Perhaps one of the greatest gifts you can give someone is to help him feel understood. As a parent, it’s the biggest goal I have when it comes to my interactions with our school – to help my kids be understood by their teachers. Of course they’ll have issues, conflicts, misunderstandings, maybe some tears. They have those things at home, despite living with their perfectly understanding and unflappable parents (ha!). So there’s no way to think they won’t encounter bumps everywhere else too. But if those issues can be framed in the context of their unique challenges, if the “why” of their behaviors are at least considered when consequences are meted out or proactive plans are hatched, I’m a happy camper.
Unfortunately, like so many parents, I find goals and realities don’t always walk hand in hand. Awhile back, I wrote about the disappointment of some teacher conferences I’ve had (http://www.easytolovebut.com/?cat=361) and how I wished all teachers had to attend a course that helped them understand what it felt like to have ADHD, OCD, anxiety, sensory issues, Tourette’s, bi-polar or any of a dozen other challenges. The feedback from parents was overwhelmingly positive. But privately, I received emails from friends who are professionals in school systems. Their enthusiasm was far more muted. Even though they themselves struggle with anxiety or their own kids have 504s or they work with students with special needs, they let me know that while sometimes teachers don’t “get it,” sometimes parents don’t “get it” either.
My friends pointed out that a teacher might have several other kids who also have special needs and maybe those needs are in direct conflict with my child’s. So while my child might need a calm environment, the hyperactive kid three desks down could have an Individualized Education Plan that lets him roam the classroom, as long as he isn’t overly disruptive. They reminded me of all the legal mandates and pressure on teachers to meet overly ambitious and under-funded goals, of the politics of education. They made me step back and wonder: if I were a teacher, would I be able to meet the expectations I was setting as a parent?
I spent weeks thinking about this. It was clearly a topic that struck a chord. On one hand, I wanted to understand and to be “reasonable” in my expectations. On the other hand, I didn’t want to worry about other kids and the obstacles faced by the teacher. My job was to advocate for, not subordinate, my own child’s needs. The obstacles created by No Child Left Behind or by a teacher’s desire to remain set in old ways shouldn’t be my burden or my child’s cross to bear.
But I kept feeling like there had to be a middle ground. There had to be a way, even when parent and school had conflicting agendas, to “get to yes” and find ways to put a child’s needs above bureaucracy, emotions and baggage (on both sides of the table). So I cornered a few friends who have offices inside of school buildings and asked for advice. We talked about a wide range of topics and shared many anecdotes. We spoke about:
- The importance of really listening to the other side;
- The need to use common vocabulary (as special ed legalese can very intimidating and I once wasted 30 precious minutes because I didn’t know “accommodate” had a legal meaning);
- The need for both sides to be honest – how not revealing issues around medications or problems at home can really hobble the ability to help because someone can’t understand if you don’t give them the full picture. To the extent legally possible, it’s also helpful for a parent to know about class dynamics or the teacher’s personal challenges. Knowing that other kids in class have special needs can help set reasonable parent expectations and help us understand what the teacher’s reality looks like;
- The importance of being willing to learn something from someone you may not click with;
- How, if you can’t leave emotions out of it, you should bring a support person who can help you stay calm – or if the teacher can’t stay calm, ask that a second staff member attend the meeting with them.
- The need to discuss preferred methods of communication:
- Emails can be great because you can get to them when you have time to really consider your response. But they can also be misinterpreted (especially if quickly scanned on a smart phone) and some people are loathe to put things in writing that could be mis-used or taken out of context later. Also, if you ask for email updates, take time to read them and reply. Nothing kills communication faster than turning it into a one-way affair. And if you’re going to use email, make sure it’s not your only method (too easy to hide behind it);
- Phone calls are helpful so long as dinner isn’t burning in the oven, the kids aren’t killing each other in the other room or it isn’t past your bedtime;
- In person meetings are really important but it’s hard to find times that work for both of you. They require the most effort and need to be kept to a limited time. Teachers have families and commitments and dinners to burn too.
- How much information is too much? Does the teacher want to know about every time your child is feeling “off”? Is an email saying “had a rough morning” sufficient or does the teacher need/want to know that there are certain triggers at play?
- What’s your child’s role in the communication loop? If your child comes home upset that something happened but never let the teacher know, can you expect the teacher to read minds? On the other hand, if your child speaks up only to have his fears dismissed, how is your child supposed to feel safe and understood? This is a three way conversation that includes your child, not just a conversation between parent and teacher. Everyone needs to know how – and when – to speak up.
- This is a partnership. You have a right to ask what the teacher is able and willing to do to meet your child’s needs in the classroom and expect that these things will be done consistently. But you also have an obligation to support that plan at home. Asking for classroom accommodations for ADHD without also doing all in your power to ensure a good night’s sleep isn’t holding up your end of the deal. Bedrooms are not the best place for TV’s, Nintendo DS’s and electronics when lack of sleep plays into how your child will be able to meet the challenges of the next day. It takes two to tango and a whole mess of people to help your child learn. Everyone – teachers, parents and child – need to do their part to make a plan succeed.
This was all good advice. It was mostly stuff I knew and what I tried to do in my own meetings. So my collective conversations bopped along, with me happily taking notes and feeling good because I clearly was doing all the right things. Gold star for me. Until…I met with a friend, a school psychologist, and she dropped the F word. I remember squirming in my seat when I heard it. F – as in Face.
“In my personal experience, the most important thing when a parent and teacher don’t see eye to eye is to make sure you have more face time,” she said.
My brow furrowed. I pretended to take more notes. Then I tried to defend my guilty conscience.
I protested. “Whenever I’ve been in a bad meeting, it feels like no one wants to see me for a long, long time afterward and I’m afraid if I keep pushing for more, it’s just going to get worse. I don’t want the teacher/principal/psychologist’s annoyance with me being taken out on my child.”
This was partly defensive on my part but also partly true. My husband is forever telling me to pick my battles, to not be a helicopter mom when it comes to the school day, that it’s important to let the kids work through some uncomfortable issues on their own. They need to learn coping skills – sometimes in the form of a painful lesson – without me sweeping in too soon to “fix” things. He’s always reminding me that not everything is due to a diagnosis. Not every problem requires an immediate solution from mom.
Usually, after an unproductive meeting, I constantly second guess myself and have to reign in my gnawing desire to go back and talk about it some more. I am a notorious beater of dead horses. But whenever I’ve backed away too much, it usually leads to a festering sore. Every day that a sob story comes home and I hear of yet another (perceived?) injustice, my blood boils that much faster. It leaves me twisted like a pretzel.
“It’s human nature to shy away from what – and who – we don’t like. But how do you expect understanding to come when you only meet once or twice a year?” my friend asked. “When I have a parent who’s angry or frustrated, it seems to work out better when I set up more meetings, not less. Sometimes it’s once a month, sometimes every week. But if we’re going to understand each other, we have to spend time together and start to share things with each other. Instead of having five huge issues to conquer in one 45 minute conference, we can take baby steps at each meeting. I can’t fix something that happened six months ago. But I can do something about an issue that cropped up three days ago. Maybe the goal of our first meeting is only to reduce frustrations. Maybe that’s all we accomplish that day. Other goals might have to wait for the next meeting. But more time together is the only way it ever gets better.”
I thought about my own life – specifically my exercise plans. What was the thing I hated the most? Running. Why? Because it’s hard for me and it hurts and I can’t breathe and it takes a big chunk of time and I feel gross while I’m doing it and it makes my head hurt and I can think of a million excuses not to do it. What’s the thing that makes me look best and feel incredibly good about myself – after it’s done? Running.
There it is. The truth. The thing that’s most needed is often the thing we most avoid.
My wise friend asked me about the teachers I had good relationships with. “How often did you talk?” she asked.
“Lots,” I told her. “We touched base all the time. Not big, long meetings. Sometimes quick emails or a two minute chat at the end of the day. Some teachers I’m still friends with years later and we meet for drinks once in awhile just to catch up.”
“What about the teachers you’ve clashed with?” she asked, knowing the answer.
“Are you kidding? We barely talked. It just wasn’t worth the headache of banging my head against the wall,” I explained.
“The best way to help a teacher understand your child is to talk with them as often as possible” said my friend. “If I could only give one piece of advice, it would be to talk – and listen – more often, not less.”
“If the relationship is so bad that you need to have other people present, then bring emotional support to the meetings,” she went on. “But don’t shy away just because it’s uncomfortable. It’s the biggest part of the solution. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.”
The thing that’s most needed is often the thing we most avoid.
And so I squirmed and sheepishly erased my mental gold star, knowing I was guilty of avoidance, happier to lay blame while in the comfort of my own home than to force myself to talk with people who made me wary, people who knowingly or unknowingly hurt my kids.
Of course, it’s rarely this simple. If it were this easy, there’d be no Wright’s Law, no need for advocates or special education laws. Some schools are never going to be safe havens of warmth and understanding; some parents are never going to be able to set their own baggage aside to find common ground. But for myself, I have a renewed promise moving forward. I will try to set smaller goals but more of them. I will try to connect with teachers more often but with less pressure. I will try to keep the past in the past and look at my child’s needs in the present, not with “Post-Traumatic Stress” fears and filters. I will still try to show the teachers what it feels like to have anxiety and ADD and an “allergy” to strep that makes a child change overnight. But if I fail, I will try to not give up or get my undies in a bunch. If I hit a wall, I will try to ask for help from others but with the understanding that ultimately, I’m going to have to forge a relationship with people who make me uncomfortable. They will have to do the same. I will also try to remember to ask my child what he thinks and where he does and does not want my help. I will force myself to do not only the right thing but also the hard thing, because my child deserves it.
(But realistically, my running shoes will probably stay buried in the closet – just being honest).