Special Education

Here’s What Children With Disabilities and Their Families Want Teachers to Know as We Start the School Year

As a mom of a child with disabilities, I know we parents can spend the early days of the school year terrified that a new classroom teacher won’t know how to support our children. In hopes of showing how to make the beginning of the year easier for students, parents and teachers, I talked with some students with disabilities and their parents to find out what they want teachers to know about them when they walk in the door. 

I started with my own daughter, who has autism and killed it at school last year, with the support of a fantastic team of adults. She said, "I want him to know that I'm not good at math. Oh, and all about my Calm Box." The Calm Box is exactly what it sounds like, a small box with her favorite fidgets and calming tools.

Then I moved on to other families. A rising fourth grader with multiple disabilities, physical and learning-related, told me, “If I seem to be having a hard time with something, please don’t stare at me or look over my shoulder.” 

A fifth grader from Michigan said, “I want my teacher to know I have mints in my backpack that help when I’m anxious or nervous. I also want her to know that I can go to my special ed classroom by myself and I don’t need anyone to help me. I’m not stupid.”

Not assuming kids are “stupid” and knowing how to offer appropriate support came up a lot. 

“I want my teachers to know I’m smart, even though I don’t always get good grades and my homework is probably done and in my backpack and I could use an extra, personalized reminder to get it out,” said an eighth grader from Ohio. 

The parent of an Arkansas third grader told me her son wants teachers to know how to meet special needs and how to help children calm down when they get frustrated or anxious.

Don’t Use Fear and Shame to Enforce the Rules

Unfortunately, some common practices many teachers use can really harm children’s learning—especially when shame and fear are used to enforce behavioral expectations. 

For example, one parent noted, “To a kid with high anxiety, a clip chart is distracting, creates an unhealthy view of behavior and is overall detrimental to their learning. If my kid wasn’t so worried that everything he did was subject to public scrutiny—including feeling that if he got something wrong he’d be punished—he could have used all that energy towards actually learning. And would have gotten a lot more sleep.”

It takes time for teachers to learn what is going on underneath the surface with their students. A second grader from Oak Park, Illinois, told me, “I’m trying really hard even if it doesn’t look like I am. Also, I often feel calm even when I don’t look calm.” 

The parent of a North Carolina fifth grader noted, “When he stares into space, he isn’t ignoring you, he is Level 3 autistic with epilepsy. He may be in a seizure. Don’t yell at him or tell him to focus...he physically can’t.”

“Kids don’t like being singled out,” said another mom. “My son, 8 and entering third grade, said when the teacher tells him maybe he should go get a drink of water, he knows that means they think he’s being overly dramatic. I’d like for his teachers to know that, as frustrated as we can become with his behavior, he’s at least twice that frustrated himself.”

‘Understand My Child Is a Human with Desires, Not a Case with Issues’

It’s also important to get to know siblings of kids with disabilities and understand how they have learned to cope, especially when their sibling manifests challenging behaviors. 

“The teachers put me into groups with kids who need help or get into trouble a lot, because they know I’ll do my best to keep everybody working. But it really stresses me out,” says the sister of a brother who can be defiant in class. “But when they ask me if I’m OK, I’ll say yes, because I don’t want to upset them.”

Her mother advises, “While we work on her being assertive, I want to remind others that’s she’s only 10, not 30, even though she can appear ultra-mature at times.”

My parent friend who argued against clip charts for behavior put it well: “Presume competence. Understand my child is a human with desires, not a case with issues. Make learning engaging. Understand that behavior is communication.” And, for this child’s specific issues: “do not deviate on diet.” This rising seventh grader is lucky. As my friend said, “Gets all of that from an excellent teacher and staff. Looking forward to another great year.”

Here’s hoping all you parent-warriors and your children have a great one, too.

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.

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