Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Differences & Special Education

Creating Positive Partnerships

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Here's a statement that demonstrates my remarkable grasp of the obvious: learning differences are very, very complex. So I continue to be amazed by the frequency with which I get questions (often from reporters) asking me to synthesize my son's autism or some aspect of it down to "the single most important thing"--as if that was possible. Nevertheless, when recently asked, What is the single most important thing parents need to know about special education? I had an answer ready.

The most important thing parents and teachers can do for their different-learner student is to create and sustain a productive working relationship based on honesty, respect, empathy, and commonly shared goals and ideals. Parent-school partnerships do have an emotional layer, and it can sometimes waylay even the best intentioned participants. Creating and maintaining positive partnerships requires that both parents/caregivers and educators/service providers hold to these actions and attitudes:

  • Commit to a team mentality, with a common goal of creating the best possible educational program for the student. Resolving issues in a win-win format is essential to fostering a long-term positive relationship. Leave egos and personality differences at the door.

  • Familiarize yourself with both the rights of parents/guardians and the responsibilities of the school system with regard to the provisi

  • on of services. Don't leave it up to someone else. Be personally educated and responsible.
  • Arrive for meetings on time, org-anized, and prepared. Have questions ready.

  • Be respectful. Present your opinions firmly, but politely. Avoid putting team members on the spot or deliberately embarrassing them.

  • Explain concerns clearly, without unnecessary jargon. Present specific examples; be able to back up your statements with facts. Check for comprehension often.

  • Keep a check on your emotions. Learn how to discuss, disagree, and reason with others to accomplish your goals.

  • Base decisions on the child's need, not in response to the personalities or interpersonal skills of team members.

  • Accept that a team member may have a differing point of view, but still hold the child's best interests in mind. No one is always right or always wrong.

  • Establish a rapport and maintain communication throughout the year. Share information freely, return calls promptly, and write notes often.

  • Express appreciation for all efforts large and small.

  • Parents/caregivers must respect that teachers and administrators are responsible for the educational programs of many other children besides your own. They may not always be able to respond to requests immediately. Educators/service providers must set and adhere to reasonable response timeframes.

  • Educators/service providers must recognize the parent as the expert in understanding the child and how he or she functions.

  • Be realistic about what constitutes a crisis. Only call an emergency meeting when dangerous consequences are imminent. Parents/guardians have the right to call an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting at any time during the year, but whenever possible, should keep scheduling demands reasonable.

  • Parents/guardians who decide that due process is warranted must say so honestly, without using it as a threat, so that educators may respond in a manner that avoids such a step if possible.

  • All team members must recognize that district policy or state law does not override federal law. Identify and discuss discrepancies.

  • All team members should be proactive in seeking advice from other professionals or requesting further evaluations in areas of need or uncertainty.

Respecting and valuing all individuals must be the cornerstone of all learning, throughout formal education and beyond. Understand the gravity of the decisions being made about this one child. They will affect his success or failure not just in the current year, but also for all the years ahead.

This column is adapted from 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger's, 2nd edition, by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk (2010, Future Horizons). The book recently won a Silver Medal in the 2010 Independent Publishers Book Awards.

Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is the author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and three other award-winning books on autism. The second edition of her popular 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism and Asperger's will be released this March. For book excerpts or to explore her work, visit www.ellennotbohm.com.

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