A friend of mine called me the other day in frustration. Her daughter is going through the special education eligibility process as a preschooler and she and her family are trying to navigate what all this means. What it means right now, what it means for future years in elementary school, what it means long term, and what it means family life looks like. In fact, using the word “frustrated” to describe her feelings does not do them justice. Frustration does not begin to scratch the surface.
A diagnosis brings answers, but it also brings more open questions about the future. At one point she said, “Is this what my future is? Being called into the principal’s office every year? Having teachers tell me they don’t know what to do with my child, that my child is a distraction to the other students in the classroom, that my child overwhelms the teacher?”
As a parent, the family stress, the unknown questions, and the love and concern for your child does not go away. As a school we must be sensitive to that. We have to be ready to listen to our parents and let them go through what is much like a period of mourning. They may need to fight us, question us, or cry on our shoulders. We can’t take it personally.
Even when we as a school are doing what is right for kids we have to remember that their parents are dealing with a bigger picture than we are. We get their children in a structured environment. Their parents work with them every day doing unpredictable things like running errands because they ran out of milk, visiting grandparents, sitting in traffic, and coping with the result of disrupted sleep routines. None of that is easy. Top off an already stressful day at work with the calls from the school with the litany of behavior problems? That just digs parents into a hole with no ladder to use to climb out.
Not that we should hide students’ behavior from parents or that we should say things are fine when they are not. Parents need to have a realistic understanding of what is happening in the classroom and how their child is coping in a school setting. But we are also a part of building a team between the school and the parents. We need to share successes, however small they may be.
We need to share what we are putting into place to help their child succeed, being explicit about the small, incremental changes we hope we will see along the way. We cannot tell a parent that we’ll fix everything, but we can and will set up a plan with the parent to help the child. They need us to be part of building the ladder to get them out of the hole.
All parents love their children, regardless of the diagnosis, behavior issues, and academic difficulties. No diagnosis changes who the child is, what makes the child laugh, cry or smile. The parents want to know that we love their child, too. We love that little person who reads books about trains, laughs when we sing silly songs, or whose eyes get wide with excitement when we are reading a favorite book. We can communicate that we know and love their child while also letting parents know our concerns and complications that arise in the classroom.
Talking to my friend has been a good reminder of what the parents I work with are going through. This is not just their momentary reality that ends in June like it does for us. This is their day-to-day life, their history and their future. They know the child better than we do, and will be with the child longer than we will. We have to work together as a team, suspend our personal judgments and our own frustrations so we can stay focused on helping the child and the parents.