Imagine you’re a teacher. You have 30 children in your class who each have different abilities. You have 30 sets of parents who each have different backgrounds. You have to educate 30 young minds while managing their parents’ expectations, meeting the curriculum requirements and making sure each child gets enough daily physical activity. It can be tough, but you love teaching and you love children.

Then you find out you are going to have a child with “special needs” in your class next year. You wouldn’t say this out loud, but all a “special needs” child really means is more work.

Unfortunately, this is the reality. Many teachers celebrate when they get the “good kids” and hope to avoid the children with “special needs” in their class. I recently presented at our local PWS conference where the most common question was “How do you get the school to get it?”

I’ve presented a lot about IEPs, SMART goals, transitions and visual schedules, which are all useful tools, however unless the teacher “gets it” all of these tools will be ineffective. The teacher looks at your child like she is more work and unless you can “break that barrier” you are going to have a difficult year.

So, how do you break the barrier?

The answer, of course, is with love.

You love your child. You would do anything to help them succeed. The teacher doesn’t love your child – yet – so they are not ready to take on the extra work. In addition, before any child can learn, they need to feel loved and appreciated for who they are. Children thrive on their sense of belonging through the love they share with the people that surround them. Therefore, it is imperative that learning begins with love and the only way to love someone is to get to know them.

School can be stressful for any child and we expect our children with PWS to charm their teacher right off the bat. The reality is our children use up all their energy dealing with their anxiety and combating the daily challenges of PWS. Showcasing their loving personalities doesn’t always happen right away.

This is where we come in. As parents we have to help school staff to get to know our children for who they are. When the staff really gets to know our children, they can’t help but fall in love with them. So how can we accomplish this?

Help the school fall in love with your child and break that barrier:

  1. Tell a story. Make it personal: Whether it’s your first meeting at the beginning of the year or half way through the year, telling and sharing personal stories are always a great way to break the barrier. Stories are the best way to get to know anyone. Our family created a slideshow that told a story about our journey with PWS and the joys and strengths of our 8 year old son, Dante. We shared the first 3 minutes of this video which was able to introduce our family to the school team in a vulnerable way that allowed the team to sympathize with our situation while understanding that our family was willing to do whatever it took to help Dante reach his maximum potential.
  1. Empathize with your school team: Their perspective is just as important as yours and your child’s and it is often very different than yours. Parents can easily be seen as overprotective, perhaps a little “crazy” and demanding. The reality is that teachers see a child with special needs as more work. Explain you understand how difficult your child can be at times. At one of our meetings, I shared a feeling of frustration and admitted that my son’s repetitive questioning can be really annoying at times. I followed my confession with a strategy that made it more manageable.
  1. Make the teacher the “star”: Invite each member personally to join your child’s network. Tell them you are building an all-star team around your child so he’s got the best shot at reaching his maximum potential. Ask them if they want to be part of this team and welcome them with open arms. Invite the teacher, the principal, any therapists involved at the school level, the Educational assistant or teacher’s aide and include the student on some occasions. This team can meet every 6-8 weeks (or as needed) to share what is working (or not), discuss progress of goals and troubleshoot. Also remember to end every school year with a celebration and appreciation for each team member. The teacher is now rooting for your child to succeed.
  1. Create a student profile you develop with your child: Student profiles should be personal and include a picture of your child. The profile can be shared with each team member and kept in folders for supply teachers and aids. An editable version of this profile can be found in the files section of our Educational Advocacy Facebook Group.
  1. Help the teacher identify your child’s strengths: It’s easy for a teacher to identify the strengths of a typically developed child. In between meltdowns and learning difficulties it can be challenging for a teacher to identify your child’s strengths. Ask the teacher what your child does well or ask them to share a positive story. Once the teacher begins to see the strengths and uniqueness in your child, they will begin to see them as a welcome addition to the class and not just more work. Their sense of humour adds value and life to any class and their long term memory can keep any teacher on track.

It’s a different approach, its hard work but it’s worth it! You end up becoming the strong but silent advocate that everyone loves. Your child will become the student that every teacher wants in their class. The teacher will begin to look for more opportunities to get your child involved because they are personally and internally rewarded when your child is successful. Your child will end up teaching the school staff what life and priorities are really about. Dante has already made a difference and he is only in 4th grade.

To get to know anyone IS to love them. Our job (as parents) is to facilitate that relationship. Now that Dante’s school loves him for who he truly is, the diagnosis becomes second and he gets to showcase his charm and keeps everyone laughing with his adorable sense of humor and beautiful smile. Behaviour will come and go, but Dante’s personality will always stay the same, infectious and warm-hearted!

About Tanya Johnson

HeadshotTanya is a passionate Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT) who has been teaching for 15 years. She has taught in all grades ranging from Kindergarten through 12th Grade. She currently works with students of various abilities including, Autism and Developmental Disabilities. Tanya has a Specialist in Special Education, has focused training in Behavior Management and has developed and implemented successful transition resources.

Tanya is the co-founder of FPWR Canada, Board Member of the FPWR and co-founder of the International One SMALL Step Events that take place in 8 different countries. Tanya has also chaired the FPWR Canada National Conference over the past 5 years, bringing her passion for education, advocacy and research to parents and professionals dealing with Prader-Willi Syndrome.

Tanya Johnson is a proud mother to Denzel (7yrs) and Dante (8yrs). Since receiving Dante`s diagnosis of Prader-Willi Syndrome, Tanya has made it her mission to unite and empower families and to eliminate the challenges of Prader-Willi Syndrome as well as help families of all rare disorders to advocate for their children in the school system.

Tanya Johnson | Stay tuned for | [email protected]