachier special needs children’s literature. Recommended.


2. Andy and His Yellow Frisbee by Mary Thompson

andyAndy and His Yellow Frisbee is the story of Sarah, a new girl at Andy and Rosie’s school. Sarah has noticed Andy, who is autistic, each day at recess, spinning the same yellow Frisbee over and over. She decides to try to connect to Andy by inviting him to spin her pink Frisbee, which she has clearly brought from home in an effort to engage him. Andy’s sister Rosie, playing soccer nearby, faithfully watches over him. She becomes concerned when she sees Sarah sit down next to Andy, knowing that others do not always understand him. She leaves the game and comes over to observe them, seeing Sarah’s gentle effort to interact with Andy and her acceptance that perhaps he’ll choose to do so on another day. Sarah and Rosie decide to play Frisbee together.

I loved this subtle story of acceptance, probably because Sarah reminds me of my daughter. Between Sarah’s effort and Rose’s calm but protective wait-and-see, this story gently conveys to typical children that there is no magic formula for interacting with someone who is autistic. What’s important is to realize that effort does make a difference, even if there isn’t an immediate reward. Andy did notice Sarah’s Frisbee offering, though he continued to play by himself. Sarah’s acceptance of that is beautiful and will serve as a model for typical students wanting to interact with their autistic peers, but unsure of how to do so. Andy and His Yellow Frisbee isn’t what I would choose as a first read aloud when introducing the concept of autism to typical students, because its focus is narrower. But I think it’s ideal as a follow-up later to reinforce lessons on differences and to help students learn to engage with their autistic peers. It is also a lovely story for protective siblings of children on the spectrum. Recommended.

3. Ian’s Walk: A Story about Autism by Laurie Lears, illustrated by Karen Ritz

ianIan’s Walk is the story of siblings Julie, Tara, and Ian – who is autistic – and their walk to the park. Julie initially doesn’t want Ian to tag along, but gives in when he whines. Her mother admonishes Julie that she must be sure to keep a close eye on Ian. As they head out on their walk, Julie observes the different ways that Ian hears, sees, smells, and feels things. Even though she makes these observations, she finds herself frustrated with the inconveniences of Ian’s differences and loses her patience. When the girls stop to get pizza, Tara reminds Julie to watch Ian. But Julie is distracted and suddenly realizes that Ian has disappeared. The sisters race about, frantic to find their vulnerable little brother. Then Julie focuses and decides to think and experience their surroundings like Ian – where would he be? Sure enough, that’s how she finds him, making the big bell at the park gong back and forth. Julie is so grateful he is safe that she now has a new perspective on their walk back. This time, she allows Ian to enjoy the walk as he wants to experience it, allowing him to stop and immerse himself in the sights, smells, and sensations he loves.

Ian’s Walk is a beautiful story with a simple plot, but one that conveys the complex sibling relationships inherent in special needs families. It’s an obvious story to share with siblings of autistic and special needs children (or even in support groups for such). But because the story also describes so well many aspects of autism and sensory integration disorder, it would also be a great introductory read aloud for the topic. My 7-year-old loved this story and recognized both her brother in the story as well as her own emotions in it. Recommended.

4. My Friend with Autism, Enhanced Edition with CD by Beverly Bishop, illustrated by Craig Bishop

myfriendwithautismMy Friend with Autism isn’t a story so much as a narration by a peer, who tells readers about his friend, who is autistic. It begins with an explanation of all the things his friend is good at – hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, being smart, etc. For each thing his friend is good at comes an explanation of how that affects the friend (examples: extra-sensitive ears that hear before others but cause him to sometimes cover his ears). This part is a positive outlook on autism, but matter-of-fact. There is a shift about halfway through when the narrator explains that – while his friend is good at many things – there are some things that are difficult (talking, understanding feelings, sharing, etc.) What’s good about this part is how the narrator makes suggestions of what can be done to help the friend when these things occur.

My Friend with Autism is a practical and positive introduction to autism for typical students. It treats autism as something children shouldn’t worry about and conveys to them that they really can be friends with their autistic classmates. This enhanced edition comes with a guide for adults that includes factual information about autism as well as tips for working with children on the spectrum. The CD includes coloring sheets of pages from the book for children to enjoy after the read aloud. I would suggest this book as a first read aloud for an inclusion classroom to be followed by one or more of the other stories in this list.

If you have shared any of these wonderful books with children or students in your life, please comment below.  I’d love to hear from you.  :)

Note to publishers and authors: I’m happy to update this list over time, should you wish to send me a review copy. I’m interested only in picture books. I simply don’t have the time right now to read and review novels. Send queries to: flappinessis@gmail.com.   

 

DIY Teacher Appreciation Gifts

fanta

“You are a Fanta-stic teacher!”

During the course of Teacher Appreciation Week, here are some of the charming and and creative gifts I’ve received.  These were all made by a member of our staff, Ms. Amy Getchell, and a parent volunteer, Mrs. Dawn Busey — as well as students from our school.  They are simple gifts, but they meant a lot to our staff.  All of these can be easily accomplished, and most would also make sweet gifts for your child to give his/her teacher any time of the year.

If you have any pictures of DIY Teacher Appreciation Week gifts, please share.  :)

"Thank you for quenching our thirst for knowledge."

“Thank you for quenching our thirst for knowledge.”

 

 

For school office staff and instructional assistants:  "Without you, our school would have fallen to pieces."

For school office staff and instructional assistants: “Without you, our school would have fallen to pieces.”

Decorated Doors for Every Teacher

Decorated Doors for Every Teacher

Decorated Doors for Every Teacher

Decorated Doors for Every Teacher

"Thank you for all the Extra work you do."

“Thank you for all the Extra work you do.”

Smores1

“We need S’more teachers like you.”
W/ heating instructions on the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A highlighter for "making us bright", paper clips for "holding everything together", pencils for "being just 'write', and a charming duct tape pen flower.

A highlighter for “making us bright”, paper clips for “holding everything together”, pencils for “being just ‘write’, and a charming duct tape pen flowe 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All  tucked into a cute bag.

All tucked into a cute bag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Love You. Drive Carefully.

drive carefully

This is an essay I wrote for my students.  At the end of each year, I printed it out onto card stock bookmarks and gave them to my classes on the last day of school.  

“I love you.  Drive carefully.”  These are the words etched on a cheap key ring that my Granny put into my Christmas stocking more than 20 years ago.  It was one of those $1.99 bargains that can be purchased from cheap mail-order catalogs.  At 16, I thought it was corny and probably rolled my eyes, but I dutifully attached it to my key ring.  Years went by, and it somehow made its way into the kitchen junk drawer.

A few years after my grandmother died, I was rifling through that kitchen drawer when I came across the now-broken key ring.  Now, having young people in my life that I care about, I realized the enormity of the statement.  I love you.  Drive carefully.

It wasn’t a reminder to use my turn signals or to stay one car length for every 10 miles per hour.  It wasn’t just about driving.  It was a plea:  “Please be safe.  I love you, and I cannot bear for anything to happen to you.  Yes, live your life.  You are growing up and behind the wheel now.  I cannot always be there to protect you.  So, please be careful.  You are precious to me.”

I took that key ring and put it on a ribbon.  I hang it on my rear view mirror now as a reminder to me that the way I live my life has an effect on others.  Just because I am not feeling overly careful one day, it does not give me the right to be foolish with my life.  There are others who care about me, need me, and would be hurt deeply if I were hurt or hurt others.  Every now and then, I look at that key ring and smile.  It is a constant reminder.

The school year has ended, and you are now leaving my little classroom.  However, know that as you go, you have left someone whom you have touched with your life – someone who cares very much about you.  Your face and smile tug on my heartstrings.  I want you to lead a happy, healthy, and successful life.  I want you to have all the wonderful things you dream of.

But, unfortunately, sometimes we make rash and foolish decisions.  We choose to follow those who do not have our best interests at heart.  We get mad and roar away in a car.  We choose what is easy — rather than what is right.  And we pay for those moments with our futures — and sometimes our lives.

As you leave here today, please remember:

I love you.  Drive carefully.