This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.
Last spring, I watched parents of my special education preschool students struggle through quarantine, as they attempted to keep their families afloat, their children occupied, and their sanity intact. My heart went out to them. We spoke regularly, and during my educational consults, the most consistent refrain I heard, tinged with tremendous stress, was some version of “I’ve been trying to keep up with my child’s IEP, but it’s not working.”
But what these parents were expecting of themselves was an impossibility. In the absence of in-person instruction, which special ed students rely on as a necessity more than typical students, my students’ parents were essentially asking themselves to become their child’s full-time special ed teacher—something that was not only unsustainable but also completely unrealistic. There’s something I want those parents to remember as we head into the school year: You are not your child’s teacher, and you shouldn’t try to be. That may sound harsh, but I truly mean it kindly: Give yourself a break.
I certainly understand where these parents are coming from. I have a brother with special needs, and I’ve taught special ed for five years. I know firsthand that parents of special ed students face a whole host of challenges on top of those shared by all parents. Among other things, special ed kids often require additional doctor’s appointments and help with schoolwork. The emotional toll can be high as parents work with their child on their behaviors or self-regulation. Not to mention the extra time they invest in juggling communication between teachers and therapists. This complex array of issues is why individualized education programs exist: to make all of this more manageable for parents and to hold teachers accountable, as the IEP explicitly delineates goals and benchmarks we teachers expect to help the child meet over the course of the year.
I find parents often forget that while a child’s IEP goals are written in plain language and state the major skills or abilities that the child is supposed to learn to move onto the next school year, these goals are written by a professional (i.e., the teacher or a therapist) and for a professional (the child’s future teacher or therapist). These larger educational, social, and emotional goals are meant to be achieved through therapeutic intervention. This is something a parent without professional training cannot provide.
Take, for instance, a child whose IEP is to learn to draw horizontal and vertical lines using an age-appropriate grasp (an important pre-writing skill). Many parents teach their kids how to write their letters, so this may seem like a reasonable goal for a parent to attempt at home. But there’s so much more to this than picking up a pencil. A trained occupational therapist assigned to this child would first identify an age-appropriate grasp. Then they would work on hand-strengthening to ensure the child has the physical strength to maintain that grasp while writing. Together, they would work on copying, tracing, or imitating lines to help the child with the motor planning involved in producing lines. Of course, the OT would also communicate with the teacher and parents on how to support this learning—what type of putty to use, with what resistance, for example, and how best to prompt the child to remember her grasp. And as the OT marks the child’s progress through therapy, the OT adjusts the therapy accordingly.
Or, to take another example, a child’s IEP may identify progress he needs to make at mealtime: “During meals, the child will ask for help as needed to open containers for five consecutive meals without crying or hitting peers.” At first glance, this also seems like something a parent could work with their child on at home, right? But how? As this child’s teacher, I would first speak to the speech pathologist to identify the best modality for the child to ask for help. Maybe the child can physically say, “Help,” but because of their emotional regulation needs, asking verbally won’t work, because when they get frustrated, they typically clamp up, which would make prompting a verbal response unreasonable. Then, I might tailor the next step to their personal strengths and weaknesses—I might, for instance, intentionally “sabotage” meals by closing containers I would normally leave open. I would supply the appropriate prompts, or cues to help the child remember how to ask for help. I would fade the prompts appropriately, until the child regularly achieved his goals, while monitoring the child’s other behavior, as well as the behavior of children around him. In this instance, not only do parents not have the training to determine the course of action, it’s also impossible for parents to replicate at home the noise level, chaos, and stress of lunchtime at school.
This isn’t to say that parents don’t have a role in teaching their children. Of course you do. So what can you do? First, forget about those larger goals on the IEP—leave those to the professionals in your child’s life. Instead, focus on how to teach your child to grow in their everyday life. In my regular conferences with parents this past spring, I steered parents away from larger questions about, for instance, how to help their child with horizontal lines and instead encouraged questions like, “How do I potty-train my child?” Or, “He kicks when he’s mad, and our dog is blind. How do I make sure he doesn’t accidentally kick the dog?” Or “she tantrums unless her knees are covered, but she wants to go swimming; what do I do?” (If you’re concerned about a specific skill—how your child struggles on the stairs, for instance—you can even record your child in the midst of it and send it to your child’s therapist to review.) Your child’s special ed teachers and therapists can be wonderful resources to help you solve daily problems. Tackling these mundane issues can help make your family’s everyday life more manageable.
Many of my parents tell me they feel like failures because their child has lost ground since we closed, and they don’t think they’re doing enough. In the next breath, they tell me about the ways they’ve been bonding with their child: “We did go hiking this weekend, and he really seemed to enjoy it.” Or they talk about the progress their child has made in nonacademic areas: “But the other day my daughter did say, ‘Mommy, I want pudding’ instead of crying.” Or “My child has regularly been feeding our dog.” I try to remind parents how meaningful those little “wins” are. While my students inevitably lost some skills they were working toward at school, I try to reinforce for parents that this progress at home truly matters, too. Recognizing the value in these moments will make this time easier for you and for your child.
I’m also not suggesting you remove yourself entirely from your child’s academic education. But this fall, let your child’s teacher guide you. If your child’s teachers and service providers will offer teletherapy—that is, hold a therapy session like your child would get in person but over the phone or video—try to set up your work schedule such that you can be present for those 30 minutes. If you hear or see the therapist do something that you don’t understand, ask questions. At the end of sessions, ask what you can do to help carry over skills. If you don’t have time for these meetings—in my class, for example, I have a single mother of three who regularly works overtime, so I know she’s busy—ask the service provider to record the therapy session for you to watch at a later time. I compare teletherapy to utilizing a personal trainer via video—you may not get the same quality of workout that you would at the gym, but you can certainly learn some at-home exercises that can help.
If your teachers or service providers offer group Zoom meets, set your kid up, even if it means putting them in their highchair with the iPad while you work on your laptop next to them. Your child may not participate and engage much, but it’s still valuable for them to see their teachers’ and peers’ faces.
You may read all of this and only hear me asking you to lower your standards—to accept that your child is going to “lose” what she has gained at school. But what I’m really saying is be gentle with yourself. Remember that regression is real. This extended closure has wreaked havoc for all families. Enter this upcoming school year—whether in-person or virtual—knowing that just as children in typical classrooms may not meet the third grade curriculum benchmarks, your child’s IEP will most likely need an adjustment. This is OK. IEPs are written with the expectation that your child will have a full year of full-time in-person education, and for many, it is not looking like that will happen. No one is going to blame you, or your child, for slow or no progress toward these goals. Schools, administrators, and teachers are expecting it, and they’re working on their plans for this year with that information in mind.