I am a teacher-parent and an autism mom. I know first hand that special education teachers have a tough job, but I also know that parents of children who exhibit difficult behaviors do too. When you add the complexity of teaching and parenting a child with autism, sometimes you feel a little lost. How much is too much to expect from your child’s teacher? If you know the policies for children with disabilities well enough to know they aren’t being followed, do you risk your job to fight for your child? What’s a teacher-parent of a child with challenging behaviors to do?
Have you ever heard teachers whisper about another teacher’s kid and their behavior issues? How could they possibly have good classroom management if they cannot control their own child, right? I spend all day teaching, managing behaviors, and running an efficient classroom, but I also recognize the number to my son’s school when I check my missed calls and cringe when I see it. How often do we call when something good is going on? Every once in a while, his teacher will text me and tell me he’s having a good day, but when I see either the school or the teacher’s number pop up on my phone, I brace myself for a moment. Did he hit someone today? How many shelves did he clear before they called? Are they suspending him for a day or more than a day? And finally, I think, “Oh crap. Now I’ve got to tell my boss that I have to leave again.”
The stress is enormous. Sometimes I get phone calls in the middle of class. Sometimes I get phone calls in the middle of the class that I need the least amount of disruptions in. My class phone is near the door, but does not have a long enough cord for me to tell the neighboring teacher that I need to take a phone call in private. How many of my students have overheard me on the phone either explaining to the office why I have to go or trying to get off of the phone with my son’s school? As a teacher, phone conversations are never private because you can’t leave them unsupervised. You try to speak in code or give “yes” or “no” answers in hopes that they don’t understand what you’re talking about. You try not to let them see you sweat.
So how much do I expect from my son’s teacher? Is it too much to hope that something would be in place to handle behavior issues for a child with autism? Should I expect them to be able to answer the question, “What triggered it?” With multiple adults in one room, should they not know? I know enough about special education policy to know that having an IEP does not mean a child cannot be suspended. It merely means that after ten days, a manifestation meeting must be held. My child is constantly suspended for behaviors related to his disability, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it. What it does mean is that I have questions. What more could have been done? Do I really I believe that he did it for no reason at all? After all, all behaviors have an antecedent.
As a parent and a teacher, here’s what I need from my son’s school system and what I promise to do in return:
Pay attention to my child’s mood. He needs more breaks on the bad days, and he needs them proactively, not just after he’s blown up. In return, I promise to give you an advanced warning when he’s not slept well or is having a bad morning.
— Look for the cause. You may not understand it, but it’s there. Sometimes, at home, he has a meltdown because the cat won’t get off of his blanket or because the dog ate the cat’s food. As a child with autism, anything that happens unexpectedly or beyond his control can be a trigger. In return, I promise to tell you when I notice new triggers for behaviors at home. I also promise to continue to work with you to moderate the reactions to the triggers.
— Remove all extra stimulation or provide a way to escape from it. Children with autism often have sensory processing problems. Too much noise, or too many people, or even lights can bother them. When he’s already overwhelmed, it’s ten-fold for my son. In return, I will provide anything I can reasonably provide to help you provide sensory breaks, such as kinetic sand, essential oils, and headphones.
— If the activity is challenging, add planned breaks every five minutes at a minimum. That seems like a lot, but it doesn’t take much frustration to set him off, and until he builds confidence with a skill, he gets frustrated often. Frustration for prolonged periods leads to meltdowns. In return, I promise I will also work with him to build up his tolerance to frustration and build his confidence.
— Please do not suspend him if you don’t have to. He wants to go home because school is an uncomfortable place for him, and it’s not a punishment for him. In return, I promise to work to find rewards that will give him the incentive to behave and carry out a system at home with consistency. I cannot promise the consequences we implement will work or that the same rewards will work every time, but I will do everything I can to support you in the classroom.
As a teacher-parent, I understand there are some behaviors that cannot be tolerated at school. The safety of others is the primary concern of any teacher, and I do not expect my son to be kept at school at the expense of another child’s safety. I do expect, however, that reasonable proactive steps will have been taken prior to a behavior issue whenever possible. After all, our goal is to keep children in the classroom. Sometimes that means thinking outside the box with children. I know my son has challenges and that those challenges produce behaviors that are difficult to manage, but I also know that he is so proud when he does well at school and gets noticed for it. I know that he, like all children, wants friends and often feels alone. He needs our support, encouragement, and love. Let’s work together, teacher-to-teacher, to make that happen.