As a mum of a child with special needs you learn very quickly that becoming their advocate is the difference between sinking or swimming.
As my eldest transitioned this year from primary to secondary school I thought I had all the bases covered. I had the initial meeting at the beginning of the year to outline his triggers, what a meltdown looks like (and how best to deal with one) and share some strategies for a successful learning environment all round.
Term one passed by and it seemed like smooth sailing. Parent teacher interviews went without a hitch, my boy was happy and doing well both academically and socially. To say I was surprised is an understatement, I was enjoying just getting to sit back and enjoy his progress… to just be mum. Until the boat began to take on water.
When school gets tough
Term two produced one very unhappy and overwhelmed boy and one very overwhelmed mum. Within weeks there were so many phone, calls, text messages and emails regarding assignments not handed in, rude behaviour, coming to class without required equipment and even absences from class (usually because he was lost or had forgotten equipment and therefore marked absent for being late). A few small timetable changes, a new science teacher and an incident where public speaking at the end of term one hadn’t gone so well were enough to upset the apple cart.
The cumulative effect of so many phone calls, emails and meetings were enough to make me question myself. I’d become part psychologist and counsellor with a bit of teacher/strategist/occupational therapist thrown in … and unfortunately bad cop. With so much going on, fun mum, loving mum had taken a back seat. There were no moments for hugs when behaviours from school were being processed at home.
Although I’m always going to be an advocate, I’ve found five ways to bring the mum back.
1. No more bandaids
It’s so easy to make accommodations for kids with special needs rather than put interventions in place. My son doesn’t qualify for funding and wasn’t offered an Individual Learning Plan (ILP). With so many different teachers in a high school setting this makes it very hard for things to be effective and successful. A fellow special-needs-mama said to me recently that sometimes you have to be a sledgehammer to get what’s needed. My son is now getting the help he needs rather than me scrambling to fix a problem after it occurs.
2. Find an advocate at school
Find a staff member or teacher to help be an advocate for your child. This doesn’t have to be the classroom or home group teacher. Just like in a workplace, not everybody clicks. A welfare office, counsellor, sport teacher, year level coordinator who just seems to ‘get’ your child can be an awesome person to have on your side. It also doesn’t hurt to know there’s someone just checking in to say ’hi’ at school and make sure everything is going okay.
3. Find an advocate outside school
Is there a friend, partner, grandparent or other cool, calm and collected grown up who can halve the load for you? Sometimes meetings are overwhelming and it’s great to have a second brain helping to catch the things you miss. And if/when something does go off the rails you’re not the only contact or support person.
4. Take a breath
Unless there is something life-threatening or medical, what happened today at school doesn’t always have to be dealt with immediately. Remember when you dreamed of sending your little ones to school and how when you’d pick them up you’d ask the most annoying mummy question ever: “So what did you learn at school today?” What happened at school can sometimes just be (shock horror) dealt with at school. Later, if necessary talk calmly and quietly, discuss what to do next time and then put it aside. Every day is the chance to write a new page of the story. Let it go.
5. Learn the catastrophe scale
I’m finding this to be a necessary support with two hormonal kids in my house at the moment. We teach the kids to stop, think and recognise how big a problem is, but often become so overwhelmed we forget to do the same! On a scale of ‘My child threw his pen on the floor’ to ‘My child burned the school down,’ how bad is the problem? If it’s a small issue that should have been dealt with through intervention, don’t call me… there’s already a reason and solution to the problem that can be dealt with at a school level.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to do it all. But when you start to feel a little like you’re burning the candle at both ends, what do you do to bring the mum back?
Take a look at our previous article on helpful tips for special needs kids at school for more useful advice.