By Joanna Blanchard, MOTR/L
Although I can’t wait for school to start every fall, I dread it at the same time.
Luckily, our son 9-year-old son Dan loves school and has a wonderful program that he’s attended for years. However, even with caring and trusting relationships with school staff that I adore, I have some anxiety with school starting.
Dan attends a “gen-ed” 4th grade classroom about half of the day with a 1:1 assistant. This year he will have the same special education teacher as always, but just like his peers he is assigned to a different regular classroom teacher who doesn’t know him well.
I am so thankful we have this opportunity to show his class and teachers he is more than he appears. Over the year, those classmates will begin thinking differently about autism. In this way, we help our world slowly change for the better, one classroom at a time.
I’m very proud of the work we do. But oh, so very tired of doing it.
There are so many relationships to build, and people yet to convince. It will go on for his entire life. Every time he meets someone new, I wait for the day when they come to me with eyebrows raised in surprise, laughing. They say, “Oh my gosh, he is so smart! And funny!”
Check off another person, changed for life; Dan has many in his wake. His new classroom is taking its turn.
I find peace in the belief that Dan is here for a reason, to help change things for the better. Perhaps he was given to our strong, tenacious family because we push both him and society to get there. The big picture helps me remain patient, but it also feels like a giant weight on my shoulders, a responsibility I feel for both my child and many children I know.
And at times I get weary of the world’s slow learning curve. I know many of you feel the same about your children. Summer is a nice break from all of it.
So, as we prepare for another ten months of helping to make the world a better place for our kids, here are some ideas to help smooth your way and be effective in the classroom setting. (I’ll do my best to remember them also).
- First and foremost: Breathe. You must put your own oxygen mask on first. Do something, anything, to pamper yourself this week. Gear up for the work to do.
- It’s all about building relationships and trust. Do we attend better to the ideas of strangers or to someone we know? Get to know people in the school.
- Building relationships takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Changing minds and hearts doesn’t happen overnight and can’t be forced.
- I usually stay away from the chaos of the first few weeks then drop in and help smooth things along later. This helps Dan and his teacher build a real relationship together without my “back seat driving.”
- Slow down, chat with your school’s front office staff. They often know everything that goes on in that building and they will be answering the phone when you call.
- Email is your friend. Many teachers prefer to answer emails when they have time to think and attend rather than return phone calls during a busy school day.
- You may have previously had a horrible experience and feel justifiably scared or angry. Tell the team how you feel using “I” statements. List facts, give concrete examples.
- Behaving aggressively puts people on the defense. Be firm, and persistent, not abrasive.
- Even when you dread walking through those doors, keep doing it. Hold your head up, smile, make eye contact. Be as brave as we expect our children to be. You have a right to be there as part of the school community.
- Then truly BE a part of the community. Participate. If you only go in or communicate when something goes wrong, why should people trust you to know what is done right?
- Relationships have ups and downs. People have off days. But as with any relationship if this is a pattern, things need to change.
- Put your own personal vendettas, pride, and prejudices aside but always do what’s needed for your child’s best interests. Focus on change, not blame.
- For more about positive advocacy, I love this article.
Simply put: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” (A saying often attributed to Gandhi).
With all the pressure we put on ourselves as school approaches, it’s no wonder we are a little bit of a mess (my husband would agree with this self-assessment). Most of Dan’s teachers think I’m weirdly emotional and melodramatic, I know it.
In the meantime, our kids are really the unsung heroes: changing the world by being themselves, constantly prodded by their driven parents, keeping their teachers up at night and carrying all of our hopes while being watched by the community at large. Sometimes I think they deserve a presidential medal and handshake (except when they clog the toilet by flushing the hairspray cap, then I don’t think that).
Here’s to the new school year. Get on the short bus and ride.
Joanna Blanchard is an occupational therapist and the mother of two boys on opposite ends of the autism spectrum. She is the owner of Everybody Stims Occupational Therapy in Vancouver, Washington.