Letter to My Special Needs Child’s First Teacher

Two years ago, my husband and I took our daughter school supply shopping for the first time.  Armed with list in hand, we searched for the requisite items, allowing her to pick out the colors and designs.  We were nervous about her first day.  I was emotional, wavering between excitement and pride and fear of putting my precious little girl into someone else’s hands.   We talked it up to her and made a big deal out it, allowing her to choose a special first day outfit and hair clips.  Then we walked her in to her classroom, helped her find her cubby and seat, kissed her goodbye, and left.  I teared up as I left, like many mothers – but knew in my heart all would be well.  And at the end of her day, we delighted in hearing from her about each and every new experience.

Last night, we made preparations again for her little brother’s first day of school.  We went to the store to buy school supplies.  Only, this time, we picked them out ourselves. My son, mostly nonverbal and autistic, doesn’t have an opinion about his lunchbox.  He doesn’t know his colors yet, nor does he express a preference.  He doesn’t even understand that he is going to school today.  This experience of The First Day of School is altogether different for us.  And at the end of his first day, he will not be able to tell us what he thought or how he felt.

In a couple of hours, we will-supplies in hand- walk him into a very big building.  In it will be hundreds of children who can follow directions, feed themselves with a spoon, are potty trained, and can – if frightened or in pain – express their needs.  My son cannot.  Yet I will be placing his tiny, just shy of three-year-old hand into someone else’s – someone who does not yet know and love him.  Someone who will not be able to understand the few words he has and the peculiar ways he attempts to communicate.  Someone who will not know how to soothe him when he inevitably gets lost in confusion and frustration.  I cannot begin to convey the bone deep terror I am feeling right now.  He is so little and helpless.  And it is such a very big bad world out there.

I met you last week at his IEP.  I tried to use every instinct I had as a teacher to get a feel for you.  My instincts tell me I made the right choice.  You weren’t assigned to him by chance.  Teachers know all about homework, and I did mine.  Yes, I shamelessly queried every connection I have made in my years in the school system to find just the right classroom for him.  You are rumored to be the best.  I can tell you that some mighty fine people whom I like and respect think very well of you.

Having done that, I now have to step back and let you do your job.  I have to trust in your experience and love for special little ones like mine.  Let me assure you that, though I feel confident in my choice of you as a teacher, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.  For, somewhere in your classroom – is a cubby with the name of the little boy who encompasses my entire world.

And though I am trying, there really are no words.

As a teacher, I know what you need from me.  I have been where you are.  And I want you to know I plan to support you.   I will take into consideration that you are a person – not a saint.  I know all too well how bone tired  you can be at the end of the day.  How hard child neglect and apathy can be to your mind and heart.  How critical the Powers That Be in Education really are.  I know how all of your planning time is stolen for stupid meetings and unhelpful consultants.  I know.  I do.

So, here is my pledge to you.  I am not going to make your life a living hell over the little things.  You are allowed to be sick, sometimes have to come up with things on the fly, have your head turned during a minor bump on the head, and even forget a note home or phone call.  You aren’t superhuman.  I pledge to not expect perfection from you.

In return for this, I would like something from you.  I would like you to remember that this little boy is mine.  I would like you to remember- when he is being difficult – that he cannot speak for himself, cannot share his fears, desire for mommy and daddy, and confusion over the new expectations placed upon him.  I would like you to remember how fragile and defenseless he is while learning how to navigate this world.  I would like for you to grow to love him for the sweet, loving little boy who cuddles with me and holds my hand each night.  I know that, having chosen to do what you do, you already know these things and have already made that committment.  But, please -on the most difficult days that all teachers have – remember you are holding my world in your hands.

Thank you for your sacrifice.  For, though we both know the rewards of teaching are many, I know the time, dedication, and expense you put into it –for little pay and a great deal of hassle.  May you be blessed with patience, love, determination, optimism, realism, and the stamina that I know is required to do what you do well.  If you need anything at all, please pick up the phone and call.  For I know for certain that, in this sacred trust, I am calling on you already.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:

Letter to My Neurotypical Child

Letter to My Autistic Child

Apology from Your Child’s Former Teacher

27 thoughts on “Letter to My Special Needs Child’s First Teacher

  1. Laura

    I hope you are really going to give this to the teacher, I think she would love it. Made me cry as I know the heartache too well

  2. Brandi

    WOW!!!! I did NOT get through this one dry eyed. My son is now 12, but I remember well the first day I took him to school and turned him over into the care of a stranger. He is my oldest and I had been home with him for most of his life. I think I cried for a week straight. I am now at a crossroad with my son because he is not very high functioning, but he can express that he does NOT want to be at school (he started 6th grade this year at a HUGE district school). It breaks my heart everyday I have to make him go. Hang in there!

  3. extremeparenthood

    Bless you and your sweet boy on his first day of school. I’ve gone through this twice and each time I felt exactly the same way you described.

  4. Jessica Watson (@JessBWatson)

    Oh this brings back so many memories of sending my daughter off for the first time, of searching for schools and knowing I found the right one when the teacher instinctively knew what my daughter needed and nurtured her little 3 year old self the way I would do. Wishing you so much luck and hoping that your stomach isn’t in knots all day although I know you won’t feel better for those first few days until he is home.

    Beautiful post.

  5. Tara

    beautiful post, and all normal reaction, Today is the day your son begins to bloom.. trudge ahead, have faith, and you will be surprised at what is to come. Lots of hard work and lots of reward in store. I as well have the tshirt in autism. My son is in Gr 4 now and I will never , ever forget the first day of school.. Enjoying your posts from Newfoundland Canada,,

  6. Polly M.

    I personally hope you *don’t* give this to her, but I don’t begrudge you your feelings, because I totally understand, so blog away. However, if she’s as good as your friends say she is, she already took your pledge when she became a special needs teacher. She already knows how you feel. It is one of the reasons why she chose her career path. I promise you, if she’s all you’ve been told, you have nothing to worry about, and she will actually end up becoming your hero. What you do have to worry about is later, when you are attempting to hold all his future teachers to her standard. That’s the really hard part, because most will fail in your eyes, and then you have to learn true compromise; but there is wisdom in that, and your child will not suffer for it as long as you are there to stand up for him on the truly important things. I understand the grief that you are feeling over his not being typical in his reaction to school stuff, but never feel bad because your child isn’t excited about a lunchbox. He’s not yet three, you said? There are too many other things in this world to be joyful about! My daughter (moderate autism diagnosis) is only now (at almost 7) starting to recognize things like that as objects she can choose, and she still needs help. Those are the milestones you will never take for granted. It takes time, but he will get there!

  7. Marlene

    Beautifully written! My children are grown, but I have experienced the ‘difference’, too. Two children seemingly on two different tracks of life, but when all is said and done, they are simply two individuals, who will lead they’re own lives as the unique individuals they are; they’re the children we love.

  8. Lisa

    I was in that same spot 3 years ago. My mostly nonverbal son couldn’t tell me anything. God bless his teacher, who either called or emailed me every day of his first 2 weeks so we knew how he was adjusting. Hugs and positive thoughts coming your way today. Hope Callum’s first day goes well.

  9. Ingrid

    I can not stop crying. This is so heart felt and sincere. As I future teacher, I know that I will have my share of “special” little ones and my biggest fear is letting them and their parents down. I pray that when that time comes for me, I have parents like you. Parents that will be understanding and supportive. I pray that for all of my students I have parents like you but especially for those “special” little ones.

  10. Sandy

    There are those of us out there in the trenches who feel every word you said. Being a parent of a Spectrum child and a teacher of Spectrum children weighs heavily on me (hopefully in a good way, causing me to take my job seriously). I know how important my role is to the future of the children that have been entrusted to me. I’m at the Junior High level and I wish that all parents were like you and didn’t nit-pick the little things, but at the same time I understand their desperation.

    I know you will be fine. It sounds as if you have one of the good ones looking out for your child. Rest assured in the knowledge that you did your homework, and you can trust her. My only advice is to remember that you are not raising a “child”, you are raising a future “adult’. This advice helped me as I raised my own child, I hope it can help others as they raise theirs.

  11. Jim Reeve

    I remember Jacob’s first day of school. My wife suffered a back injury about a week prior to his first day, so I had to take him by myself. It was very diffiuclt for me to let go too. Also at that point, Jacob hadn’t been diagnosed with an ASD, so I didn’t have that stress. And I’m glad. If we’d have known that Jacob had Asperger’s on his first day, it likely would have been worse. That being said you, and anyone in your position, is very brave. I hope everything goes well for you and your little guy.

  12. Linda @ Lemon Drop

    I absolutely loved reading this. I have been there too and still am, even though my son is now 12. I will be like this = cautious, anxious, not very trusting at all, and struggling with letting go – til the day I die. It is what it is.

  13. Victoria Ferrante

    This post made me cry. My daughter is 19 years old and, like your son, profoundly autistic and nonverbal. And I, too, was a teacher! Everything you wrote took my back to her first day of school. I followed the bus in my car and spied on her in class. One thing that helped ease my mind was a notebook her teacher and I shared. I wrote int he morning and sent it to school with my daughter. Wendy sent it back each afternoon. We each wrote anything we thought was relevant about my daughter and her day. That way we both had the inside scoop, since Adrianna couldn’t share with us.

    1. Jeri Pardue

      oh yes, followed the bus in my car his first day of school…I bet many of us have done that!

  14. Jeri Pardue

    Absolutely understand the feelings – been there, done that. My grandson is now 19, verbal, graduated, working as a cart associate at the local Walmart and taking a developmental math class at the local community college. I felt the same way sending him out with the DARS rep to the first day on his job, and I camped outside his college classroom for weeks before I could let him go into the building by himself. It never ends, but it gets better.

  15. Joanna

    I have “been here” too, but on the other side…as the instructional aide. It’s a definite partnership and I thank you parents for trusting your little ones and big ones (I work with adult transition) in our care. We quickly learn the non-verbal communication and try to read some of their little minds to figure out what’s upsetting them, what’s making them laugh or what’s going on. It’s definitely a partnership. When the families share information with us, it makes their child’s day go better and when we share information about their child’s day with them, same thing.

    Thank you all for sharing your kids with us. After 13 years of working with kids with severe challenges (my favorite – autism), everyday is a new challenge and I love it!

    1. Sherry

      I too have worked as an Instructional Aid for young children (with Autisim) and have an almost 11 year old daughter with Autism. Being on both sides of the fence was a big eye opener for me. I was a parent intrusting my child to ‘strangers’, putting all of my fears aside and praying for it to be the right thing to do. My daughter struggled every day for months, tantruming, not letting me leave. Her teacher and the aids in class were amazing. They supported me, reasured me, worked with me through a very hard seperation and transition with her. I dont know what I would have done without those amazing group of women! They were my rock and my team. It was such an honor to learn from them and now be in the position to help other families that were just like me. It is a different kind of trust us parents with special needs children have for educators and when parents learn that I went through what they are experiencing now… a whole new level of understanding comes into play and they have full faith that I am going to be the best I can be with there child, like they were my own.
      I have very much enjoyed this blog, I am new to it and wish I had had something like this when my daughter was young and going through very similar situations. Keep it up!! Good luck with your son and his first school experience. <3

  16. Lynne Pardi

    As usual, you have expressed the feelings of thousands of “special” parents so beautifully!! I read the post through tears, though many years have passed since my Jay first started school. But I remember– oh, how I do remember!

    Fortunately, Jay’s very first teacher was absolutely a blessing! She had no experience with autistic children. She had previously worked with deaf children. She was taking on a class that combined “typical kids,” “at risk kids,” and special needs kids with IEP’s in her new preschool class. Jay was one of her pupils.

    Jay tantrumed, tipped desks & chairs over, ripped papers from the walls, and screamed for several days in her class. This dedicated, caring young teacher and her several classroom aides refused to give up on my son. In a few months’ time, Jay was able to sit quietly for 10 minutes at a time, doing an activity. He learned a few “signs” to communicate with, and he learned to take turns! He learned to point to pictures to indicate his needs and preferences. He began to be able to listen and take brief, simple directions. His tantruming decreased markedly when he acquired these skills. This may not sound earth-shaking to many folks, but it surely was for us!! Jay stayed in this class for almost 3 years, to the best of my memory.

    I wept when my son “aged out” of this teacher’s class. In the years that followed, Jay had some other good teachers, some mediocre ones, and one that (let’s just say I got him out of that class fast).!! I don’t think any of them was the equal of that very first teacher, to be honest. She keeps in touch with me to this day, following Jay’s progress.

    I wish for your sweet, wonderful Callum the very same kind of teacher! I wish that for every child, in fact.

  17. Lynne Pardi

    I already commented once on this post– hope you’ll allow another brief comment! I just want to say that I understand what a great act of trust is involved in “giving” a non-verbal autistic child over to a teacher or a therapist. My Jay couldn’t have told me, either, if he disliked the experience, felt afraid, lonely, or (God forbid!) if he had been mistreated by anyone. I had to trust his teachers, therapists, and respite providers. It wasn’t easy, especially when he was really young! I believe that 99% of them were good people who treated Jason well. I don’t think he was ever abused (there was one instance at a day camp when he was left out in the hot sun for too long, but he wasn’t seriously harmed. I withdrew him from that camp.)

    I guess I am trying to make the point that we HAVE TO LET THEM GO! They have to grow up, like every other kid. We aren’t going to live forever, so they need to learn to survive in the world without us.You know this, and you are letting Callum go to school. I know that you consider Callum “defenseless” and fragile. I thought the very same of my Jay. Jay turned out to have a lot more strength and resilience than I thought he had! I was projecting all my fears upon him. In the end, he managed OK without me! He has grown into a pretty resourceful fellow. He has shown us that he can adapt to change, even though it’s hard. He has a toughness that I never dreamed he would have! Your little guy might just surprise the heck out of you too!Every day with these kids is a challenge and an act of faith for us parents.

    Ok, that’s all I wanted to say.

  18. twistingthreads

    May all go better for you, your son, and his teacher than any of you dared to hope for. This post ought to be required reading for teachers of all students, but most especially those who teach children with special needs. Every child should be treated as if they matter, “normal” or not.

  19. Jolene

    This brought tears streaming down my face. I just went through this same experience with my 3 year old son, Ryan. You captured my every thought and fear about him starting school. I love his teacher and have the utmost confidence in her but what if he got scared or wanted me? He wouldn’t understand why I wasn’t there to comfort him. He just started and is doing amazing do far. He is adjusting so much better than expected. I’m so very proud of him!! Thanks for this post. It reminded me that me and my sweet boy are not alone!

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