Behavioral and Special Needs Issues: Becoming a Teacher-Parent Team

Blain Hockridge
Autism Case Supervisor

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As an educator of children, perhaps the most important thing you can accomplish is getting on the same page with a student's parents or other caregivers. The 2-8 hours that you're with the child pales in comparison to the amount of time his or her parents will spend feeding, bathing, transporting, and simply being around them. You can be the teacher of the year, but if the parents are not on board with your recommendations, the child will make a fraction of the progress that could have otherwise been made.

This is doubly so for special needs children. As a graduate student in behavior analysis and a case supervisor of children on the autism spectrum, it was painfully obvious which children had parents who were implementing the behavior intervention plan, and which parents thought that the schooling was over when they picked up their child.

For many of them, though, this was more of a misunderstanding then it was any kind of lack of effort on their part. The classroom is not a mechanic's shop. If a car has a problem, most people will bring the car into the auto shop, get the problem diagnosed, pay the mechanic to make the recommended fix, and put it out of their minds until the next problem occurs. While this is likely not an ideal way to maintain a car, it is an especially bad way to educate a child. Children are always learning and being shaped by their environment. Even if the parents aren't thinking about the learning and shaping that is occurring at home, that doesn't mean it isn't happening. Making sure parents understand this is an extremely important step in the child's overall development.

Instead of thinking of the parents as a client, with you (the teacher) as the mechanic, interact with them as if they are a member of a team. This team's goal is not to win a ballgame or complete a project before a deadline, but to create a never-ending environment of learning for the child. The team should also include any other teachers, specialists, counselors or relevant family members as well. While it may be logistically difficult to get all of these people together for a meeting, at the very least make sure that you and the primary caregivers have an understanding regarding the environment to provide outside of the classroom. This means that meetings should occur as much as is possible and/or feasible.

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Whether the program for a child is strictly behavioral in nature, or involves academic work, you should know what the child's routines are at home. Parents will often (understandably) provide a rosier version of the home environment than what is occurring. Thus, it is crucial that the caregivers understand that they are not being judged. Parents who feel too pressured to impress you will provide inaccurate information. This makes it nearly impossible to come to any kind of effective solution for a child who is struggling behaviorally or academically. Make sure to reassure them often that their worth as a caregiver is not being questioned. I often tell caregivers that learning and describing the best way to care for a child is something quite different than actually doing it.

Think about how exhausting it can feel after a long day of working with any group of children, let alone special needs children. Then think about working 8-10 hours at another job before doing that. How much more difficult would that make doing your job to the best of your ability? That is similar to the situation that parents of special needs children go through on an almost daily basis. In addition, caregivers are emotionally attached to their children in a way that you as a teacher will never be. You will recognize when a child is crying to escape a work activity and respond calmly and rationally. A caregiver, though, has to ignore their strong emotional instinct to comfort their upset child. They may be well-schooled on the proper way to handle the situation, but after a long, difficult day at work and their emotions at wit's end, you can understand how they may be more concerned with getting the crying to stop than following the behavior intervention protocol.

The parent-teacher relationship is one that sadly can be neglected. All too often, parent meetings are postponed, canceled, or not even scheduled in the first place. Given the tremendous workloads carried by parents and teachers, it is not surprising that this occurs. It is all too easy as a teacher to simply put the student's home life out of your mind and vise-versa with the parents. Keeping that line of communication open, however, could make a significant difference in a student's life.


Blain Hockridge