Teachers know that all children have strengths and weaknesses. However, children with special needs face many more challenges than typically-developing children. Early intervention programs do their best to catch learning disabilities in infancy so that the proper course of action can be taken. While educators put early intervention techniques to their best use, there are other facets of the child’s environment that need to be addressed. Often, the families of special needs children have struggles of their own that schools and educators need to help with. School readiness in particular can provide families with the resources they need to take care of their child—and themselves.
Once special needs children enter school, it becomes even more important for families and educators to be on the same page. However, this connection is sometimes difficult to make. A teacher may not understand why a parent is fighting or disagreeing with the course of treatment; meanwhile, a parent may still not entirely understand or accept what is different about their child. When these conflicts arise, it is the educator’s responsibility to foster trust and attempt to draw parents into the educational decision-making process. To do this, teachers must support the needs of the family as much as they do those of the child.
Dr. Clarissa Willis offers some magnificent insight on working with special needs children and their families. Her book Teaching Infants, Toddlers, and Two’s with Special Needs is an excellent resource for early childhood educators and contains many tips on how to support special needs families emotionally and practically.
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While working through the emotions of a child is an obvious part of education, special needs families often need their own emotional support. The news that a child has any sort of disability comes as a shock to most parents, and it is a shock that is very difficult to overcome, regardless of how early the diagnosis is. Dr. Willis compares the cycle of emotions many families go through to the Cycle of Grief and Loss: there is shock, denial, anger, despair, and acceptance, though not always in that order. In her words, “the birth of a child with challenges often represents a death of parental dreams associated with having a baby.”
The grief-cycling associated with such a loss can be difficult to navigate or understand, especially for someone who has never had that kind of experience. That’s why it’s important that educators:
- Understand their own position. Unless a teacher herself is the mother of a special needs child, she cannot fully understand the pain and confusion that parent may be feeling. If a caregiver’s actions and emotions don’t appear to make sense, an educator should not jump to the conclusion that they are being completely irrational. Most likely, the parent or family member is acting in a way that makes sense to them, coming from their unique position. The teacher must then do her best to understand the other person in the conversation, even if that means acknowledging that she herself cannot fully understand it.
- Realize that emotions may be volatile. The Cycle of Grief and Loss is rarely ever complete. When faced with a shock, people will go through the stages at random and may relapse from acceptance to one of the other stages at any time. In the case of a special needs family, each family—in fact, each family member—may have a very different reaction to the news. A mother may become irrationally angry at her child’s condition, perhaps blaming herself for the disability or turning her anger outward onto the educators. Meanwhile, the father of that same child may linger in denial, refusing to believe the child truly needs any kind of special help. While this can be incredibly frustrating, educators must understand that the source of these feelings is grief and that, with the assistance of a school, they can be worked through.
- Provide a supportive environment for parents as well as children. Special needs families do not always get the support they need from their community. Neighbors may look down on the child, or extended family members may blame the parents for the child’s disability. This animosity can make an already stressful situation worse, leaving the parents feeling like the world is against their child. To provide some of the support these families crave, teachers must always be willing to listen, even if the conversation doesn’t have to do with the matter at hand. Also, attempt to discuss more than just the child’s education with the parents. Tell them amusing anecdotes about the child’s successes or show them artwork the child made. Ask them about how the child enjoyed their family vacation. If the educator sets up a casual rapport alongside a clinical one, the environment will harbor more trust for both parent and child.
Of course, the primary role of the educator is to teach the child. Parents and caregivers often want to be involved with their child’s school experience and kept up to date on what is going on. Therefore, communication is key and may require more work than expected. Difficulties can arise in a variety of ways, creating blocks to proper family involvement. As children get older, parents may develop mixed feelings towards schools and educators, especially after a bad experience with a school. Financial and scheduling conflicts may also arise, putting extra strain on family members and making it difficult to arrange meetings with faculty. Teachers must therefore be flexible and patient, and, above all, develop an honest, open, mutually-understood conversation between parent and teacher. Both parties are working toward a common goal: bettering the education of the child. To make this clear, teachers should discuss:
- Plans for the child in common terms. Nothing can frustrate families more than feeling left in the dark about what’s going on with their child. If an educator is not careful, the general emotionality of the situation can become even worse if parents feel uninformed or confused. Whenever a new lesson format or program is being introduced, teachers should call a meeting with the parents and explain what the plan will entail, how it will benefit the child, and if there is any paperwork that must be signed. If certain actions must be taken at home—(for example, enacting a new disciplinary goal system)—they should be discussed more democratically with caregivers allowed to offer suggestions or veto the idea. Educators should also take care to define professional terms and not to get lost in the scientific jargon of the field.
- Flexibility with meeting times and formats. Caring for a special needs child is a lot of work, and can often cut into time for other things. Teachers should thus be accommodating to alternative schedules in order to keep families involved. If a parent cannot get off work to come to the school, ask if they can have a twenty-minute meeting by phone. If they have to stay home because they cannot afford childcare, suggest meeting at their house to discuss their child’s plan. By making an extended effort to involve the families in decision making, educators present a necessary transparency of what goes on in the classroom and help connect what the child does at school with what goes on at home.
- Other resources that will benefit the child. Children with special needs often require multiple services to facilitate development. Depending on the child, they may need speech therapists, assistive technology, occupational therapists, and respite care. These services can be difficult to obtain, especially if parents are too busy to call or visit the organizations responsible. It is an incredible help when schools locate services and are able to aid families in enrolling their children in the necessary programs. This makes it easier for families to find and afford the care their child needs.
Raising and teaching a child with special needs can be tricky, but when parents and educators work together, they create a positive environment that nurtures mental and emotional growth. It is imperative that schools provide a healthy support network not only for the children, but their families as well.