By Joanna Blanchard, MOTR/L
“Ask the OT” recently received a follow up question about the column: “Why is My Child So Cranky After School?” which brought up some great questions about facilitating communication. (Details and names have been edited and changed for privacy)
I am a staff member of a small school. During the day Michael (who is on the spectrum) has been doing very well. Often the general comment “Michael had a good day” is entered on his daily communication log from his teacher. When the child has his meltdowns at home, there is concern that his “discomfort” during the day is being missed or ignored by his teachers. I would like to reassure the child’s parents that their student is having consistently positive experiences during the day, and is relating well with his peers and teachers.
Any advice would be appreciated.
As a mom, the statement “ ____ had a good day” alone on the communication log is met with mixed feelings. This really tells me is that nothing “bad” happened today. “Good” is subjective. If I don’t know the staff member writing the comment, it means very little to me.
Much of the time school-to-parent interaction is limited to quick notes, conferences once or twice a year and direct contact when something is wrong. We don’t know each other well enough to trust a “good day” means the same thing. Details reassure me that people are really paying attention to my son, because he can’t tell me about his day himself.
Children on the spectrum—even children that are verbal—are notoriously poor reporters. Most children are reluctant to share or remember the details of the school day, but for our children, many social intricacies of the day are unnoticed or unremarked, and we are left with worry: Was there bullying behind-the-scenes that the staff missed? Is he so quiet because he’s unhappy, or really doing okay? What’s going on in that head of his?
Since we can’t see it, and he can’t tell us, we rely heavily on school staff to help fill in the blanks.
My fears are often easily diffused by a few details:
“Dan played with a peer at recess. Took a while to get started on math. One instance throwing a pencil to protest, waited him out. Otherwise a good day, no hitting, loved the popcorn snack.” This is my idea of a believable report—a little good, a little bad, nothing out of the ordinary. It sounds like my kid. Enough detail to know that if he melts down tonight, it’s probably not because he hated math today—and that’s the norm!
However, in today’s busy classrooms, teachers understandably don’t have time to write long narrative. We must collaborate to develop communication I can live with, and that means every year it feels like starting over. However, we usually find what works by Christmas break. Here are some ideas for both staff and parents:
- Does staff prefer to email? Everyone can be cc’d so the school psychologist, principal, staff assistant and teacher are all communicating.
- Families are also responsible for good communication, too! Be sure to keep the staff in the loop about when children have a rough evening or are “off.”
- Consider more in-depth communication on a weekly basis in addition to quick daily notes. A weekly email or 5 minute chat at picking up and dropping off times are great in addition to a daily note.
- A notebook and planners already in use at school are great communication logs. It also promotes inclusion as the child is using the same planner as his peers.
- Pre-made checklists are an effective tool. Checkboxes can be used to list a child’s IEP goals and indicate what was worked on for a particular day. Teachers can make blank copies and put them in a binder with a quick note.
- Insist on classroom observations to actually witness what a “good day” looks like. This eases anxiety considerably by eliminating the “unknowns,” helps build consistent transitions between work and home as well as builds trust. Team members can observe each other’s styles and develop a communication “shorthand” together.
- Relationships are the foundation for any working group. I feel strongly that observation time can and should morph into parent volunteerism if possible. When we are empowered within our child’s school community, real relationships form and can help promote change. If we only invite parents in when something is wrong, then that will be the only way they feel when there.
- Volunteer times should avoid day-long stints in the classroom with your child. Securing a consistent volunteer time once a month helps build relationships and familiarize with school settings.
- Get know each other as people, not just jobs and roles. This takes time—sometimes years. Parents must be involved and present to be heard and taken seriously.
- If privacy restrictions and logistics can be worked out, video taping can be a huge help in the school setting. We’ve had our son’s assistant take video using his iPad as a communication device so everyone can see a behavior and problem solve.
- Quarterly meetings are a must, no matter how busy families and school staff are. This ensures we check in with each other, are working consistently on the same goals and keeping our eye on the big picture.
- Many families have a lot of anxiety that his or her child may be unhappy at school, and that school staff should be doing something about it.
- Parents need to remember that we always see the fallout from a challenging or long day more than anyone else will. We are our child’s safety net, and they know we will still love them. Lots of kids are a mess after school—but if your gut is telling you something is wrong, go in and observe. Put your parent hat aside and your detective hat on.
- Parents should help provide concrete examples of the child’s “triggers” in the school setting, then help develop supports. A quieter room for tests, a retreat spot when overwhelmed, or an “emergency kit” with fidgets and weights are easy ways to provide a “buffer” for heightened nervous systems. The school will need data to implement these types of plans. Parents need to make sure demands are within the role of the educational system and it’s responsibility to address what is related to education.
- It’s always a good idea to find a mental health professional to work with your family on support strategies for home.
- Lastly, when big things are going down, my team calls each other. I know when the school calls, I need to answer and vice-versa.