Back to School Tip #1: Is the teacher ready for your child?

August 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Advocacy, Featured, Tips

School has already begun in some parts of the country, and around here, parents are already getting anxious about when school resumes right after Labor Day. They’re anxious about the teacher not understanding their child’s disorder(s), they’re anxious about the teacher misinterpreting the child’s symptoms as misbehavior, and they’re anxious that the teacher will say or do something that will start their child off on a sour note for the 2010-2011 school year.

If you haven’t done so already, take some time and send a letter to your child’s teacher. If you send it now, it may be there waiting for the teacher when teachers return to set up their classroom. Getting the letter to the teachers before school starts gives them a chance to read it and absorb it.

Do not assume that the teacher will have read your child’s entire I.E.P. or 504 plan. In some areas, teachers are not even given hard copies of these documents that they can hang on to. Your goal is to write a relatively short letter that will help the teacher get off to a good start with your child:

1. Only include what the teacher needs to get started for the first two weeks. Describe the problems that the teacher is likely to encounter or observe in the first two weeks. Don’t get too medical in your description — use behavioral descriptions or tie the medical to the behavioral, as in the examples later in this post.

2. If you know a useful strategy or workaround for a problem, share it with the teacher.

3. Be sure to include some positive statements about your child’s strengths or talents so that the teacher can pitch to them.

4. If your child has a disorder that the teacher may not be trained in, you can offer to provide or send in some information, but as a general strategy, I do not recommend inundating the teacher with materials or information unless they have indicated that they would welcome it.

5. Keep your letter short — no more than 1 1/2 pages, if possible. Yes, I know your child probably has a lot of issues and there’s much for the teacher to know, but if you overwhelm them with your child’s problems before they ever meet him or her, it can create a first impression that your child will be labor-intensive and a possible burden in their classroom — and that you may be “helicopter parent” who will burden them with very long letters.

6. End on a positive note.

To help illustrate the above, I’ll give you a few examples from when my son was young:

Because my son has TS+, I might start out the letter by saying, “I hope you had a terrific summer. I just wanted to take a few minutes to tell you about my son because some of his symptoms may be confusing to look at and things have changed a bit since the end of the last school year.” Then I’d say something like, “J. has Tourette’s Syndrome. His current tics include a scrunchy kind of movement with his nose, making coughing sounds, and holding up his fingers in a peace sign. At his age, he still has no control over his tics, and is embarrassed or depressed if anyone comments on them or imitates them. I’ve found that if he’s ticcing so much that he can’t work, allowing him to go off to a quiet spot to read to himself usually helps calm the tics. He loves to read, and if you’d like, I can send in some of his favorite books to have on hand.”

Notice what I did there: I described what the teacher would see or hear and gave her an explanation — that they are involuntary tics. I also gave her a trick to use if he was having a rough time and a head’s up that she’d need to be sensitive to peer teasing issues.

For his ADHD, I might say something like, “Like most kids with Tourette’s, J. also has ADHD. Expect him to be very active, talkative, and distractible. The “up” side of his hyperactivity is that he has got a wacky sense of humor, loves a good joke, and is extremely creative. And like most kids with ADHD, his distractibility is not a problem when he’s interested in an activity or task. The more hands-on the activity is, the more likely he is to be able to focus. Ask him to create or build you something from a pile of random garbage and he’ll be in heaven.

For his OCD, I might say something like, “J. also has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” (spell that one out so they don’t confuse OCD with ODD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder). “He doesn’t have a lot of obvious rituals, but he’s often “stuck” in his head with a thought that loops over and over that he can’t get rid of and he may need some extra time or patience until he gets “unstuck.” Distracting him often works at home. If you ask him a challenging question or tell him a joke, he may be able to get himself unstuck.”

I might also include statements like:

“J.’s handwriting is just what you’d expect from a kid with his neurology — it’s awful. Expect him to adamantly resist any requests to write by hand if he would have to write more than two sentences. Letting him keyboard will help him produce work that doesn’t need to be sent to the FBI for decoding and can prevent conflict.”

“Although there’s no diagnosis called “terminally disorganized,” expect J. to be pretty chaotic in terms of recording assignments and packing up materials or turning papers in. Cuing him helps and he really requires a lot of cuing at this point.

“For all his challenges, J. is a warm, bright, funny, creative kid who would give anyone who needs help the shirt off his back.”

“I realize it will take you some time to get a feeling for how he functions in your class, so perhaps we could meet in about two weeks to see how he’s doing adapting to the new year and new expectations. I look forward to working together with you to help J. flourish in your class this year.”

Yes, it’s not easy for all parents to write letters like these, but every teacher my children had always thanked me for alerting them to symptoms they might see and for sharing strategies that worked with them. From the very first letter, the tone communicates that we’re a team, and I’m sharing information with my partner to help them be successful in our joint venture of educating this child.

So what are you waiting for? Get started writing! And if you have any questions or comments, use the Comments section below.

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