Back to School…The Life of a Parent Advocate

It’s that time of the year again! Families are soaking in every last morsel of summer fun before kiddos put on their new school shoes, load up their backpacks, and head out the door for the first day of school. Ready or not, back to school is here… and while it’s been a great summer, parents and children alike are craving the structure a new school year brings.

As I sat down to write this month’s blog, I had multiple different topics and ideas to include on getting ready for back to school. I mean, let’s face it, the possibilities are endless when it comes to transitioning from summer break to a new school year. I created an outline with content that included making new friends, talking to your child about their school day, parent-teacher connections etc, etc, etc.  I was ready to get writing and then… I abruptly stopped. My mind and heart kept coming back to a topic near and dear to me – and so this month’s blog begins! Get ready because this topic is personal to me as I share ideas, insight, and a bit of my vulnerability as an open book. Here it is! The Life of a Parent Advocate.

Our youngest child was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) at a very young age. A few years ago, a diagnosis of Dyslexia was added to the mix. We’ve spent years undergoing diagnostic testing, therapy, and medications trying to figure out the best ways to support him in everyday life, as well as in the classroom. He has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that we revisit yearly, to make sure we are ‘leveling the playing field’ by including accommodations that make his education accessible to him in spite of his learning differences. The journey has not been easy. In fact, at times it’s been downright brutal, but when he achieves an academic success with enthusiasm and pride, it makes it all worth it.

Families, teachers, and special education teams spend a lot of time and resources developing plans for students with special needs. The accommodations and goals that are developed for a child’s education plan are carefully created to support the student’s learning in the least restrictive school environment. When appropriate accommodations are in place, the goal is for the student to have the same opportunity to learn as their peers.

It’s important to keep in mind that a student’s IEP or 504 Plan can be tricky at the beginning of a new school year. They are often faced with multiple changes in their learning environments…different classes, different teachers, and different peers which means the transition to school with learning challenges can be a bit more complex.

*****ATTENTION!! This is where I’m guilty of dropping my parent advocate ball year after year.*****

The end of summer chaos takes over in my home like it does for many, and I have every intention of reaching out to my son’s fresh batch of teachers to make sure they are aware of his needs. But without fail, the first day of school comes and goes and I have not made contacts with his teachers like I had intended. I fall back into my yearly routine of convincing myself his teachers have studied his IEP and are ready and prepared to meet his educational needs. I mean “It’s their job, right?” (Disclosure: This is not a knock-on teachers! I am an educator too!) Then reality sets in… I’m reminded that his high school teachers are responsible for 8 blocks of classes over a 2-day period with an estimated 25 students per class. My quick math brings me to the realization that my son is 1 of approximately 200 students each of his teachers will teach this year. Even the most incredible, rockstar teachers are going to let a few things fall through the cracks especially at the beginning of the school year. That’s when I’m reminded that I’m his primary advocate and it’s my responsibility to open the doors of communication to the other members of his educational team, and make sure we are all on the same page.

By now, we are a few weeks into the new school year and my son is struggling without his accommodations and I have no one to blame but myself. I’m sharing this with you because  I…Need…To…Do…Better! Our family has worked too hard to get to this point to drop the ball now. This year will be different!

What does that look like for me? My son just received his class schedule in the mail so it’s perfect timing that we are able to walk through this process together! First, I’m going to draft an email that goes to all of his new teachers. He’s entering his Sophmore year of high school, so he has 9 teachers including his Special Education Advisor.  My email will include a little overview about my son; his strengths, successes, interests, struggles, and frustrations. It’s also great for teachers to know if there are specific study habits or organizational routines that work best/or don’t work for your child. I will include any information about ticks or behaviors he may have that are helpful for the teacher to know. For example, my son is able to listen better when he isn’t looking at someone. We’ve often thought he was being rude and ignoring the person talking to him, but it’s actually a strategy to help him with auditory focus and processing. Giving the teacher a ‘heads up’ on maladaptive behaviors can save your child from embarrassing situations which can take a toll on self-confidence. Also, include a list of your child’s IEP accommodations in case the teacher hasn’t had the opportunity to review. Be sure to ask your child if they have any personal goals for the school year and include in your email. Lastly, encourage educators to reach out for collaboration and support whenever needed. 

One last tip for the beginning of the school year is to review your child’s accommodations with them (as developmentally-appropriate), so they can advocate for themselves when they need extra support. Tape a list of their accommodations or learning strategies on the inside of their binder/folder for a quick reference when they are feeling overwhelmed.

I hope my story inspires you to be proactive in making sure your child’s educators are ready to have an amazing year with your child, and experience the thrill of seeing them achieve academic success!

Authored by Mandy Ciabattoni, Family Educator and Co-Owner of Child Inspired.

Child Inspired is a family-centered, pediatric wellness practice in Southern Delaware . We are so proud of the inspiring group of pediatric therapists and educators that are working collaboratively to bring help and healing to children and families with in-home, outpatient therapy services and community outreach initiatives. Mandy is a Mom to 3 children, 2 young adults and a teenager.

Prior to her journey with Child Inspired, Mandy worked as an Educator in preschool and elementary education classrooms, special education, and as an Early Childhood Educator and Family Service Coordinator for the State of Delaware’s B23: Early Intervention Program. Mandy has navigated challenges in and beyond the classroom environment, and is a wonderful advocate for her own kids and those throughout the community!

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