October 20, 2011
By Dan Olawski
“I’ll be right there! Watch out world, here we come!” said Mikey as he raced across our living room. I tend to try to add my interpretation to the words that come out of Mikey’s mouth. I believe there’s often actual meaning to his echolalia-dominated sound bites. But it seemed perfectly metaphorical to hear these words a few days before the new school year started as I imagined the growing number of children with autism who would need exposure to education and proper teaching.
“Watch out world, here we come!” even sounded a little ominous coming out of the darkness that we experienced for a couple days after Hurricane Irene paid a visit to Long Island. That was at the end of a three-week period that Mikey was without school or any home services at all. Needless to say, we were thankful for the lights to come back on and for school to start back up again.
We’ve been very fortunate that Mikey has always loved school and even more fortunate that he’s always had great teachers and staff helping to address his educational and developmental needs. He’s had home services or been in a school environment since he was about two years old. This year he’s in an 8-1-2 first grade class in our school district. Mikey’s facing the challenges of a new school year, new school, new teacher, and a new school bus. Because of the way things are set up around here, he couldn’t stay at the school he was in for kindergarten last year because they didn’t offer a class for children with autism in first grade. Sadly, this is a typical problem our non-typical children are faced with every year.
It worries me when I think of how many of our children are of school age or need the formal education and therapy from a developmental training environment. I wonder: Are there enough well-trained teachers? Do we, as parents, know what we should expect or demand of a teacher or therapist? What do/should they expect from us and our children?
With about a month of the new school year behind us, it seems natural that many parents might be having these same thoughts and especially might be feeling frustrated about dealing with questions and challenges regarding their child’s education and development. Perhaps they don’t have a good resource to turn to for answers or maybe they are feeling overwhelmed by the entire process. Despite Mikey’s history of schooling, his mother and I still feel a little overwhelmed at the start of each year.
As I mentioned, over the past few years Mikey has had some amazing teachers and I decided to turn to a few of them for some advice for parents of children with autism entering a school/educational environment or for children starting in a new class or with a new teacher. These three amazing ladies have almost thirty years combined experience working with children with autism and you’d be hard-pressed to find teachers as dedicated, knowledgeable, and caring as Angela Bove (a special education classroom teacher with ten years of experience working with children with autism), Jennifer Heyman (a special education classroom teacher with five years experience), and Kathy Harney (a special education home-services teacher with 14 years experience with children with autism):
DAN: What would you say are the most important things parents should know, or should ask, when their child is starting in school or starting a new school year?
ANGELA: Parents should find out what the teacher’s philosophy is and how the teacher will communicate information to them. Parents should [also] inquire about social skills and how they are taught.
JENN: If the child is just starting to attend school, the parents should ask questions about the services that are provided (i.e., team meetings, parent training, home visits, and related services). Parents could also ask about opportunities for social skills groups (circle time, group instruction, play groups).
For students that are already in school, parents should familiarize themselves with the new classroom staff early on. Be accepting of all ideas from the new teacher, while still divulging important information about the skills that your child can already perform.
KATHY: I cannot overemphasize that parent and family involvement is key to success in the child’s learning. The home environment and parent participation is a huge factor as to how solidly a child will progress, not as compared to other children with autism, but as compared with his own potential. Parents and teachers are a team, working together for the child.
Parents will be called upon to participate in their child’s learning by understanding the child’s program and the reasons behind it, and also to generalize learned skills with consistency when the teacher is not there. Parents are a most valuable resource for teachers in planning programming.
What does a teacher expect from a new student and his/her parents?
ANGELA: I believe the teacher should have no expectations of either. Every child is different and every parent has had a different experience. As a teacher, I have no idea what it is like to live day in and day out with a child with specials needs. I make no judgment about the child or the parent because I have not walked in their shoes. I do my best to understand where the parents are coming from and try hard to help them in any way that I can.
As for the child, I do not expect anything from a new student. As the teacher, I expect to immerse myself in their world and try to gain their trust as I figure out how they think, learn, and communicate.
JENN: Every teacher should set the bar high for each student, [but] have no preconceptions. The teacher should "push" each student to perform to the best of their ability in every area [and encourage] parents to be open communicators.
KATHY: A [home] teacher will expect that parents provide a physical environment for child and teacher that is conducive to learning (including a place that is free from distractions), have the child “ready to learn” for his sessions (clean and dressed, awake and alert are usually a good start), know that teachers have different comfort levels regarding parents’ presence and/or participation while they are working with the child in a session (ask your teacher what he/she prefers, and work with that), and will be involved in their child’s learning (the more you are, the better for your child--it’s that simple).
What ways do you think are reasonable for parents to be able to communicate with their child's teacher?
ANGELA: Communication is the key to success. Because many children with autism struggle with the ability to communicate, parents need to be made aware of what their child experiences each day. Many children have difficulty with either verbal recall or they may not have the verbal ability to tell their parents how their day was. Being able to talk to a child about their day helps to reinforce language and other skills. On the flip side, it is always a good idea for a teacher to know what happened at home so they can do the same in school.
I feel that the teacher and parent should come up with a way to communicate that is comfortable for both of them. Email, texting, phone, communication books, pictures, and log sheets are great tools for communication and I utilize them all. It takes some time but in the end it makes all the difference.
JENN: Parents should always have the ability to call the teacher if they need to discuss something. Calling before school or after the children leave will allow the teacher more time to talk.
KATHY: An in-home program often allows for face-to-face communication with a child’s parents, which is wonderful. Take the time to talk with your child’s teacher.
Also, if a child is served by more than one teacher, those teachers will need to communicate with both family and each other. It is most helpful to keep a notebook in the home that all caregivers and teachers can write into, forming a “daily journal” of the child’s educational progress as well as information shared about the child’s family life and interactions.
For in-home teachers, communication by telephone or email is not very frequent, largely due to the fact that you are at the child’s home so regularly. However, they are certainly useful at times. An email shared with a child’s whole team is a very effective way send a message and/or get quick feedback without calling for an impromptu team meeting.
What kind of information should parents provide to their child's new teacher? Since all children with autism are different, what is helpful for a teacher to know right from the beginning?
ANGELA: Likes, dislikes, parenting style, prior schooling of child, whether there are siblings, any major changes that may have occurred recently, how the child communicates, health issues.
JENN: Any and all information is useful! Parents know their children best and should give the teacher any information that might help. Filling out a reinforcer inventory, informing the teacher of any irregular sleep patterns, any changes in bowels, etc. will allow the teacher to adjust the child's day as needed. The parent should always inform the teacher of any medical issues the child might have, as well as how these issues are treated at home.
KATHY: As a teacher for a new child, I like to first visit the child and parents casually in their home. I’ll talk with the parents about their child—what they see as the child’s strengths and needs, what they are hoping for as a result of our sessions. During this time, I can observe the child in a non-demanding environment. Afterwards, I’ll work to interact a bit, observing responses and social engagement.
This initial visit would be the perfect time to share with your teacher: Any medical conditions that could impact learning in any way (i.e. allergies, digestive difficulties, etc.); any sensory sensitivity that you may be aware of: sounds, sights, tactile stimuli, etc.; and any behavioral concerns you may have.
In addition, I like to leave parents with a small questionnaire that I call a “reinforcer survey”. It asks to list your child’s favorites in a variety of areas: toys, food, TV shows, activities, etc. Whether or not they actually serve as reinforcers during a learning session is yet to be seen. Some will, and others won’t. However, having this input from the parents does serve as a springboard into a successful learning exchange with the child, until I come to know him for myself.
All three teachers agreed that communication is the number one factor for success when your child is beginning in a school setting or starting at a new school. Most of our children can’t communicate for themselves, so we need to make sure we are getting an accurate account of their progress by taking every opportunity to reach out to the teaching staff and encouraging them to do the same for us.
Other topics touched on during the Q&As included the importance of working with the teacher to inspire your child to become more independent, inquiring about special services that may be available to your child, and the fact that everything is a teaching experience.
I also asked the teachers what parents shouldn’t expect from teachers and the answers were quite realistic and understandable.
Angela pointed out that, “Parents sometimes take their frustration out on teachers [and] blame the teacher if the child doesn't make progress or if the child is not ready to move to a less restrictive environment…I guess I'm trying to say that a parent shouldn't expect a teacher to try to meet all the child's goals at once and that sometimes the child needs time to attain a goal while waiting to start on the next one.”
Jenn added, “Parents shouldn't expect the school to ’watch’ the child when he/she is sick, tired, or not feeling up to par. We work in an educational facility and if the child is not working productively, the teachers are not able to meet his/her goals. Additionally, during home services the parent should always be present in the home. I have seen many parents who use home hours as an opportunity to go grocery shopping or run errands. In these situations, the home care provider essentially becomes a ‘babysitter.’ Whether the parent is involved in the home services, receiving parent training, or just present in the home, the home care provider should never be left alone or taken advantage of.”
I think the one thing I would add to all of this good advice is this: fight for your child. Over the course of your child’s education you’ll have dozens of meetings and be told what’s good for your son or daughter. You’ll be told what is and isn’t possible for you to get for your child. And, sadly, you might be told that your child won’t become a productive member of society. Never take any of that as the absolute answer—research everything and have the strength to stand up for what you believe is best for your child. Don’t be the parent that just signs off on everything and expects the professionals to do what’s right.
I want to express my utmost gratitude to Angela, Jenn, and Kathy for their time and help with this article. Their devotion and love of their students gives me hope that there are others out there like them looking out for the growing number of children with autism needing well-trained teachers. As the rate of autism diagnoses continues to climb, the demand for proper education also rises. As Mikey said, “Watch out world, here we come!”
Dan Olawski blogs about fatherhood and his son Mikey for the Autism Society. He lives with his family on Long Island, N.Y., where he works as a writer/editor. His time is spent following Mikey with a vacuum cleaner, watching his beloved New York Yankees and continuing his pursuit of the perfect chocolate chip cookie. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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