Navigating the school system and building relationships with professionals
By, Julie Thompson
When our twin girls with Down Syndrome entered the school system, we were living in Connecticut where there seemed to be a distinct separation between school professionals and parents. Most parents that we knew went to meetings with an advocate and I was advised that I should do that to ensure our rights were met. Additionally it was recommended that we always tape record our team meetings so we would have “evidence” of what was promised. I never did this, as it felt like it showed of lack of trust and didn’t do much to strengthen our relationship. We always felt that there was mutual respect and cooperation between us and the school team.
When we moved to Utah, we had the same approach to working with the school team for our girls. We quickly realized that, though there were great professionals assigned to help our girls, the resources were spread too thin and some of the formal structures weren’t in place. We found ourselves needing to advocate more for our girls. After 6 months in the new school, we determined that things weren’t going well. The girls weren’t getting the support they needed and it showed in their behavior. The people working with them didn’t have the training or experience needed. We wondered if it was time to secure an advocate and get tough. After some thought, we decided to outline our concerns and talk to the district coordinators. In the back of our minds we were thinking that this was a last resort and that the probable next step would be to either get an advocate or take the girls out of district. At that meeting, as we outlined our concerns, we were happily met with understanding and the promise to make changes. The path has not been easy and without obstacles, but the situation for our girls has improved dramatically and we have found amazing support from their professional team. From time to time, we have found ourselves off-course and needed to tweak some things, but always we have found people who genuinely care about the girls and want what is best for them. Along the path, here are some ideas we have found to be helpful in establishing good relationships with the schools and professionals.
- First and foremost, assume that the people working with your children have their best interest at heart; remember that they are real people with many demands on their time and resources and although it’s their job and they probably love it, having your child adds much complexity to their job
- Find the people who are your supporters and would be willing to advocate for your child; then enlist them to help you
- ALWAYS express appreciation for efforts that are being made, even if they are not exactly what you want; it’s easy to always be focused on what needs to change and forget to give thanks for a job well done – occasional notes or tokens of appreciation (as opposed to bribes)
- Don’t be afraid to ask, knowing what your rights are and outlining reasons why your request should be honored (i.e. support so your child can participate in an enrichment activity or more service time)
- Submit a vision statement for your child and measure all IEP goals based on that; we do this at the beginning of each school year (especially with a new teachers or service providers) – it is always how we start our annual IEP meeting so that all decisions made in that meeting can be measured against our “vision”
- Ask for regular team meetings to keep everyone on the same page and allow for creative problem-solving as a group; our team meets monthly, with special service providers (speech, OT and behavior) rotating in quarterly; we often have mini trainings at these meetings
- Trust your intuition as a parent; if you’re concerned about something, address it!
- Take the time to observe and find out first-hand what is going on at school
- Be creative in problem solving with your team (i.e. letting your child read to a younger grade to build confidence or going to separate math class to ensure success) and be flexible to change gears when necessary
- Offer resources/training to those working with your children; we have given our teachers books with inclusion ideas and invited them to trainings we know about; often they attend
- Find a way to be part of the school community (community council, PTA, volunteer in classroom)
- Approach them with: “What can I do at home to support what you are doing during the day?”