We sat down nervously across the table from her, wondering just exactly what was recorded about our daughter in the file she had opened before her. Before beginning she paused, peered over her glasses at me and said,
“It must be exhausting trying to teach this child.”
The words startled me, and at the same time I felt tears gather in my eyes and an intense wave of relief flood through my body.
It wasn’t just me!
I wasn’t crazy!
The daily struggles were real and measureable and diagnosable.
Every special needs parent knows this intense feeling of relief to sit with a professional and have them validate all the layers of complexity you walk through on a daily basis.
While there is no easy formula or three step plan for finding the right educational route for a child with learning differences, I do feel like I’ve learned a few things along the way during the past 7 years of parenting children with exceptional learning styles and challenges. Maybe these tips will help you, too.
- Trust your instincts. Ultimately, you know your child better than anybody else, and that’s important. If you feel like something is out of sync, you are probably right.
- Think outside the box. One of the first things you need to do is start viewing your child’s learning differences as just that…learning differences. This means they learn differently, not more than or less than their peers. It means that their brains process things differently than others and may need things presented to them in unique ways. Don’t try to fit them inside the mold of average. Be a student of your child’s unique, inquisitive, wonderfully complex mind. Study the way they see the world. Take the time to listen to their ideas, the way they describe their experiences and the things that interest them. Once you understand the way your child thinks, feels and experiences the world around them, you will be much better prepared to brainstorm what might assist them in learning and growing. Be warned, however, that you just may fall in love with the way your child views the world and decide you don’t want to fit them into a typical environment. This may prompt you to lead your child on an educational journey that looks very different than what you had previously pictured as success. For example, you may decide homeschooling, outdoor learning programs, a special needs classroom, online education or part time schooling is a better fit for your child than the typical structure.
- Do the research. While labels are not always necessary, I have found it is helpful to know exactly what it is that you are dealing with and sharing that information with others so that they can access the appropriate resources, funding, etc that may be eligible for your child. The label is less about diagnosing and more about finding an education path for your child. Don’t be afraid of the labels. They can help. Know the information needed well enough that you can summarize, elaborate and present it in multiple forms to anyone who needs to hear it and understand it. Be the expert on your child.
- Find an ally. Whether it’s a teacher, principal, pediatrician, educational assistant, therapist, social worker or special education coordinator, it’s helpful to find a professional who understands your child and is willing to advocate alongside you and hear your concerns. This person can often guide you in the right direction when it comes to finding solutions as well.
- Listen. Ask for input from your child’s current and past educators. Give them space to express their concerns, share the observations they have made and the ways they have attempted to intervene. Make sure you know what is working and what is not working, what alternatives have been tried or implemented and why. This is the part where you listen, not criticize or offer your ideas of solutions. Be humble enough to sit and learn without putting up your defenses.
- Be willing to give it a try. Most likely after you follow through on number 5, you are going to have some ideas and opinions shared with you that don’t quite match your own expectations or observations. Unless you absolutely know an idea is not going to work and have proof of that, be willing to give things a fair shot. It’s just as important to allow the system to attempt interventions as it is to find that long term plan. Each intervention is building the case for your child’s unique needs, strengths and weaknesses. They will be documented, observed and tweaked in accordance with the level of success they bring. This means finding help for your child involves a lot of patience, trial and error and frustration for both you, your child and their educators.
- Honesty. Be willing to be transparent about your concerns and goals. The more honest you are, the more likely it will be that teachers will find you approachable and caring. Admit when you don’t know what to do or where to find answers. Let them know when something just doesn’t feel right. Most of your child’s teachers are parents themselves, and you may be surprised at the journeys they themselves have walked with their own children or past students.
- Take ownership and be the advocate. I’d like to be able to tell you that you will find that one person who will do all this for you, or that you can do these things once and then it will be smooth sailing from there on out but that’s just not true. Ultimately, you are your child’s sole advocate and you need to own that and be ready to settle in for the long haul. There will be seasons where the intensity will lessen and you may be able to sit back and relax a bit, having found your child that sweet spot in their education journey where they are thriving or being carefully monitored by a gifted educator. But most of the time, you are the one who will need to monitor the interventions, strategies and progress of your child. Accepting that this is your position will give you confidence and courage to stay involved and positive on your child’s educational journey. It will help you to make the best decisions possible for your child, even if that means going against the advice of the professionals around you. They will come and go over the years, but you are the constant in your child’s life. Take that position with authority and think in perspective of that.
- Grieve. If all this just looks overwhelming and completely unattainable, maybe you need to take the time to just grieve. Grieve the loss of your expectations, hopes, dreams and misconceptions. Grieve the loss of innocence your child may have encountered as they struggled to fit in, be heard and seen. Grieve that life may not look the way you had planned. This does not make you a bad mom. In fact, this may be the key to really unlocking success for your child. No matter how hard you work to ensure your child is seen, heard, understood and thriving…children who do not fall into the category of “average” will at some point find themselves in a situation where their differences set them apart and make things more challenging. This can be painful and isolating, and if your child thinks you don’t understand their challenges or differences, they will not see you as their support when those difficulties arise. Your child wants to know that you are equipped both mentally and emotionally to understand their unique hard-wiring. So be real with them. Don’t sugarcoat the truth about their differences and don’t make all your decisions without their input. Let them know you understand that they are different and that you recognize how hard that is at times.
- Celebrate your child’s unique abilities and characteristics. Once you have grieved what might have been and acknowledged the ways that your child struggles, intentionally move on and start looking for the gifts, talents and characteristics they possess. Ironically, our strengths are usually merely the flip side of our weaknesses. For example, your child may struggle with impulsivity but it’s likely that same child is brave, curious and uninhibited by worry or fear. Perhaps your child struggles socially but is very accepting of those who cannot relate in typical ways. Take time to intentionally set aside the standard ways we evaluate success in children and look past those to the strengths your child possesses that may not show up on a report card or skills evaluation. Are they gentle, gifted with animals, intuitive to others’ needs, creative, athletic, resilient, dramatic? Your child may not end up at an Ivy League school but perhaps they will make an indelible impression on the lives around them through the unique gifts and talents they are equipped with. Let them know you see these abilities they possess and that they are just as important as literacy and numeracy skills. Create space for them to exercise their talents and encourage them to pursue their interests. Every child wants to be seen, delighted in and loved for who they are, aside from their abilities. This applies to your child, no matter what struggles they may face academically. So make this your number one priority. Before the daily reading, flashcards, fine motor exercises, speech therapy or phys-coeducational evaluations take the time to stop and just love the child in front of you. Their quirks, their flaws, their strengths, their beautiful individuality.