In an earlier blog post, I shared some ideas about "How Can We Improve Special Education Services in Hawaii?" I feel that we are doing well at our school because we have great staff who truly provide quality learning experiences for our students. Our staff cares for our special needs students, and that is reflected in our classrooms as well as in our positive relationships with the child and his/her family.
The purpose of this blog post is to remind ourselves that parents are the most important person at an IEP meeting. They know their child best, and it behooves us to listen and learn from them. Sometimes, parents are uncomfortable at the meeting and may be reluctant to say much, thinking that the school knows best or even feeling a bit guilty that somehow, they have failed in their role as parents. As the school team, we try to put parents at-ease by having them share about their child. Tell us what your child is like at home. What does he/she like to do? What are your goals for your child? This information is so important because it helps the team to build a stronger relationship with the child as well as the parents. We encourage teachers to get to know their students because doing so builds stronger relationships that can truly make a difference for that child. It is no different for special needs students; in fact, it can be even more important for that child to have a teacher who knows what he/she likes or what is frustrating or what might be motivating. There have been meetings where parents clearly felt emotional when asked to share about their child. It can be difficult to share the challenges they face at home every day. Those insights can help us, the child's IEP team. We can find out so much about a child by asking his/her parents for their input, and the IEP we create together will be a stronger document as a result.
I wish that all teachers would be required to spend time in a special needs class before having their own classroom. It gives a whole new perspective on what it means to work as a team to help a student continue to grow and be successful. The one year I taught a class of special education preschoolers gave me the insight and empathy I need to be a successful administrator sitting in on IEP meetings. To this day, I remember those students and what they taught me, like Joshua who spoke gibberish when he started. His mom shared that every week, they called her parents on the mainland, and usually, he wouldn't want to talk to them or if he did, his grandparents had no idea what he was saying. Towards the end of the year, Joshua's mom shared that her parents were crying when she finally got the phone away from him the previous evening. His grandparents could understand what Joshua was so excited to share with them. I remember Sam who didn't walk when he started but was so determined to do so. At Preschool Play Day where all the special needs PK students gathered for fun and games with lots of soldier-volunteers, the last activity was to run from one side of the gym to the other. Sam started with his walker. The other kids ran and celebrated when they got to the other side. Sam kept going. He was the only one on the gym floor, and everyone was on the sidelines, cheering him on. He would stop to rest, then continue. The roar was deafening when he crossed that line, and a soldier picked him up and carried him to the loud cheers of the whole gym. I still get tears in my eyes when I remember that moment, and it was 30 years ago.
The point I'm trying to make is this. To us, that child is a student, and we do our best to help him/her to be successful in school. To his/her parents, that special needs child is their world, and they want him/her to be successful in life. I will admit that when I became an administrator, receiving training on the nuts and bolts of special education and IEPs, I was told to "be tough" and "know the law" and "don't give in." I didn't receive any training on how to work with parents, and yet, that is what makes or breaks a relationship. Each one of those special needs students and their families that I have had the privilege to work with taught me that "it takes a village" to educate a child, and the home/school relationship is crucial to a child's success.