Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2007

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

The View from the Other Side of the Desk
What special education teachers want you to know.

By Ellen Notbohm

As transitions go, my son's transition to middle school had been smoother than any parent with an IEP [individualized education plan] in hand could hope for. It had been a very good year with very good teachers. But as the year wound down with alarming speed, the scheduling of the annual IEP meeting just wasn't happening. Repeated requests-- at increasing decibel levels--to resource teachers went unresolved amid scheduling problems, administrative issues, illnesses, and other roadblocks.

When we finally did meet, five days before the end of the school year, I told the excellent resource teacher only half-jokingly, "You're almost there. Only five more days, and then you're done with me."

And this excellent teacher stopped in his tracks and looked at me with surprise. "Oh no," he said. "No. I've had some challenging parents this year, and you're not one of them."

At that, it was my turn to stop in my tracks. What, I wanted very much to know, constitutes a "challenging" parent? It was too intriguing a thought to leave on the table, so a few months later we came back to it. His very thoughtful portrait of a challenging parent led me to ask other special educators, teachers of students from toddlers to high schoolers, from several different school districts, the same question. And although each came from his or her own unique situation, the common threads in their thoughts were striking. A number of these common threads formed the basis for my book Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew.

Here then is the view from the other side of the desk, the voice of your special education teacher:

Be team oriented. A combative attitude does not enhance our ability to make progress with your child. Our relationship should be an alliance, not an adversarial face off. We are all here because of the child; he or she is our common interest, and it's important not to lose sight of that. It isn't about you or me, or whether we like each other.

Give me the courtesy of a clean slate. You may have had bad experiences with previous teachers or schools, but putting past conflicts or issues onto me, coming in with guns blazing before you even have a chance to get to know me or my program, is counterproductive. "This is what has happened in the past, and I expect the same from you" is looking for trouble where possibly none exists.

There's a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. And there is a cost. Teachers appreciate parents who are knowledgeable, effective advocates for their children. Knowing what your rights are, knowing the facts on the ground, and requesting services and accommodations firmly but respectfully is light years removed from being a fist-pounder.

"We are not here for the money or the recognition," says an elementary school resource teacher. "We are here because we love these kids. In an ideal world, I want to share with the parent any inside perspective I have about the system and how it affects decisions about their child. But if I sense in any way that the parent will use the information in a way that comes back on me or threatens my job, it's only natural that I will not share."

Undermining me undermines your child's learning. Communicating to your child that everything that's going wrong is the school's fault undermines your child's ability to trust me, to comply with necessary classroom boundaries, and ultimately, to learn.

All children, even special-needs children, need to assume some level of responsibility for their behavior and its consequences. We are sometimes faced with parents who say, "I cannot believe my child would do such a thing. It must be somebody else's fault. If you had been doing this, he wouldn't have been doing that." Sometimes that's the case. When a parent insists this is always the case, however, I need to gently suggest that we all take a closer look at what is actually going on.

Step back and listen as open-mindedly as possible when faced with information that makes your blood pressure rise. It's very common for children to exhibit a different set of behaviors at school than they do at home.

Having to be both teacher and case manager can put me in a very difficult position. Especially in early childhood education, it often falls on the teacher/case manager to identify the fact that my particular classroom or program isn't the best fit for your child.

"Please know," says an early-intervention teacher, "that when I tell you we need to transition your child to a different setting, it isn't because I don't like her. Hear me as objectively as possible when I tell you she is strugglingOein the current placement and would benefit from a different setting, that we need to modify the IFSP [individualized family service plan] or IEP and find a better environment."

Don't assume I know everything about your child. I may only have the prior year's academic information, and perhaps no personal information at all. Tell me anything you think is important for me to know about your "whole child." Be a resource for us, a bridge between programs. Share with us what has worked and not worked with your child in the past.

We cannot do everything for your child. Your child is entitled by law to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive setting. That is not equivalent to the best possible education. "You get the Chevy; you don't get the Cadillac," as one teacher puts it. "You get safe, reliable transportation, but you don't get the CD player and the leather seats." It's a distinction many parents don't understand--special education is intended to provide for adequate growth, not maximum possible growth.

Federal law mandates we ensure kids who have a disability are making adequate progress, as defined and measured yearly in their IEPs. The idea is that without accommodation, they wouldn't make adequate progress in general education, and therefore would not be getting a free and appropriate public education.

A middle school teacher describes it this way: "Let's say you have a fifth grader who is reading at a second-grade levelOeSo we set a goal, in a calendar year, for the child to make a year's growth, which is what his peers would make. But he's still behind, he isn't catching up. In order for him to catch up, he would have to outpace his peers. Some kids do that, but it's very difficult and not realistic.

"We have many commitments to multiple content areas. If we were to spend half the day on reading alone, sure, we could catch the kid up. But that's not appropriate, because we give up everything else. And so we always have that discussion every year in an IEP meeting. We have a certain amount of time. How do we set goals? How much time do we need to meet each goal? How much are we going to be able to accomplish, given math, science, social studies, all of these other [required] content areas?"

Your child is not my only student. When I am meeting with you, when we are in a discussion and problem-solving mode, in that moment, your student is the only one I am concerned about. But back in my classroom, I have anywhere from a few to a few dozen other students in my caseload, and I have the scheduling restrictions that naturally come with that caseload. It simply isn't possible for the needs of one child to dictate my entire day. Asking that of me is painful for both of us.

Early intervention works. Here's an extension of a universal truth: The earlier the better--and the better the earlier the better. Catch things early, intervene well--and including your family, not just the school. No one was ever sorry they intervened early, but legions of families regret "waiting to see if he outgrows it."

See the positive in your child. Have an honest understanding of what the range of your child's disability means, but also recognize her strengths. Too often, the most difficult parents to work with are the ones who cannot see the positive qualities of their children. Their focus is stuck on what the child can't do. Perhaps they do not want to have a child with a disability. Perhaps they are stuck in the grieving process. But for the teacher, it's very hard to deal with.

Promote independence. Help your child learn to do things for himself, rather than doing it for him. Many teachers are parents themselves and understand the time stress families are under. But whether it's homework or personal organization, expedience in the moment will impede his learning to be independent in the long run. If you pack and unpack his backpack for him every day, how will he learn the importance of being organized, knowing where things are when they are needed, and how to find items or information? The parents who are most effective are the ones who teach as well as parent. The two are synonymous.

Ellen Notbohm is author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, a ForeWord 2005 Book of the Year Honorable Mention winner, and Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew, a 2006 Parenting Media Award winner. She is also coauthor of the award-winning 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. © 2006 Ellen Notbohm. For article reprint permission, to learn more, or to contact Ellen Nothbohm, visit

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