Through a series of small events recently, I have felt The Universe tapping me on the shoulder, asking me to raise a few questions about the ways we “help” our autistic and other special needs children. I’m in support of any intervention that benefits the child and that the child wants to receive. But I’ve realised it’s easy to think we are doing something in their best interests when, in fact, it may not be.
SPECIAL NEEDS, SPECIAL GIFTS
Being a person of faith, I am certain that each person’s mind and body is designed to best serve their soul’s purpose. I believe that we are individually shaped in a way that helps us to learn what we’re here to learn and to contribute what we’re here to contribute.
To someone whose child has a condition that causes them suffering of some sort, for me to say there is divine purpose to it may seem insensitive – I’m not the one watching my child struggle or dealing with the unrelenting challenges of caring for them. As a teacher, meeting the special needs in my class required hours of extra work and added a further layer of stress & exhaustion, so I get it to some extent.
But, through our struggles – the special needs students’, their families’, their classmates’ and my own – I could see that these children’s differences were more special gifts than they were special needs.
Firstly, many of them generated a lot of compassion and caring from their classmates who, on the whole, were quick to accommodate and assist them. In this way, there is no doubt that the special needs children facilitated an expansion of Love in the world, just by being themselves.
I noticed that many children with special needs had a special ability also. The dyslexic children I worked with were often very articulate or had vivid imaginations. Some of the children who struggled socially had extraordinary logic or mathematical computation skills. I recently heard Martha Beck, whose son has down syndrome, speak of his tremendous capacity for presence and empathy.
These children also offered a different way of viewing the world. This was particularly noticeable in the children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Their brains not filtering and processing their experiences in the same ways as most of ours do, they brought new perspective to things and noticed things I didn’t. If I were to line up all of my students, like a row of crystals or prisms hanging in the window of a new-age shop, the autistic children would be those that are a different shape to most. The reflections they create would stand out for their uniqueness but all the children would be reflecting the same source of light. If we take the time to look, we will see what they have to show us.
This week, I shared a BBC video on my Facebook page in which TV presenter Chris Packham talks about both how he has struggled with and benefited from his autistic characteristics. Given the opportunity to be cured, he says he would decline.
“We need to understand autistic people better, not try to change who they are”. – Chris Packham.
HELPING, NOT CHANGING OUR CHILDREN
In a conversation with a friend recently, she told me about some research she had heard of. Scans were taken of the brains of people with ASD. They then received some kind of therapy which changed their brains so that, in follow-up scans, their brains looked “normal” or closer to normal after treatment than they did initially. Some of these people had their ASD diagnosis removed as a result. I was intrigued that this was even possible and, at first thought, this seems like a great result. But I wondered wheather, in losing their autism, these people would also lose the gift of it and, maybe, a portal to their purpose? Did having “normal” brains make the autistic people feel better or did it make others feel better about them?
Perhaps The Universe will now adjust to find other ways to help these people live their purpose and, for a person able to give their consent to treatment I don’t object. But it made me think about the way we approach special needs in general. It’s great to accommodate people, teach and assist them to function more easily in our world. But there’s a line which can be crossed. The goal is not to make them fit into our world – spiritually, they already fit.
For all of our children, special needs or not, our ultimate goal is to empower them be their truest, most joyful selves. For any person, receiving the help we need feels good but, when we sense that we are being moulded & shaped to suit others, the message we get is that we are not good enough as we are and that we should change. Perhaps the placement of that line where supportive help becomes being changed is different for each person and we need to be sensitive to that.
For most of my teaching career, I had at least one child with ASD in my class. What I noticed was the range of experiences that these children had. Some were more happy, getting on as best as they could. Others were anxious and each day was a struggle. I noticed some pattern in what I observed. Those whose parents accepted their child as they were and put the time into accommodating and supporting their children were generally the happier ones. Those whose parents resisted their child’s condition, focussing more on making them as “normal as possible” were generally the ones who struggled more. The quality of our attitudes towards our special needs children impacts their experience, both energetically and behaviourally.
SUMMARY – EMPOWERING EVERYONE
For many years now, in educational and medical circles, the question of why there has been a steady increase in the incidence of certain special needs has been asked. As expected, there is more professional awareness & knowledge of these conditions, making diagnosis easier. For some, this is a good thing, resulting in children with special needs being identified and getting their needs met. Others argue that raised awareness has led to over-diagnosis (and, as a result, over-medication). Both of these perspectives may well have some truth to them.
But is it also because, at this time, our world needs more of what these children have to offer? Do we need these children’s different perspectives to help us expand the reach of Love in the world? If we understand our autistic and other special needs children more, I think we will learn things we need to know individually and for the positive development of humanity. It’s important to help make their journey through this world a little easier but we need to do so in ways that empower them to be who they are meant to be – for their happiness and for our own empowerment too.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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Before having children, I was a primary school teacher. For me, it was an enormous privilege to have such a significant role in the lives of the children in my class and I took the responsibility seriously. I wanted my pupils to enjoy their year with me and to see them thrive. It broke my heart if any one of them was struggling in some way – academically, socially, emotionally… And if a parent had any concerns about their child, I wanted them to raise it with me so we could deal with it quickly, together.
Now I am a parent, my heart breaks over my own children’s struggles (broken hearts everywhere!) At one point, my son was being bullied by another child at kindergarten. Sometimes he would cry in the car on the way home from kindy and he lost some of his natural spark for a while. But my husband and I raised it with the teachers and kept in regular contact with them over the situation and gradually things settled. But, until they did, I was torn. As a parent, I just wanted the other child kept away from my son. As a teacher, I knew the other child was entitled to be there too and had social skills to learn that he couldn’t if the two boys were simply separated.
As a spiritually-led parent, my commitment to Love applies to everything. I want my boys to see me treating everyone with respect, including their teachers, other children (even those they may be having trouble with) and themselves. Bearing that in mind and with the benefit of having been in both positions (teacher and parent), here are some principles I use to help me approach a teacher with a concern –
Build a relationship with your child’s teacher. When I was teaching, I worked hard to build open relationship with parents. I nurtured those relationships in various ways but it was easier when parents made an effort too (I had about 28 sets of parents to connect with, they each only had one teacher). Some parents just came into the classroom occasionally before school for a brief chat with me about nothing in particular and that helped. We built a respectful, trusting relationship which made it easier for either of us to raise issues about their child.
Remember that most teachers are hard-working but none are super-human. As a teacher, I worked hard to meet as many of my pupils’ needs as I could. I had my finger on the pulse but I couldn’t see everything that was going on in the playground or read my pupil’s minds. And there just weren’t enough hours in the day to attend to every need I saw so I was constantly prioritising (and feeling guilty). So, before approaching our child’s teacher, let’s make sure we have perspective. It’s easy to be judgmental about what a teacher “should” be doing but, as parents, we have to be realistic and fair too.
Avoid gossiping with other parents. It’s one thing to run our concerns by another trusted parent to get a sense of whether we have things in perspective or not but it’s another to gossip and analyse the teacher together behind their back. And to do this in front of our children can undermine their relationship with their teacher.
Make an appointment when bringing up a new issue. Although teachers are usually around for parents to talk to before and after school, it is better to make an appointment to see the teacher for anything that is more than a little niggle. An appointment will allow you more time and privacy to discuss what’s on your mind. Giving the teacher an idea of what you want to discuss in advance allows them to prepare themselves for a thorough discussion. For example, they may have assessment information or notes they’ve kept about social issues to review and bring to the meeting. Giving the teacher time to prepare will result in better outcomes for your child.
Ask the teacher for help, rather than make a complaint. When something’s not going well for our child, our emotions can be high but it’s important to go into the meeting with an attitude of “let’s work on this together” rather than “this isn’t good enough – what’s going on?!” etc A teacher who feels attacked may, understandably, become defensive which won’t help to resolve the situation. What we really want, is for the teacher to understand where we’re coming from then to collaborate on improving the situation.
Have patience and keep in touch with the teacher. When I was teaching, I didn’t always have a solution to offer on the spot of the first meeting. Sometimes I wanted to mull it over for a while and get back to the parents. Sometimes, I had to try out different things to find what would work to solve the issue. But I always wanted to resolve the situation. The parents and I would regularly check in with each other to review how things were going.
Try twice before going higher. If you feel that the issue you have raised with the teacher is either being ignored or the teacher can’t manage it on their own, you may need to consider getting a more senior staff member involved. I think it’s fair to discuss the issue twice with the teacher before asking to bring in someone higher. If we feel the need to involve more senior staff members, it should be with the teacher’s knowledge. Best practice is for the teacher and the senior staff member to both attend that meeting.
IN SUMMARY: IT’S ALL IN THE RELATIONSHIP
Parents are the experts on their child. Teachers are the experts on the dynamics of their class and the skills & knowledge of teaching. When we have a concern for our child, we want to bring together all our expertise to solve the situation quickly.
The quality of our relationship with the teacher will impact how well things go when we raise an issue. If we go storming into the school or centre like dissatisfied customers, throwing our weight around, we are not being advocates for our children but for our own egos. At the other end of the spectrum, I know that some parents avoid talking to teachers due to negative experiences they had as a child at school. As I often say, we are all spiritual equals, regardless of the position we have within any social structure or institution, and, bearing that in mind, we parents are entitled to raise issues and bound to do so respectfully. I hope, firstly, that you never have to use these guidelines but, if you do, that they provide a starting point to help you begin.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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If you’re not in New Zealand, children here begin school when they turn 5. The Summer school holidays are ending and it’s back-to-school this week. Children under 5 can go to an early childhood education (ECE) centre. Kindergarten is one type of ECE centre.
Jake (5 years) goes back to school this week and Thomas (almost 3 years) has just had his first days at Kindergarten (kindy). For some children, these transitions are smooth-sailing. For others, they are very stressful. Jake amazed me with his effortless start to school last year. Thomas has been sticking close to me while we’ve been at kindy and has been upset while I’ve been gone. Having been a teacher myself, I have the benefit of understanding these transition stages from both sides so wanted to make a list of my best tips to help parents. Most of them are common sense, really, but it’s helpful to be reminded of them.
Be sure of your decision. As a parent, check that you are feeling good about your choice of school or ECE centre. When choosing a school or centre, remember that none will be perfect but, if it generally feels right, trust that feeling. When deciding on the right time for your under-5 to begin ECE, remember that there also may be no ideal time – you’re weighing up so many factors which may not coincide perfectly. So, again, trust your feeling about the timing. This is my first tip because settling in can be a difficult process for some families and it is much easier for you to be strong for your child when you are confident in your decisions.
Build familiarity before school/kindy starts. Most schools and ECE centres offer the opportunity for you to visit with your child before they officially begin. During his kindy visits, Thomas had a chance to connect with the teachers and discover some of the activities that he would be able to do when started kindy. While Jake is returning to the same school, over the last few weeks of holiday, I have organised a few playdates for him to reconnect with school friends. There are also little ways to add familiarity to your child’s day once school/kindy starts. For example, pack lunches with food your child has had before and likes.
Address the practicalities. Depending on your child’s age, this means different things. It includes giving them clothing and equipment they can manage independently. For example, a school-aged child needs to be able to take their shoes, coats and hats on and off themselves. Make sure your child knows what happens for toileting. At school, do they know where their classroom’s closest toilet is and what they have to do to let the teacher know they need to go (teachers have a variety of systems around this)? At kindy, I showed Thomas where the change table was and explained that a teacher would change his nappy when he was at kindy. By addressing these kinds of practicalities, we can eliminate them as stressors, which is particularly helpful for a child who is anxious about their new beginning.
Acknowledge and allow any anxious feelings your child has. If they are old-enough, give them an opportunity to tell you how they are feeling about starting or returning to school/kindy. One question to ask is, “Is there anything you’re worried about?” This question is better not asked just before going to bed, incase they lie awake worrying. Choose a time when they are relaxed and calm. Without dishing out a list of instructions, it may be appropriate to discuss simple strategies for dealing with some of their concerns. But, most importantly, show your understanding. Life is full of new beginnings which can create anxiety in all of us. Your child’s anxious feelings are normal and they need assurance of this. Also, allow your child their tears when it comes time to leave them at school or kindy. Telling them off for crying or offering rewards for not crying when you leave adds the pressure of holding themselves together in an already stressful situation. As a parent, their tears and hysterics can feel embarrassing and over-the-top but we need to tuck our egos away and be their support.
Talk positively about school or kindy. If your child sees that you feel positively about school or kindy, they will feel assured that it’s a good place to go. Talk with them about what they are looking forward to. It may be learning to read, playing on the playground or seeing a friend. Talk about teachers and children you met while on your visit – their friendliness, kindness, sense of humour.
Pray with and for your children. If you’re a praying family, this is a great tool for both parents and children. As Thomas has been settling into Kindy, I have prayed each morning that he feels safe and enjoys himself. I ask that the teachers are tuned in to his needs. On Jake’s first day back to school, we will say a prayer together. We have a 12-minute drive to school and often pray together on the way. I have a motto which I apply to many things, including prayer – “begin with thank you”. In this case, Jake may be grateful to see his friends or to play on the playground at lunchtimes. We will pray for support over anything that’s worrying him about returning to school and just for a great school year generally. Praying with our children, shows that we have faith that The Universe is with them, supporting them. I hope my boys will develop a sense of God being everywhere they go, including the classrooms and playgrounds of school.
Remind your children of techniques they can use to manage their feelings while at school. This tip may be more for older children. Which techniques they use don’t matter and will depend on what you have taught them. For example, you can suggest that, when they are feeling anxious or lonely, they could take a few mindful breaths to calm down or say a prayer to remember that God is with them. These little things can help prevent them from descending into overwhelm or panic.
Create predictability around drop-off and pick-up times. As I write this, Thomas is into his third day at kindy. I have ducked out to give him an hour without me as part of the transition process. Before kindy this morning, I told him exactly when I would be leaving and when I’d be returning. I left exactly when I said I would and will be back at kindy in exactly 29 minutes. This builds his trust in me so that he knows I will always return when I say I will, making him happier to be left at kindy. Another way to create predictability for your child is to develop a drop-off routine over the first days/weeks. It may be that you stay with them while they put their things away, read a story together in the classroom/centre, hug and kiss, then go. If your child has trouble at drop-off time, enlist their teacher’s help. When I was teaching, I gave anxious children a job to do once they had said their goodbyes to keep them busy and give them a sense of belonging.
No long goodbyes. If you say you’re going to go after reading one story – go! It is heart-wrenching when we see our child worried and upset but it is more confusing for them and prolongs their anxiety if we don’t leave after saying “goodbye”. They may also learn that, if they’re dramatic enough, you’ll stay longer – using your empathy against you! Remember, your child is in good hands – teachers are used to managing separation and want your child to be settled and happy at school just like you do. If you’re anticipating “a scene” when it comes time to go, let the teacher know so they can be on-hand to comfort your child while you leave and settle them in.
Make and take time to settle your child in. I can see that Thomas needs a gradual easing into kindy. He hasn’t been left with people other than close family before and is finding the separation from me difficult. Currently, I’m leaving only for an hour each time and staying with him for the rest of the session because he has been upset without me. I have cleared my calendar so I can do this. Once Thomas is more settled during his hour without me, I will gradually lengthen the time I stay away until he can be dropped-off at the start of session and picked-up at the end like usual. While he needs to learn how to be at kindy without me, I also want to avoid him associating kindy with feeling distraught because I’m not there. He’s very happy when I am there, playing and building positive associations with kindy. We’re aiming for more happy, settled moments than, upset, anxious ones. For most school-aged children, this slower settling-in process won’t be necessary because they’ll be older and likely to have attended an ECE centre where they’ve adjusted to staying without their parents.
I hope there’s something useful here for you and that your children’s transition into school or kindy is a happy one.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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