When Bad Things Happen

When_Bad_Things_HappenA story in the news like this one about a teacher accused of abusing her mentally and physically disabled students makes me really, really, REALLY mad.  So mad I think I'll go scream in a pillow for a minute. Be right back.

Okay, I'm back.  That's better.  Now I can type without a clenched jaw and shoulders tensed up to my ears.

For anyone that wonders why I home school my non-verbal son with autism the above article may provide a clue why.

I'll share a story of my own.

Several years ago when I was in negotiations with the school district for a placement for Ian I was invited to observe a classroom.

The moment I walked in the door something felt horribly wrong.  Within about ten minutes of chatting with the teacher I began to cry.  Well, sob actually.  My body picked up some serious negative energy and this classroom environment did not feel safe.

Here's what happened next.

A couple weeks later I interviewed a caregiver candidate to work in my home.  Turned out she worked in that same classroom and had recently left for very specific reasons.  I found out the teacher was under investigation for physical abuse of a little girl who was also non-verbal.

I spoke directly with two of the parents with children from the classroom because the caregiver candidate sited them as references.  One parent told me her son started crying when she got within two blocks of the school.  A father said his little girl came home with bruises on her neck and a sudden sensitivity to touch around that area.  Both parents pulled their children out of the classroom on suspicion of abuse.

I don’t know the outcome of the case nor what actually happened in the classroom.

Here's what I do know.

  1. I no longer trusted the school district employee that recommended this classroom for Ian. I walked away and said no thank you.
  2. My body guided me and I listened.  It's an incredible resource available at any time.
  3. Every behavior from a non-verbal child is communication.  Those two parents listened to their children.
  4. Teaching a classroom with special needs children requires an extraordinary amount of patience, love, compassion and the ability to tune into all the non-verbal cues going on all the time.  When a teacher loses connection with these values and skills the classroom no longer feels safe.

What I believe:

Our special education system is set up for failure.

I believe an individual that chooses to dedicate his or her career to teach special needs children does so from a place of love.  I recognize there are many extraordinary teachers that create and cultivate a space of safety and love for their students every day. I thank them and am in awe of their dedication.

Yes, there may be a few un-well people that make it into the school system however I believe the majority starts out well intentioned and passionate about their mission.

Then those amazing teachers full of energy and passion get into the actual classroom and start to experience high levels of stress with minimal support.  Their options run out, they get lost and lose site of the pathway to help.  This is when bad things happen.

I believe this to be true because as a parent I know what it feels like to lose site of the path to help.  I’ve felt completely overwhelmed, frustrated, angry and alone.  Thankfully, and with deep gratitude I had loving people around me that recognized my suffering and stepped up to help.  I also found ways to ask for help and didn’t’ lose site of my options.

What will it take to create change in the classroom?

Open, honest, calm communication between educators, administrators and parents.  There has been a serious breakdown of communication between parents and educators with so much fear around talking about a child’s disability.  Parents and schools hire advocates and lawyers to ensure they don’t say the wrong things and they actually stop talking to each other.

IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings alone generate an intense level of stress, which gets transferred to the children.  Teachers have told me they’ve been instructed not to discuss my child’s behaviors or diagnosis with me directly.  They say this in hushed tones and whispers.  I was advised not to say certain things to the teachers for fear it might be used against me in an IEP meeting.

This makes no sense to me.  How does closing off the line of communication help a child, or the teacher who supports the child and spends a large portion of the day interacting with the child, or the parent who wants the very best for their child?

I have some ideas.

  • Begin IEP meetings by going around the room and have the educators say one thing they appreciate about the parents and have the parents do the same about the educators.  This just might create feelings of collaboration rather than animosity.
  • Have a strong leader facilitate monthly meetings where parents and educators come together to express their concerns and brainstorm ways to create a safe, supportive environment for learning.  The leader’s job is to keep the conversation focused on constructive feedback and away from turning into a negative venting session.
  • Provide a safe way for teachers to ask for help from both administrators and parents.
  • Communication training for educators and parents.  Resistance causes tension, power struggles and stalemates.  Methods to promote acceptance rather than resistance helps communication flow.  In the end, beyond all the budget issues, educators and parents want the same thing.  A safe, supportive learning environment for our children.
  • Allow educators to talk candidly with parents about their child’s behaviors.
  • Pillows in every classroom so teachers can go into a closet and scream when they’re ready to pop.  Works for me.

Even though I choose to home school, I recognize that for most children and their families, the classroom is a preferred choice. My child has multiple challenges including immune sensitivities and seizures that add to the reasons I choose to home school.  There may be a day when the classroom will be a better place for him.

If you’re a parent with a special needs child in the public school system, I encourage you to stay connected with the teacher, share what you know works for your child and listen to your child’s behaviors.  Your child is so wise and will tell you when they don’t feel safe.

Finally, for both parents and educators trust what your body tells you and when you’re in trouble please ask for help.

There are many support resources available.  If you haven’t connected with your local regional center, they can provide lots of information for resources and support in your area.  The state of California also provides free advocacy services.  Other parents who have older children can be a wealth of information.  I list a number of organizations on my Resource page of my website.  As you navigate these resources your body will guide you and show you what feels best.

More children today show symptoms of autism than ever before.  I’ve read stats as low as 1 in 70 boys!  Ask any teacher.  They feel it.  Parents raising a child with autism feel it.  Children with autism are here to teach us to be more in tune with the non-verbal language occurring all the time.

For now, I continue to home school my son and he's making beautiful progress.  In the last month he started pointing with clear intention to communicate.  Regardless of whether he develops verbal language or not I hear him.

I hear the teachers asking for help.  Do you?