I was raised by teachers. My dad was a classroom teacher and taught both 5th and 6th grades for over 38 years. My mom went back to school when I was in high school for education and proceeded to be a special education teacher – primarily in a resource room – for 25 years. To say that “Back to School” was an event in my household growing up would be an understatement. That phrase always held – and continues to hold – incredible meaning for me. Education was important, meaningful and expected to be held in high esteem. School came first.
This year, I have been watching the back to school pictures and comments on facebook. Since mid-August, there have been smiling faces, new clothes, brightly colored backpacks and lots – I do mean lots – of interesting comments on the start of the school year. The vast majority have been sharing mixed emotions of children getting a year older, gaining independence, and excitement for new starts. But, there have been just as many comments laced with fear and trepidation over challenges that their children will face this year. Will their teacher like them? Will they like their teacher? Will they have friends in the class? Will they fit in? Will they learn this year? Will this year be as hard as past years? How can I help my child in school?
As a special education advocate, a huge part of my job is helping parents to join with their school team in an effective and collaborative way. Sounds nice and easy, but it isn’t always so cut and dry. Education has a language all of its own. And, for many families, that language can feel intimidating and overwhelming. And, if you happen to have a child with any special learning needs, there is often so much information to stay on top of, so many things to follow up on and so much additional time, effort, energy and perseverance that has to be done in order to help your child learn. It is exhausting, to say the least, and most certainly a full time job. Juggle that with responsibilities to work, home, other children, family, spouses, etc. Well, it’s a lot.
One of the best ways to stay on top of everything at school is to join with your school team. Particularly if your child has special learning needs, it is critically important to get to know the folks in your child’s school. This doesn’t mean that you need to volunteer for 10 hours per week or memorize everyone’s name. But, it does mean that you need to reach out to those that will come into regular contact with your kids.
One thing that I always encourage my families to do is to write an email to the classroom teacher – and any other support staff including, but not limited to, special education teacher, social worker, school psychologist, PE teacher, Art & music teachers, speech/language pathologist – sharing your child’s learning needs at the start of the school year. This would include strengths and weaknesses, things that work (or don’t work) behaviorally, worries that you have for your child, hopes that you have for the upcoming year – basically, whatever information that you feel will be helpful for the school team to know. If your child has an IEP (individualized Educational Program), it is also very helpful to ask for a team meeting in the first month of school. Bring your IEP to that team meeting and ask who is working on what goals and delivering each type of instruction. Ask your team for regular updates on your child’s progress. Be it one time per week or one time per month – however frequently that you need to be informed of how things are going. And, if it feels as though it’s not going so well, get in touch with the team sooner rather than later.
Another tip to do from the start of the school year is to ask pointed questions. If reading is an issue, ask what DRA level your child is currently being instructed at, ask where he/she may be getting stuck and any strategies at home that you can do to reinforce the teaching in the classroom. Ask for your child’s daily and weekly schedule. This is particularly helpful if your child sees a number of different service providers throughout the day. Double check the IEP to make sure that your child’s goals and objectives are data driven. If they are, ask that baseline data be sent home in order to track progress more readily.
The primary goal in all of this is to be informed. Know what is going on so that you can resolve issues before they become problems. Setting up a strong working relationship with your child’s team from the start of the school year is a key ingredient to a successful year. This is not to say that problems won’t come up – they will. But, you will be better prepared to deal with them. And hopefully, at the end of the school year, the answers to all those back to school questions will bring a smile to your face – and your child’s! Always know that if problems do show up, your CAA advocate is there by your side to help support you.
Jill Chuckas, MSW
Special Education Advocate
Helpful take away ~ Back to School checklist:
- Emails to teachers with child’s learning strengths/weaknesses
- Ask for service schedule
- Check IEP service hours against schedule
- Check to see that goals/objectives are data driven
- Ask for baseline data to be sent home by end of September
- Ask for regular communication – figure out with team if weekly, bi-weekly, monthly
- Check to see when the annual review and triennial review dates are –contact CAA advocate at least a month prior to review date to prep for the meeting
- Ask any clarifying questions on CMT scores (more to come on this topic soon)