Guest Post: Making School A Sensational Place by Chynna Laird

18 January 2010
As the parent of a child with special needs, I find that dealing with the school can be quite frustrating. Today author Chynna Laird shares with us some tips to help make school not so bad. Thanks for sharing with us Chynna! Learn more about Chynna on her site or blog. And don't forget to check out her book, Not Just Spirited: A Mom's Sensational Journey With Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Making School A Sensational Place

Starting school should be an exciting time. For most children, the excitement of meeting new friends and learning new things ease any initial uneasiness. But for some children, their nervousness lingers long after the first day not because they miss home but more due to the fact that their needs aren’t being met properly. And if their needs weren’t known about, or even understood, ahead of time, school can become a source of tremendous stress.

When my daughter, Jaimie, was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder almost five years ago, one of my main concerns was how she’d function in school. Jaimie was barely able to handle the stimulation of a short grocery trip or sit in her carseat for longer than ten minutes or deal with her siblings being too close to her. How on earth, I thought, was she going to be able to deal with the extremely busy, over-stimulating environment of a public school? I did think about homeschooling, and haven’t ruled it out, but we decided to give school a shot.

In our case, Jaimie’s SPD made her so sensitive that she actually became fearful of the outside world. Her psychiatrist and play therapist both felt that by allowing her to be at home for play, fun and school wouldn’t have been the best choice for a girl with Jaimie’s sensitivities. To a certain point, I agreed but I also knew that in order to make sure the experience was the best it could be for Jaimie, I had to make sure all her needs were understood, met and properly addressed. That combination is so important.

Now, your child’s needs are unique and only you know whether she would be able to cope with a public school atmosphere. But if you’d like to give it a shot, here are some things to set in place:

Research The first step is to check out the schools in your area. Are they open to having children with special needs in their school? Do they have connections with solid community funding programs? Do the teachers and other administrators have experience with teaching children with your child’s needs? Would they be willing to learn about her needs? These are all very important questions to have answered. Choose the schools you’re most interested in: visit them, speak to teachers and staff, bring your child there for a visit and then select the place that can most effectively assist your child in reaching his educational goals and who is most willing to work with you to advocate for him.

Initial Meeting. After choosing the right school, request an initial meeting with the school administrators (usually the principal and/or curriculum coordinator, your child’s teacher and, if possible, a representative from the resource who’ll be providing funding for your child’s needs). This meeting isn’t designed to discuss only what’s ‘wrong’ with your child but also topics such as updates on her therapy, what works/doesn’t currently work in terms of assistance or in-class tools he’ll need and other things. For us, I was armed to the armpits with information about SPD because we’d learned from past experiences that a lot of teachers didn’t yet understand SPD or how to cope with it. But, to our surprise, the representative from the funding place knew about SPD so we simply had to discuss strategies, what Jaimie’s specific SPD needs were and what she needed in the classroom to ease her anxiety.

Continued communication. After the initial meeting there should be regular meetings set up—weekly to biweekly with teachers and monthly with school administrators—to keep the line of communication open between the school and home. The school shouldn’t be left to deal with your child alone because things might be unintentionally overlooked. As well, the school should know about any changes in routine, home life, nutrition, medication (if any) and other similar issues to understand the child’s behavior at school and parents should understand anything unusual or different in the usual school routine to understand any behaviors at home. This reduces a tremendous amount of stress for everyone involved, especially the child, as well as eliminates the possibility of miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Speak up. Parents should never feel they need to be quiet and follow along with how the school ‘has always done things’ if that isn’t working for their child. When Jaimie was to start Grade One, there was nothing in place for her. There is no assistance ‘code’ for SPD—not for funding assistance, not for insurance coverage and not in most schools. Jaimie has severe anxiety that stems from her SPD so the school focused on that to get her funding (There is a ‘code’ for anxiety.) She was covered for some assistance in the classroom and her teacher got to purchase items like special pen/pencil grips, an IKEA egg, textured chair cushions and other items specific to sensory sensitive children. When things weren’t working, her teacher and I discussed things that worked at home (eg: stress balls, fidgets, headphones, etc.) and Jaimie was allowed to bring these extra items to use in the classroom. Speak up when things aren’t working but be willing to work with the teachers and school staff too. As my wise grandmother used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” Stand up but know when to give in a little and when to stay strong.

Understand the whole role of advocacy. The most important thing to remember about helping our children in school is to understand what your role is as an advocate. As mentioned earlier, advocacy is more than just telling people what your child’s struggles are. She has a lot of things that are phenomenal about her too so be sure to include those things in your meetings. Jaimie has SPD, Dyspraxia and anxiety but she reads far beyond her grade level, she’s an amazing artist and loves crafts. Advocacy means LEARNING everything you can about your child’s condition so you feel confident enough TEACHING others about it and INFORMING them of her needs. Once others have knowledge about something, they’ll understand it. And that’s how we spread awareness—the very heart of advocacy.

Every person’s situation is different so the avenues you go down will be different. We’ve had a few hurdles but, in general, we’ve been fortunate enough having kind, empathetic and understanding people around us who truly have Jaimie’s best interests at heart. No school environment is perfect but having that sort of support from the get-go means everyone will be on the same page, or try to be. And that’s the best way to keep your child on the path to educational success.



Jayde said...

That is great advice! I will be sure to keep that in mind if I can ever get my son to someone to diagnose him. From my research, he's either ADD, has Asperger's Syndrome, or both. Then again, I could be wrong on both counts.

Chynna said...

Hi Jayde. I hear you. It was a long road for us getting people to take our concerns seriously. It wasn't until my daughter had a tantrum so severe that she not only hurt herself but her little sister and me, her pediatrician finally sent us off for the proper assessments. We still had to fight and struggle, but we got on the right path.

I know this may sound 'cheezy' but just follow your heart, listen to your gut and keep knocking on doors until someone listens. If you feel in your gut that something is wrong, you're probably right and you should keep searching for answers until someone can tell you for sure-- either way--what's going on with your boy.

Good luck!