‘Leo has a good heart and wants to be friends with everyone, but sometimes he doesn’t know when to stop. When he was diagnosed with ADHD last year, one teacher told me that she didn’t believe in the condition and that he just needed better parenting and more boundaries. I went home and cried.’
Jenny’s son, Leo, is an active boy who is always on the go. Most four year olds find it hard to sit still for any length of time, but Leo really struggles to stay in one spot, wait or take turns.
Leo’s preschool years weren’t exactly smooth sailing for Jenny, and in fact he was asked to leave two early childhood centres because other parents complained about his boisterous behaviour. The experience left Jenny feeling anxious about teachers and worried about how Leo might be perceived when he started school.
If you, like Jenny, are lying awake at night worrying that your sensitive child’s needs aren’t going to be understood when school begins, you’re not alone. I’d hazard a guess that most parents of kids with unique needs have felt exactly as you do.
How can you guarantee the teachers, parents and children that your child will join at school will understand what life is like for you and your child?
The simple answer is, you can’t.
While it’s likely that you’ll meet some people with whom you will ‘click’ and who will understand your sensitive child’s struggles, there will be others who won’t.
And that won’t necessarily be because they don’t care or are nasty people.
It just might be that their ability to see things from your perspective is limited by their own experiences.
Or it might be because you haven’t communicated the information they need to understand your child as well as you could have.
In schools, every teacher brings a set of individual personal and professional experiences to their classroom.
Every principal is constrained by policies and procedures they must follow.
Every parent has values and ideas about how they want to raise their children, and because we are all different, the way other people see things might be different from the way you do.
That’s why it’s important to have realistic expectations about how much teachers will know and understand when they meet your child for the first time.
Often, we expect a lot from the people at our child’s school.
We expect that, because we’ve written a sentence or two on an enrolment form, or had a brief conversation on open day, that they will remember what we have told them.
We expect that, because they are teachers, they will know exactly what accommodations our child might need in the classroom or playground when they arrive at school.
But having this expectation is probably a bit unrealistic.
When your son or daughter starts school, people will need to get to know you and your child before they can really understand the things that make your family unique. This takes time and effort, on both parts.
As a parent who is about to embark on a new relationship with your child’s first school, I encourage you to be as involved as possible in your child’s education.
The positives that come when parents and teachers get to know one another as people are immeasurable, and you will never fully appreciate how important your relationships at school are until you encounter a bump in the road and have to find a way to get over it.
Teachers generally want the best for kids (after all, that’s usually why they chose a career in education) and they care about families and parents too.
If they can help you, they usually will – but as your child heads off to school, it’s worth remembering that it takes two to tango.
If you are going to be the kind of parent whose contact with the school is confined to epic 1000-word emails, after-school teacher ambushes and weekly phone calls to the principal, you’re unlikely to build much rapport with the school and its staff.
On the other hand, if you are the kind of parent who puts their hand up to help in the classroom, attends P & C meetings every six weeks, or gives up a morning for a once-a-term working bee, you will find that, over time, you will have many informal opportunities to get to know teachers (and other parents).
And while you’re doing that, they’re getting to know you too.
There’s also more to building new school relationships than just showing up to events.
Letting teachers know and acknowledging when things are going well is just as important as keeping them in the loop when your sensitive child is struggling.
Parents who recognise the extra effort staff make and don’t leave it until the end of the year to say thank you are really appreciated by hard-working educators.
So during the year, if you have five minutes to spare, it might be nice to send an email, card or quick note to your child’s teacher to share some good news.
Positive words and actions help to build positive relationships, and positive relationships between parents and teachers build better outcomes for kids.
Like Jenny, you may have had discouraging experiences with teachers in the past, or you might have heard horror stories from other parents about how schools have handled their children with unique needs.
It’s natural to worry that your child’s additional needs might be misunderstood at school, but remember, the future is not always determined by the past.
If you are feeling a little defensive and uncertain about who you can trust with sensitive information about your son or daughter, be encouraged that you don’t have to shout about your child’s differences from the rooftops when you get to school.
Your child doesn’t have to wear a label on their chest that announces their challenges to the world, and if you ask them to keep information about your child and family confidential, most principals and deputy principals will respect your request.
Just as your child will forge new relationships next year, so will you. If you value the quality of the relationships you will make with teachers and other school staff, you will need to share the responsibility for making and keeping good connections.
Are you up for the challenge?
Written by Sonja Walker
© 2019 Kids First Children’s Services
The article above is an excerpt from SCHOOL READY: A practical and supportive guide for parents with sensitive kids by Kids First founder, teacher and best-selling author Sonja Walker.