When a school first sees “special needs” or some form of disability attached to a new enrolment there are a variety of emotions that run through the institution depending on its collective past experiences and the people within the organisation. These emotions range from fear, mistrust, exhaustion, anticipation, nervousness and maybe even apathy.
The reality for schools is – special needs means more work. We know this deep down in our hearts as parents – we live it everyday, so we need to acknowledge that this is true for the school as well. You may have the most wonderful, unique and gifted child but regardless a child with special needs is still going to mean more paperwork, educational adjustments, maybe physical or timetable adjustments, different staffing arrangements, different arrangements for excursions, class parties, assessments. And you do want this! It’s not a bad thing. A good school will go to these lengths to support your child as they should but we should always keep in our minds – even when they screw up – which they will (just as we as parents have screwed up) – that the school has taken on care for our children knowing there will be a lot more work with this enrolment than a non-special needs kid.
All schools will react differently but they will all also react in a way similar to a big dumb animal – reactionary, slow moving and difficult to train.
When you first approach a school you might find they remind you of a dog, for example: Some are like a yappy little Chiuwawa. They will bark loudly hoping to make the enrolment process as uncomfortable and difficult as possible in the hopes you will give up and go elsewhere. Others approach cautiously, sniffing you out – trying to see if you will bite them or smack them on the nose. Others will bound in happily like a bouncey Labrador- they are full of energy and jump all over you wanting forms signed, policies and procedures in place, training and meetings. The one thing all of these have in common is that they are responding in fear.
The only way to deal with these institutions is to treat them like a big dumb animal.
1. Keep it simple
2. Repeat often
3. Alternate with honest but worst case scenarios but lighten with humour, then back to honest worst case scenario. e.g our daughter has diabetes so it goes something like this: “If she goes under 4 she can become unconscious, have a fit and die. But don’t worry it’s not happened yet so your probably fine (insert smile here), but don’t send her to the office when low or she could pass out.
EXPERT TIP: if needed you can add a layer of guilt/liability like “and sending another child with her isn’t a solution because we would hate for that other child to witness her passing out and feel responsible”. Note how in this last comment the hint of ‘duty of care’ was cleverly hidden, also the use of “WE would hate…” while still highlighting the issue removes the teacher from the equation which in turns softens the initial gut reaction of ‘defence/attack’ mode.
4. Have realistic expectations – the school is never going to be able to care for your child to the same level as you: we are aiming for safe, reasonable adjustments and a happy child. If you start with low expectations you can always build up. *Note: never ever allow unsafe, unhygienic or dangerous practices to continue but understand the limitations of an organisation with hundreds of small bodies and only a few adults in the ratio.
5. When something goes wrong – and it will, approach the beast in a confident manner but with a soft, friendly tone. Firstly the beast may honestly not be aware of its wrong-doing. Always assume this- for your sanity and the health and safety of the person you are dealing with. If you can convince yourself of this it may provide valuable time to gather yourself so you don’t want to tear their head from their body. Speak in a way that gives them the benefit of the doubt; “you may not have been aware… not sure if we explicitly mentioned it last time… perhaps a new member of staff was unaware…”
If the beast is aware of its wrong doing it will most likely be on attack and defence mode. Using a soft, even voice and non-accusatory language will help negotiate this phase and bring them back down to a place where you can resolve the issue. Continuing to push while the beast is in defence mode will probably result in overly strict and punitive measures being put in place, almost like a punishment for insisting on your care plan. In this case trust needs to build back up on both sides before these punitive measures are removed. Gentle praise of the good things they do can help with this.
6. Add new instructions slowly or increase the level of difficulty. If a beast starts pushing back and refusing or complaining, step back a few steps and revise what the real issue is – it may not even be your situation but something else going on in the school.
7. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
8. Know your rights and your responsibilities.
9. Remember, although schools respond as a whole in a very animalistic manner, within them are human beings who all have their own stuff going on: their class of 25-30 small individuals, perhaps many others with special needs like your little person, a lot of demands on their time combined with very little peace, quiet and order, system restrictions and policies (and paperwork LOTS of paperwork), not to mention perhaps their own little families behind the scenes.
EXPERT TIP: some professionals will also have their own hang-up’s. Sometimes you do have to know when to cut your losses and acknowledge that this particular person is just not going to work with you.
10. Always keep in mind – it’s not personal! When your puppy chews your shoe or poops in the corner it’s not doing it because of you, but that also doesn’t mean you put up with poop in the corner and chewed shoes forever. There is a learning curve for everyone.
I hope this little analogy helps a little in negotiating the many highs and lows of schooling with special needs – if not, perhaps thinking about the school as a bear with a sore head will make you feel a little better.