“Luck is the residue of design.”
September marks the end of summer and the beginning of many a new school year in districts across the country. A new teacher can make or break the school year for a special needs child. For our children, teachers are everything. They can encourage or inspire, on the one hand, or they can give off a distinctively negative vibe—often unconsciously communicated to other students in the room—if they resent the additional work that having a special needs child in the classroom warrants. Count your blessings if you managed to design, by way of written request the year before, the teacher best suited in temperament, work habits and energy for your elementary school child with special needs. You’re one step ahead of the game.
But what do you do if your child’s elementary school teacher is not a good match?
First of all, let me say that the great majority of teachers who helped my son John navigate the school year were dedicated, kind professionals who had a sincere interest in helping needy kids. And even the teachers who could not contain their frustration with John were often (ironically) the most competent educators–lacking only the temperament to handle a student with multiple behavioral issues and accompanying learning disabilities. But for my kid, a teacher who lacked the temperament to handle him basically lacked everything because the two couldn’t move forward together.
John, whose ADHD diagnosis was one of his multiple qualifying conditions for an IEP, had mixed experiences with teachers over the years, but one of the worst assignments occurred in elementary school. What happened that year set the stage for many years to follow. Does that sound too dramatic? His experience with this teacher was so bad that we removed him from the public school district and placed him in a private school. That set the stage for everything that came later.
Don’t ignore a nagging feeling that something isn’t right in your child’s classroom—investigate the situation. If you let a mild situation escalate, you can soon have true damage on your hands. We learned that subtle destruction can soon become major destruction, especially in regard to your child’s future ability to make friends. If the teacher sends out angry, resentful vibes toward your child—my son was frequently sent out of the classroom to sit on the steps—then other children will pick up on those vibes. In our case, the teacher’s vibes screamed “stay away from John.”
I can’t give anyone specific advice about how to handle a bad teacher/student pairing because I don’t know the specific child or the specific teacher. Plus, I am just a parent. I’m not a therapist, nor am I an educator. I can only tell you what techniques I used to help improve a bad situation for my son John. Within the first month or so of a difficult classroom placement, I requested a meeting with the teacher to help dissipate any resentment that might be brewing. It’s also a good idea to request that the principal be present as well. (It’s a good idea to put your meeting requests in writing.)
I learned how to communicate two key points at the meeting with the teacher, which were: 1) He’s not doing anything to you, and 2) We need to know you are committed to having him in your classroom.
First, and I can’t stress this enough, I had to teach myself that my son’s behaviors were not something he was doing to me, to the teacher—to anyone. It’s so easy to think that the ADHD child is just a willful handful of aberrant behavior set out to make a parent’s (or teacher’s) life more difficult. It’s so easy—and so very, very destructive—to fall into that line of thinking with a particularly challenging ADHD child. They’re not doing anything to anyone. ADHD is a medical condition, not unlike some other electro-chemical brain imbalance, like Tourette Syndrome or epilepsy. It started to dawn on me that if I, his mother and advocate, had to teach myself that John wasn’t doing anything to me,then what must his teacher be thinking? Wouldn’t the teacher be even more inclined to see the ADHD child as just a willful handful of aberrant behavior (i.e. doing something to her)?
I learned to say things like “Please understand, this is just the way John is. He isn’t doing this to you. You’ve got to really understand that. These behaviors are part of his condition. He works very hard to try to control them all day long and sometimes he fails.” Then, if my statements were met with blank stares, or worse, barely concealed eye rolling, I might have added, “I know you would never say to a child in a wheelchair, ‘Oh, just stop it already. You could walk if you wanted to.’ You wouldn’t say that because to do so would be cruel. AND, you wouldn’t say to an epileptic child: ‘Stop that seizure right this instant’ for the same reason. So why, given that ADHD is a medically-based, brain-chemical imbalance, would you convey anger to my son? Redirection will work better for John, or allowing him an occupation therapy break—those sorts of things are always better choices than telling him to ‘stop it’ or to get angry or to communicate your frustration. Your anger will never work–never. But demonstrating your understanding will work better than you think. Please give it a try.”
This is also a good time to let the teachers know that you know the behaviors can be unnerving to them and the other students. My son pushed many a button in me, and he still does. After years of being defensive about John’s condition, I finally took the approach of being open and honest. “We know he’s a handful” or “Don’t you just wish you could find his ‘off’ switch?” can inject some humor into the situation. I often added the statement, “Believe me, no one knows better than I do the kind of energy and patience it takes to raise and educate John.”
Second, after I found some common ground with the teacher and felt like the tension in the meeting had relaxed a little, I would ask the teacher for an honest commitment. I might have said something like: “Given enough help and support for both you and John, can we make this year work? I’m committed to being here when I can to help. I am committed to following up at home with homework help. But, there is one thing I need to know from you: Are you 100% committed to having John in your classroom? It’s so important to us—and it’s important to John, who is not stupid and can sense these things—to know that you welcome him as part of your classroom like any other student. Because if you are NOT committed to this arrangement, now is the time for you to say so, and we’ll seek another placement.”
While this puts the teacher on the spot, it also gives the teacher an out. Plus, you have just committed to seeing this year through; why not ask the teacher to do the same? If you have a teacher who absolutely hates your child and if you don’t recognize the signs and act on them—and this is not too far-fetched in my experience—then you set the stage for a difficult, difficult year. Listen very closely to the teacher’s answer—this will determine whether or not you take steps to remove your child from a potentially destructive situation.
Remember, the world is made up of all kinds of different people. No two people are alike. We all make up this thing called “the public.” Your child is the public that you are paying the school system to educate (through your tax dollars). Your child has a right to a free and appropriate public education. I’m not above reminding the teacher that “my son is the public, and this is a public school. Are you in?”