As a parent, there isn’t much that means more to you than your children. You want them to be happy, healthy and one day able to put you in a nice nursing home with an oceanfront view! We all know that it is harder and harder to find a good job without an education and the lack of a good job makes everything more difficult. As parents, we understand the value of a good education, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to do when you see your child begin to struggle in school.
I began my career working in a Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) in Alabama. I was trained to help families who have children with special needs to advocate for the services to ensure their children receive a free, appropriate public education. I worked with families from all over the state who had children with every type of disability. I trained groups of parents throughout the state. I helped them to understand what the federal laws were and how to access the state regulations. I went with them to meetings to model effective communication skills. In spite of all my experiences and all of the families I helped, I still wasn’t prepared when my child was identified as eligible for services.
My son struggled with attention problems and was ultimately diagnosed with ADHD. We also discovered through the testing process that he had learning disabilities in written expression and math. The evaluations didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Every night I saw him struggle with those challenges and tried to help him. I knew that his challenges were not his fault and that there were services that could help him, but trying to articulate that to his teachers was often very frustrating. Before his evaluation, I was told he was not motivated, that he didn’t try hard enough, and that he just needed to pay more attention. Finally getting the evaluation was like a Christmas miracle because at last I had something to point to and say it’s not his fault, let’s stop trying to blame him and talk about how we can support him!
Even with the diagnosis, the evaluations, and the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), I had a hard time getting help for my child. It was hard to schedule meetings and then they often seemed rushed to get me out and get the next parent in. The services would be in his IEP but I’d find out they weren’t being provided in his classroom. I feared I was being labeled as the “problem parent” because I was asking for too many meetings to try to address the services that weren’t being provided or weren’t working. I didn’t want to push for too much because I was always afraid there would be repercussions against my son.
Ultimately, I realized it is really, really hard to advocate for your own child all by yourself. I really believe that most of the educators in my son’s life wanted him to be successful but were overwhelmed or under resourced. I was most frustrated by the times I was not treated as a partner in his education; when teachers acted like I hadn’t spent years with this child taking him to doctor’s appointments, sporting events and birthday parties or when the principals acted like I hadn’t been to a hundred other IEP meetings where they told me not to worry because they didn’t need to put it all down on paper since we were all in agreement.
I believe that every parent wants the best for their children, even if they aren’t sure how to articulate it or what it looks like. I also believe that educators decide to teach because they care about children and want to see them do well. I hope one day we all recognize that in each other we can really embrace a true partnership where we help each other to help our children succeed.