As children and parents negotiate their way through the final weeks of summer and approach the beginning of a new school year, they experienced the inevitable and vast array of thoughts and feelings about the upcoming challenges they will face. Many students feel a predominance of excitement as they anticipate who their new teachers will be, look forward to seeing old friends, making new ones, and sharing the experiences they have had since June. As a person, I hope that all children feel, on balance, more excitement than concern at the prospect of a fresh opportunity; however, as a Special Educator with thirteen years of school based experience, I know that many – if not most – children with special needs face every school year with worry and trepidation.
The opening essays written by my students each year express, in great detail, the fears they feel as they anticipate being placed in special classes, labeled and stigmatized by their peers, and potential social rejection. They speak of having to give up coveted free time and activities of their own choosing in favor of doing homework. But the fear expressed most often and the one that troubles me most is the fear of not being good enough, of being broken, of not being normal and not fitting in.
Just as I am getting to know the children, their strengths, needs and anxieties, I receive many near-frantic telephone calls from parents expressing their concerns, pain and frustration regarding their children’s school experiences. Intuitively, parents understand that it is difficult for their children to be outside of the “mainstream” in school. After all, school is for children what work is for adults: the place in which they live their lives, socialize, and learn ideas of success and failure. It is the place that reflects, in large part, who they are and if they are alright. It takes an exceptionally strong adult to feel alright in a setting that does not fit them. Imagine how it must be for children whose senses of themselves are still fragile and forming.
All parents want their children to succeed and all students want to succeed. I believe that it is possible for all students to succeed. Learning differences –including and not limited to AD/HD— certainly make learning within various school systems more difficult. But, I have witnessed and assisted many students with a variety of learning differences in building knowledge, skill, confidence, pride in their abilities and a sense of who they are as individuals. Success is always a collaborative effort, and especially so for these children. It requires that individual learning styles are understood, that they are specifically addressed by the teachers, parents and others who are the collaborative team as well as by the child, and, importantly, that the child’s strengths are acknowledged and built upon.
Three basic strategies can be employed by concerned parents as the school year gets underway. These strategies will have long lasting and positive affects on your student’s school experience.
First, make that telephone call to your child’s teacher or teachers to establish a partnership with them. Let the teacher(s) know what you know about your child, especially what you have already discovered that works to help your child with their challenges. Be sure to emphasize the ways your child excels, brings you joy, or experiences his or her own passions. Too often, we concentrate only on students’ areas of need and overlook their truly great gifts. Include your student in this partnership by having them attend any and all meetings and by filling them in on the main points of telephone conversations and contacts that occur without their presence.
Second, begin using your student’s day planner immediately. Put aside some time on a daily basis to sit down and go over homework and projects assigned. If students are not yet in the habit of writing down their assignments, work with them. Teach them to plan for longer term projects by breaking them down into smaller, concrete steps (i.e., choose topic, go to library, read books, take notes, create outline, write first draft, write second draft, write final draft). Be certain to include checking off the assignments when completed so students can see –visually- the result of their efforts.
Third, be positive and give appropriate rewards! By the very definition of having special needs, students often have to hear about what they need to change or do differently. Turn this around. Say, “you did a nice job reading for twenty minutes,” or “you wrote a great topic sentence.” Be specific with your feedback so that students know exactly what they are doing well. Even more importantly, engage in something positive and fun with your child. There is nothing more potent in providing a sense of self worth to a child than a parent’s genuine enjoyment of them.
Learning can be challenging for students with all types of special needs. As their parent you can do a lot to minimize your frustration as well as theirs. Put your heartfelt concerns to good work by actively engaging with the other collaborators in your child’s life. In the lives of students, parents always make the biggest difference.
Barbara Lipscomb is first and foremost an educator who has been educating and coaching people with different learning styles since 1980, when she began her career in special education. Barbara works from a deeply felt and researched model, one that guides her to understand that all learning takes place within the context of important relationships. She is adept at creating relationships with people in which their unique learning needs can be assessed and they can work cooperatively with her toward maximizing their strengths and achieving success.
Barbara combines her professional background as a Special Education Teacher, Vice Principal, Corporate Trainer and Executive Assistant to Professional Academic and Creative Writers with extensive study and teaching of creative/journal writing to serve her students and clients in ways that meet their particular learning and personality styles and individual needs.