As parents, we are convinced that we know what’s best for our child, or at least what they need. When it comes to school, we may have very strong opinions about how our child learns best, how much structure they need, what kind of teacher they would work well with, what kind of classroom setting would work, or the amount of support that they need. This is especially true for children with disabilities who may require an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and specially designed instruction to meet their unique needs. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we could just tell the school what to do?
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately in some cases), that’s not how educational decisions are made. Parents have a voice in developing their child’s IEP, but they do not have the power to control the decisions of the IEP team. The IEP team may decide to agree or disagree with any suggestion that a parent makes. Other decisions, such as school assignment, teacher assignment, curriculum, school bell schedule, and graduation requirements are usually made with no input from parents at all.
It is sometimes difficult to accept decisions that you honestly feel are not in your child’s best interest. But, if you want your child to have a fighting chance to be successful in a less-than-ideal situation, you will need to be careful about the spoken and unspoken messages that you send your child. If she hears you using catastrophic language and talking a lot about how terrible things are going to be at school, it will be very difficult for her to expect to have a good experience.
I worry about children who spend all summer listening to their parent wage battle after battle in a losing effort to overturn some school-related decision. Maybe they wanted their child to be promoted, or maybe they wanted to keep them at the same grade instead of being “pushed through” to the next one. Maybe they wanted to keep their child with the same effective or caring teacher as last year, or maybe they wanted to get away from one that they felt was not a good match for their child. Maybe they wanted their child at the neighborhood school, but the special education class that he needs is at another school, or maybe they were hoping to transfer out of a school with a bad reputation or one that was in the wrong part of town. Maybe their request for an important accommodation, piece of assistive technology, or one-on-one support person was denied. Whatever the issue is, the child may have heard or overheard the parent repeatedly talking about how awful it was going to be for their child if _________ did or didn’t happen. Some parents even promise their children that,”I’m not going to let them do this to you.” What happens to your child if you lose your battle and things don’t go the way you want?
It is great, and often necessary for parents to advocate for their child’s education. However, there is a right way to do it and a point at which you need to shift your focus toward helping your child accept and be comfortable with the situation that they will walk into when they return to school. To the extent that you can, keep you child out of your conflict with the school. Try to have conversations when you know that your child (or his/her siblings) is not going to hear you or see your look of frustration afterward. Communicating with the school in writing helps with the first part of that suggestion, but you still must watch your body language and what you say to others about the situation.
If it becomes clear that you have a less than 70% chance of getting what you want for your child, then you should make a deliberate effort to help your child be open-minded about what might happen in the future. Every option has pros and cons. Try to think and talk about some possible positives of things going the other way. For example, if your transfer request was turned down, you can talk about the shorter bus ride, the friend from last year that will be at that school, the fact that the school is newer, has a better playground, or the fact that your child already knows their way around the building. If your child was retained, you can talk about how this will give him a chance to catch up with his skills and be a much stronger student when he does move on to the next grade, the fact that he can still spend time with his friends outside of class, or how he will have a head start on his classmates because he won’t be hearing everything for the first time.
Even while you are hoping for the best, you should prepare your child for the worst. Do your very best to help your child go into the next school year with hope that things will go well. Continue to work on academic, organizational or social skills over the summer to help your child become a stronger student. Look for ways that you can work with the school to create a successful experience for your child, even if things didn’t exactly go the way you wanted them to. Helping your child develop resilience, the ability to bounce back from hardship, will be a greater gift than smoothing out every potential bump in the road to adulthood. You know what they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” What you definitely don’t want, is to have your child go to school looking and feeling like he just sucked on a giant lemon!