The first quarter of the school year was disappointing, to say the least. Our chatty boy probably said a total ten words the first three months at school. He rarely participated, did very little academically, and worst of all- his joy was diminishing quickly. It would have been easy to give up on his inclusive placement completely or agree with the team member that suggested he spend more of his day outside of the general education classroom. But, my husband and I knew our hearts, that our son was not what needed to change, it was his support. We never wavered on that belief.
“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it is grown, not the flower.” Alexander Den Heijer
You know when you see a quote on social media and you say, “yes!” out loud and share immediately? This is a quote that resonates with me in regard to my son’s first-grade year. I think it really sums of a lot of inclusive education placements nicely. My goal is never to change my son and make him “fit in.” It is always to work with his team to cultivate an environment in which he can flourish.
Sadly, one of the main pieces of my son’s environment was not helping him to bloom, but rather, causing him to wilt. More times than I want to remember, I had to carry him into school because he refused to walk in on his own. And plenty of times I would cry in the car after dropping him off at school or picking him up. I can still feel the pit in my stomach as I remember our experience.
I felt so helpless.
Even though I knew exactly why my son was struggling and I was advocating on his behalf, it never felt like I was doing enough. If only I had a magic wand and could make it all better. The heavy feeling of helplessness is nothing new to me on this journey, but it will always be the most discouraging part of advocating for my son.
Thankfully, I have learned to appreciate the rainbows between the storms. I am so grateful that my son has a teacher that believed he was capable from the first day she met him. She never once gave up on him, even when it would have been the easy thing to do. Instead, she became his champion and continued to include him in her classroom every day.
Recently, my son received a change in a key piece of his school environment and he is finally blooming again. We have our happy and engaged son back. He wants to go to school and is so proud of himself when he walks out with his class at the end of the day. His happiness and self-confidence are why we never give up. Ever.
One of the greatest gifts my son has given me is perspective. He has taught me to find the positive in every moment and to never stop believing. I know there is always something to be grateful for, even a rough start to the school year. For without all the adversity the beginning of this year presented, I wouldn’t have been pushed to further develop my advocacy skills. And the wrong environment at the beginning of the year made us even more grateful for a better environment and to see our son blooming again, now.
My son and I waited in line to go down a waterslide for his first time; he was excited. The employee at the top came over and picked him up. I thought she was going to measure him to make sure he was tall enough to go on the slide, but instead, she started saying, “He is special boy, he is special boy.” Then she said, “I will let you go down together one time because he is special boy.” I tried to put him on the slide on his own because I knew he could go independently, but she required us to go down together. Sadly, she saw he has Down syndrome and made assumptions about his abilities.
As I laid in bed that night, I replayed this event in my mind and tears filled my eyes. I felt like I had failed my son because I didn’t stand up for his right to go down the slide on his own, but I also didn’t completely regret the way in which I responded. I felt like I was in a no-win situation. I do wish I would have stood up for him so he could go down the slide independently and proven to that lady he could do it. But, because my son was completely content to go down with me, I was content with the way in which I responded.
The fierce, advocate mom in me wanted to say, “Yes, you are right, my son is extremely special, but you couldn’t know that just by looking at him. He is special because he has a smile that lights up any room and a laugh that is contagious. He is special because he knows when somebody he loves needs a hug. He is special because he has the best sense of humor and loves to make people laugh. He is special for a million reasons, but when a person calls him ‘special,’ just because he has Down syndrome, I don’t hear a compliment. I hear pity. Our family doesn’t need you to see our son’s diagnosis and feel sorry for him or make assumptions about his abilities. Our family needs more recognition of our son’s abilities and more inclusion. He is capable of going down this slide on his own, and he has the same right as everybody else to do it.”
But, I didn’t say any of that.
Advocating is a delicate balance of knowing when to speak up and when to take a deep breath and move on. I’m still working on that balance. I knew the waterslide lady thought she was doing the right thing. I could see her heart was in the right place even though her words and actions were so very wrong. From my son, I have learned to assume the best in people. To see a good intent and focus on that. I am still working on it, but on this day, I chose to see the best. But, I was also left ignited with an intense need to advocate stronger and harder for systematic and cultural changes.
Based on the waterslide worker’s age, I suspect she did not go to school with an individual with a different learning style than her own. I’d guess children receiving special education services were segregated from the rest of the students in the school or more likely, sent to a different “special” school altogether. Which, unfortunately, is still happening today. She and many others have been taught their whole lives that individuals like my son are different: “special.” That they have hard lives and were in need of charity and pity. That mentality is what needs to change and it starts with inclusion. Inclusion breaks down stigmas. Inclusion starts conversations and increases understanding. Inclusion celebrates everybody’s abilities.
I don’t want my son to receive special treatment. I want my son to receive fair treatment. In this case, being allowed to go down the waterslide on his own, same as the other kids. As the mom of a child with Down syndrome, I don’t need (or want) anybody’s pity or charity. Our family leads a fulfilling and happy life full of love. I don’t want special treatment or exceptions. And I certainly don’t want stranger’s outdated perceptions of his abilities. What our family does need is to feel included in our community and for our son to be given the same opportunities as other kids his age. We need people to focus on what my son can do and to not make assumptions based on his diagnosis. And if you aren’t sure of his abilities, it’s simple: assume he can do anything and everything!
About a year before son with Down syndrome was born my best friend and I ran a half marathon together. It was a big deal because we live in different countries and don’t often get to see each other. I was determined to help her get her personal best time; she was more concerned about enjoying our time together. She stopped to take photos during the race and all I could think was, “we just lost 20 seconds on our pace, how are we going to make it up? “ I don’t remember the time on the board when we crossed the finish line, but thanks to my friend, we have photos to remember the fun we had along the way. It is those photos, not how long it took us to finish the race, that brings me happiness; they captured the most important moments of the race, our time together.
Before my son changed my perspective, I was a self-proclaimed “realist.” I always tried to see the positive first, but the loud realist inside of me always quieted the optimist. I tended to find the worst case scenario quickly and focus on it until it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I set personal goals and worked hard until I achieved them but few carried meaning beyond my own life. I didn’t tend to look at my place in the world for the greater impact I could have; but rather focused inward on what I could do to achieve my own personal best, for me.
My son’s life has given me more true happiness and fulfillment than any of my personal accomplishments ever brought me. I advocate for his quality of life and that brings purpose to mine. Additionally, I have been ignited with a passion to make a difference in not only my son’s life but also the lives of others in the Down syndrome community. Now, I find myself being a full-fledged believer in a world of possibilities. I would even say on certain matters, inclusion being one, I’m a rainbow, gumdrops and lollipops kind of girl. The kind of person my previous realist self would have rolled her eyes at. I believe inclusion can change the world.
I have heard “nothing makes you happy,” more than once in my life. In those moments, I never considered myself unhappy. I was satisfied with my life, but always chasing something better. I never stopped to appreciate the journey; the finish line was all that mattered. Achieving my goals consumed all my energy and none was left for enjoying the journey.
But now, as crazy as it sounds, I actually believe that I can help to change the world. I am humbled by the opportunity to have my voice heard through my writing and hopefully be an agent for change. And that, that makes me happier than I have ever been in my life!
I catch myself dreaming of a future for my son that is fully-inclusive, where he will be celebrated and welcomed into his community with open arms. Where the school placement for all kids will be inclusive not segregated. Where all kids play on baseball teams together and celebrate each other. Where parents will celebrate the birth of a child with Down syndrome because they grew up knowing an amazing person that happened to have an extra chromosome. I believe it can happen.
When it comes to my son and the impact of inclusion, I am an idealist; and I have never been happier. My son has given me a purpose outside of myself. I no longer chase happiness and view it as a destination. I let the happiness in little everyday moments capture my heart and fill it up.
My son has taught me patience and appreciation for the moments that make life worth living. I’ve learned that the finish line is something to celebrate, but without taking the time to savor the special moments along the way, I was missing out on everything that was most meaningful. These are the moments that will grab my heart and never let go. Moments that make my heart jump for joy are an unsolicited hug, listening to him sing “Happy birthday” at a party, and tickling him to hear the sweetest sound in the world, his joyous laugh. Without my son, I wouldn’t have appreciated little moments like these as much as I do. I would have missed out on so much happiness.
While I was writing this story, I ran across a quote by Alice Meynell. “Happiness is not a matter of events; it depends upon the tides of the mind.” I know it is my son that has shifted the tides of my mind. He has given me the happiness that I had been searching for. He changed me from a realist to a believer. He gives my life purpose.
Because of my son, I will continue to believe an inclusive world will happen. I will keep using my voice to spread rainbows and lollipops, and I will never stop advocating for the change I wish to see in the world because the future I desperately want for our all of our kids depends on it.
Quick survey. Do you like talking about your weaknesses? Nobody? How about when other people constantly analyze your every move? Silly question, right? Or worse yet, how about your child’s weaknesses being the topic of conversation at meetings and magnified constantly? Doesn’t sound like something any parent should have to endure, right? Well, any parent that has had their child evaluated for services or been in an IEP meeting can relate. It has always felt like Jackson lives his life under a microscope. At an IEP meeting recently, I was reminded several times about the dreaded microscope that magnifies and distorts. Jackson will never escape his every action and personality trait being over-analyzed and connected to his diagnosis.
Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses but most of us don’t have our weaknesses magnified, brought to the attention of teams of specialists and tracked with data. It’s human nature to focus on our individual strengths while working on our weaknesses behind the scenes; we never lead with our weaknesses. As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, my son’s weaknesses are always discussed. And then there are parts of his personality that are talked about as if they are a weakness but in reality are just part of who he is.
Jackson happens to be very introverted until he feels comfortable. If he did not have Down syndrome, I bet he would be considered shy like I’m sure several kids in his class. Instead, Jackson being shy can be perceived by people that don’t know him, as he can’t talk, he lives in his own world and he isn’t social. None of which are true, by the way.
You might have heard the stereotype that individuals with Down syndrome are always happy. Jackson is a happy boy, but he is not always happy. (Nor are any of the individuals with Down syndrome that I know) He has a full range of emotions that include: frustration, being overwhelmed, and anger. Those emotions are brought on by his environment, stress or tiredness. He, like the rest of us, should be allowed to have a bad minute, hour or day.
Raising a son with Down syndrome feels like a constant tug-of-war. The world focuses on and dissects his weaknesses and we magnify and celebrate his strengths.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand evaluations are necessary and weaknesses must be discussed, but life under the dreaded microscope can be daunting.
One of my favorite quotes is from Alvin Price, “Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes to drain it dry.” This is a part of my job as a Mom that I take very seriously. For our kids with Down syndrome, I think it is even more crucial because they are much more susceptible to people and situations that make holes in their buckets.
We know Jackson is delayed, but we choose to focus on all the amazing things he accomplishes. Every day we take advantage of the many opportunities to fill his bucket of self-esteem. We will continue to put his successes under our microscope and focus on those!
This school year has been a rollercoaster ride; scary, exhilarating, and there have been moments I’ve felt like I was going to puke. But at the end of this school year, as with every rollercoaster I’ve ever ridden, I will appreciate the ride, feel a sense of pride for accomplishing it and, I won’t be as scared for our next rollercoaster ride (1st grade)
Last week we had some low moments. The lowest of which was a comment from one of the individuals that work with Jackson. She said, “Jackson is around the other kids, he isn’t with them.” Those words still sting as I type them, but hearing them for the first time it felt like I had been stabbed in the heart. I anticipate the joyful day when I hear about one of his friends at school and hope and pray for friends that will be with him for the rest of his life. Just because Jackson is shy and content to play on his own, that does not mean he does not know what is going on around him. And just because Jackson talks less than other kids, doesn’t mean he isn’t listening. In fact, Jackson is the best judge of character I have ever met. He also has a keen awareness of non-verbal communication and tone of voice.
As with other moments on this journey, our rain storm this week was followed by a rainbow. Jackson, along with other kids that participate in programs at GiGi’s and would later use the toys, was invited to GiGi’s Playhouse to accept the gifts that a seven-year-old girl was donating. She had asked her guests at her birthday party to bring gifts for the Playhouse instead of birthday gifts for herself. Just being a part of this event was magical. She was so generous at such a young age.
Of course, pictures of this sweet moment were a must. All the kids and the young girl were on the stage with the beautiful blue gift bags filled with toys and games that would be donated to the Playhouse. I was a bit nervous because Jackson loves to unwrap gift bags but, I stepped away and just watched. I wish I was better about having my camera at the ready, but I seldom do, and this was no exception so I wasn’t actively involved in taking photos. (Thanks to another mom for capturing the sweet moment) I will admit, I was a bit of a stage mom telling Jackson to “say cheese.” After a few minutes of photo-taking, the most special moment happened.
As cameras were still going, Jackson spontaneously turned around to the girl that had brought the gifts and confidently started singing “Happy Birthday” directly to her.
In the midst of all the hoopla over the gifts and getting the perfect photo, Jackson brought it all back to what was most important, wishing this generous girl a happy birthday.
We weren’t there to celebrate the toys or for photos. We were there to celebrate this girl who was so generous to donate all of her birthday presents. Jackson understood that perfectly and brought the focus to her.
Reliving the moment back in my mind, my heart bursts with pride at how Jackson never once turned around during the “Happy Birthday” song. He wasn’t putting on a performance. He was genuinely wishing his new friend a happy birthday. He understood fully why we were there and was reminding all of the adults that got caught up in taking photos and talking about all the amazing gifts of the real reason. And in true Jackson fashion, as he has done before, he was showing me that inclusion is working for him. He is building his confidence and independence to participate fully in his life. And, it was as if he knew what had been said of him earlier that week and he was trying to heal my heart. I could not be more proud of Jackson for his many accomplishments, but most importantly for his heart of pure gold! I love having a front row seat to watch his confidence and independence grow. (and to prove all those doubters out there wrong!)
In your child’s eyes, you see a world of possibilities, not a diagnosis.
You wish things were easier for your child but,
Wouldn’t change one single thing about them.
You overlook weaknesses and celebrate successes, big and small!
Negative remarks from an IEP meeting replay in your head and rip your heart apart, piece by piece.
You hold back tears as teams of specialist discuss your child’s weaknesses, but refuse to stay silent because,
You are your child’s voice, a passionate advocate, and their biggest cheerleader!
You constantly doubt yourself and the decisions you make for your child but,
You are strong, confident, assertive and refuse nothing less than the best for your child.
You’d do anything to see your child smile,
And wish you could take away all the ignorance in this cruel world.
Your child has made you a more caring, open-minded and accepting person.
You constantly second-guess your words or actions on behalf of your child and
Ask yourself daily, “what more can I do to help my child?”
You want your child to have the high quality of life they deserve so badly it hurts.
You visualize the best case scenario but,
Prepare for the worst possible outcome.
Your heart bursts with joy with every spontaneous hug or kiss.
To your ears, you child’s voice is the sweetest sound in the world and,
You waited longer or are still waiting to hear their first word.
Your child says everything without saying a single word.
You have experienced higher highs and lower lows than other parents.
You know you are one of the lucky few,
and you know that without a doubt that your life is better with your child.
Yesterday was our first “practice day” for completing our morning routine and getting to school on time. On the drive over, I felt weirdly at ease. I was so excited and thinking about what a great school year this will be that I didn’t feel even the slightest tinge of nerves. The logical part of my brain has partnered with my heart and are currently winning the battle with the “creative” part of my brain that can draw up some concerning “what if” scenarios. For our practice run, we broke out his brand new Arizona Cardinals backpack for the first time and it was the final piece that made everything click for Jackson. He smiled and was excited when we got there on as we walked up to the kindergarten entrance. On the way home, he said, “I want school today” and I said to myself, “we are going to be fine.”
With school starting in one week (YIKES!) here are some of the worries (no wait, positive vibes only) let’s say, “thoughts” instead, I have about my son starting kindergarten in a general education classroom.
What if he doesn’t click with his teacher and/or paraprofessional?
I understand this isn’t a concern unique to me and other parents of a child with Down syndrome. All parents, especially those of kindergarteners, want their child to love their first elementary school teacher. I still remember my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Brewer. She was the stereotypical kindergarten teacher with a soft, cheerful voice, reassuring smile and positivity oozing out of her head-to-toe. I desperately want Jackson to click with his teacher and para but not just because that makes for a happier kindergarten year and warm, fuzzy memories, but because it is necessary for him to succeed. For us, the “click” is imperative because with it, he will work super hard for that person and he will accomplish goals left and right. Without it, things will not go as smoothly.
Will his teacher want to have him in her classroom?
I believe the vast majority of kindergarten teachers truly want to be there every day to help shape young minds (and hearts) because let’s be honest dealing with a room of energetic 5-year-olds all day CANNOT be easy! Beyond wanting to be there each day and bringing a positive energy, we need Jackson’s teacher to want to have him (and his para) in her classroom. I understand that having an inclusive classroom carries complexities and extra work that would not otherwise be present. My hope is that he will have a teacher that will see past his diagnosis straight into his heart, wonderful sense of humor and intelligent mind. I hope for a teacher that will be excited by the world of possibilities for not only Jackson but also the rest of the students too. I hope she is motivated by his potential to grow academically and personally and truly includes him in all classroom activities. I hope she also realizes that the way she treats him is a model for her students to follow. The more she treats Jackson like the rest of the students in her classroom, the more the other students will treat him same as all their other classmates.
If his teacher doesn’t wholeheartedly believe that Jackson is an asset to her classroom and want to learn from him, I worry how well this placement will work. Will she be too easy on him and turn him into a class mascot that doesn’t have to play by the rules and won’t meet his goals? Or, will she be too hard on him and expect that he complete the work without the necessary supports and modifications to the curriculum forcing him to shut down completely. Will her expectations help to push him towards his greatest potential or make him complacent? I am grateful for all the teachers that see the ability in ALL their students and understand the importance of full-inclusion; I hope Jackson will have one of these caring individuals as his teacher.
How will his classmates respond to him?
In preschool, Jackson had a friend that adored him. She would run to the car every day to give him a hug and take his hand to walk with him into school. During playdates, I’ve watched the two of them have full conversations, Jackson is mostly the listening side of the conversation 🙂 but he is engaged and I can see in his eyes that his friend make him happy and confident. I hope more than anything that Jackson will have many classmates this year that will want to be his friend. Not a mommy figure to him or a kid to whom they think they should be nice but don’t really include. I hope for kids that truly want to be his friends because they realize how awesome he is, real friends! But more than whether or not he will have real friendships, I worry that his classmates will make fun of him. But, having witnessed the pure eyes with which his pre school classmates saw him, I am optimistic he will be surrounded by caring classmates. I know having Jackson in their classroom will help them to be more accepting and understanding of all individuals. My hope is that Jackson will share many years of elementary school with his kindergarten classmates and they will always just think of him as Jackson, a great friend who is really fun to be around.
All the standard kindergarten worries and more
I understand kindergarten is a BIG deal and it is hard for almost all parents. For me, and other parents of a child with Down syndrome that I’ve talked to, our worries extend far past where most parents stop stressing. Like an ocean at high-tide countless waves of worry flow into our minds. I like to joke that the “Top 5 List of Worries” other parents have likely wouldn’t even make the “Top 20 List of Worries” that a parent of a child with Down syndrome has. For example, when it comes to lunch, my immediate concern is not will Jackson have a friend to sit with him in the cafeteria (I, of course, hope he does) but when I think about lunch my heart races and my mind fills with many “what if” scenarios like: “what if” he won’t walk all the way to the cafeteria, “what if” he can’t get his lunch box open, “what if” he doesn’t have enough time to finish his lunch (eating quickly has never been Jackson’s way), “what if” he won’t sit the whole lunch period. I could go on and on with other scenarios that play out in my mind daily like will he be safe on the playground, all things related to the potty, how will he respond to the lockdown and fire drills and what would happen in the case of a real emergency? I’ll stop there but I think you get the picture; the worries of a parent of a child with Down syndrome are far more basic and more complex all at the same time.
This is a BIG year!
I worry, of course, how could a chronic worrier not worry about the biggest event to-date in her child’s life. But, the many worries I’ve had about kindergarten have been hushed on several occasions by a heart that knows he is going to grow so much this year and hopefully, love school!
My excitement outweighs my concern. Thinking about the opportunity for him to grow academically and personally outweighs my worries about whether or not he will stay on task and do his work every day. Kindergarten will without a doubt be a year where he talks more, gains more independence and most importantly more self-confidence. I know he will thrive in an environment where he is fully included and valued for the wonderful things he brings. I hope he will come out of his kindergarten year with friendships that will last through his years in elementary school and beyond. I hope he feels a part of the class and is free to express himself. There will be bumps in the road but that is nothing new for us, we can get over bumps, we are used to 4-wheeling through life. So bring on kindergarten, we are ready!
For our son’s first birthday he got a gift certificate for one of those toddler gyms. We ultimately used the gift certificate for the music class they offered because he loves music, but we also tried one of the mommy-and-me “gym” sessions. When we entered, I remember hearing a variety of mom voices, “I know you can do it, climb up.” “Ella, you just did this yesterday, you can do it.” “My son started walking when he was 10 months old, how about your son?”
I think we were both a bit overwhelmed by the slightly chaotic ambiance. My son wasn’t interested in climbing on anything or even crawling across the mat, a skill he had just learned. He was content to just watch. I encouraged him to try the fun things the place had to offer but he wasn’t interested so I backed off, put him on my lap and he simply soaked in his surroundings. I’ve learned that watching and listening is one of the ways he learns best and he was gaining a lot from just being there. This experience is a moment that would later be one of clarity for me; this was the child I needed. He teaches me to stop and enjoy the journey rather than trying to rush to the finish line.
I know, without a doubt, I would have been one of those parents that are constantly seeking the next milestone before enjoying the accomplishment of the previous. The ones that want to have the kid that can climb the highest, walk early, can master anything immediately. I would have turned parenting into a competition rather than enjoying our individual journey. I needed a break from my self-imposed pressure to pursue perfection. I needed a fresh perspective and a greater appreciation for the little joys in life. That is exactly what I got when our eldest son was born with Down syndrome. My perspective on what is truly important and meaningful has changed drastically. My definition of success had relied heavily on evaluations and standards. I didn’t know my own measure of joy, it was all dependent on what society deemed most valuable. Now I understand happiness comes from a deep appreciation of all the “little things” that make life special, genuine and full of purpose. My son taught me more in his life than I had learned in all the previous years of mine. He continues to teach me to celebrate every little step along the way and to soak in all the fun and uniqueness of our journey.
From my first year in school, I was the kid in the class that loved school and worked really hard to achieve all “A’s.” My intense desire to conform to society’s standards of achievement continued through high school, into college and adulthood as I turned to marathon running as my outlet for challenging myself to achieve. But the pressure I placed on myself caused much stress and a life filled with more worry than bliss, more pressure than happiness.
Motherhood, no doubt would have been a continuation of my desires to meet the standards and have a child that was right on track, or better yet, ahead of the developmental milestones. But there I sat at a mommy-and-me class, with my son on my lap just soaking it all in with him. WOW! What a huge, albeit subtle, accomplishment. He showed me that he didn’t have anything to prove to this audience of his peers or their moms. He would do it all on his own time and he would do it for himself-not to meet developmental milestones. In that moment, my one-year-old son had already made me a more complete, peaceful person who enjoyed just sitting, watching and listening. Sitting there silent and still at a mommy-and-me class that was filled with movement and chatter made me feel a bit anxious and off balance but also oddly at peace. At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of that moment but looking back, it was pivotal. There are still plenty of moments that I feel uneasy and anxious in social situations because our son does things his way and that way isn’t always what’s expected nor does it match up with the developmental charts but he is filled from head-to-toe with a charisma and positive energy that is unmatched and I adore that about him.
He makes me so proud because he leads a genuine life; he isn’t afraid to show his joy or go at his pace. We celebrate BIG those things in life that might be insignificant to most, including the person I was before I had him. Some times the things most worth celebrating have nothing to do with an achievement at all.
As we prepare for kindergarten, our hope is that he will build friendships and gain more independence. Academics will take a back seat to what truly matters. This former straight “A” student, has learned from my son the importance of the things in life that can’t be measured on a test. Perfect report cards, elite marathon times and a slim frame are fleeting. But, the peace and strength that comes with doing things on one’s own terms and appreciating the things that make life worth living are lasting and bring joy daily. Loving relationships, kindness, and the positive mark a person leaves on the world are the true measures of success. Thanks to my son, I am learning how to be the best version of myself and I will continue to work hard to help him to be his personal best, fully-included, and on his own terms!
Disclaimer: This blog, like my others, is just one parent’s perspective and experience. I don’t claim to be an expert but rather am sharing our family’s experience in hopes of potentially helping others to make their IEP process more positive.
To start: let’s be real, parenting and advocating for a child on an IEP is hard! It is emotional, takes a lot of time, and energy and in return can cause feelings of dread, sadness, and anxiety. There really is no sugar-coating it, it can be downright dreadful, but with the right approach, I believe, IEP meetings can be collaborative and successful for all parties and most importantly the student. Here are some ideas that have worked well for my family, maybe they will work well for you too.
Do the “big picture” prep work and lay out a plan
Sometimes as parents of a child that is delayed, it is easier to only look at the present because too far into the future can be hard to predict but it is important to identify early what you and your child want in adulthood so you can always be working towards those goals in all aspects of his/her life. Of course, these goals may change, but for now, understanding what makes your child happiest and create some goals. For example, if you identify that your child is happiest when he/she accomplishes things on his/her own, perhaps a goal would be for the child to live independently or have a job when they are an adult. In order for that to happen, prepare in the way that is age appropriate at every stage of their lives. For our family, full inclusion in a general education classroom is going to give our son age appropriate, real life experience and increase his self-confidence so he can be independent. Secondly, research school districts early and find one that best meets the needs of your child. Some districts are exceptional at offering separate special education resources and others may be better at running inclusive classrooms. Know what your child needs and work your hardest to get into the district that best meets their needs. I spoke with parents early and often regarding school districts and from that information, we determined the district we wanted for our son and made many sacrifices and planned for years in advance in order to get him into a school we thought was best for him.
You know what is best for your child
Parents know their child best. Take confidence in that and use it to your advantage. An IEP meeting is a good time to highlight your child’s strengths (even brag a little) and work toward solutions to help them with their weaker areas. Never forget that the IEP is a collaborative process and YOU are a part of the team, not a spectator on the side lines, you are IN the game! Well before an IEP meeting, think about what is best for your child in the coming year and communicate your expectations to your child’s team. This is a general vision of how their school day (level of inclusion if any) will look like, not necessarily specific IEP goals. Once you know what is best for your child for the upcoming year, share your vision with the team so everybody is working towards the same goal. We did this at the beginning of the school year at parent teacher conferences and then again in a letter to the IEP team about two weeks before the IEP meeting. At parent teacher conferences our conversation was general; we knew full inclusion in a general education classroom was best for him. In our letter to the IEP team, we were more specific and gave some examples of IEP goals.
All communication with the team is important because that is how collaboration happens. Don’t limit communication to IEP meetings.
Drop the “us” vs. “them” mentality
I know there are some of you out there rolling your eyes at this one. I will admit, this can be a challenging perspective to have especially if the initial reaction you get from the school team to what you want for your child is less than full agreement with high-fives or you have had a bad experience that has put you on the defensive. Trust me, there were a couple of moments when I went into full mama bear mode (at home) and wanted to “put the smack down on.” BUT, rather than building a stone wall to protect ourselves, we worked towards building a bridge with the team. Creating a meaningful IEP is a collaborative process, not a battle that one side wins and the other loses. Keep the focus on the end goal, creating an education plan for your child that will ensure they have the greatest success in the classroom and beyond. Relationships with the members of the IEP team are important. Don’t look at it as sucking up to somebody just to get what you want because first, that isn’t a relationship and second, I doubt it will work. Being genuinely interested in contributing and being a part of the team is the key.
Gratitude goes a long way
We all know it: parenting is hard and sometimes our child is having a bad day, are unwilling to do anything and honestly just isn’t that fun to be around. Don’t forget that your child’s team also experiences those types of days with your child that isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Be grateful for quality teachers that work with your child to help them to reach their IEP goals. When you look at the IEP process as a collaborative team working together to achieve the best for your child, you are much more likely to seek out opportunities to be grateful for everything the team is doing for your child rather than thinking they are working against you. Share your gratitude; write thank you notes, emails and say thank you every day at pickup. Looking at this process from the view point of the other members of the team and understanding the time and work they put in, it becomes easy to be grateful for what they are contributing to your child’s education and more importantly his/her quality of life.
Do your homework
When you are talking about your child’s quality of life and future (short term and long-term) don’t overlook the importance of understanding the laws that govern special education. This is where a balance comes into play. Yes, be kind, show gratitude, and take a team approach, BUT, also let the team know that you know what your child has a legal right to at school. The more knowledgeable a parent is of the laws governing special education, the more seriously they are going to be taken. Educate yourself so you will be taken seriously and if needed you can remind the team of their legal obligation. Here are some key legislation and terminology that I think is most important for parents to have at a minimum, a basic understanding of when advocating for their child. The “biggie” is the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004) which states: “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”
And as a part of IDEA, “Least restrictive environment (LRA)” which states that a child should be placed in the least restrictive environment as the first option and only if their disability prohibits them from being in that environment will they be moved.
At a local level, more specific to your child, research the state standards for the grade level they are going into. I used our state’s standards for kindergarten to guide the suggestions for IEP goals. It just made sense to me that there would be less push-back if I showed an understanding of what would be required of a typical student and picked out the pieces of each standard that I knew our son could accomplish or would be most important to him gaining confidence and independence. We were asking for him to be a part of a general education classroom, I wanted to emphasize that we expected him to learn the same material as the other students but that the way he accomplished it may need be modified to meet his needs.
Go on the school website and each teacher’s individual page to become knowledgeable about what a typical day looks like in his/her classroom. This can again help to guide IEP goals and when you reference information from the school website in an IEP meeting it increases your credibility in the eyes of the team at the school and may even score you some brownie points (and what parent couldn’t use brownie points in an IEP meeting!) To take it a step further you can ask for a meeting with one of the teachers to learn more about the flow of the day and expectations. Because I found some web pages to reference I did not feel the need to request an additional meeting and time from the principal or teachers at the school.
Lead with kindness
We were fortunate that our IEP meeting was taking place at our son’s home school and we went in knowing he would receive inclusion so we were genuinely grateful just to be there. I started the meeting by sharing how grateful my husband and I were to be there and how much we appreciated the team meeting to discuss what was best for our son. I also made it very apparent that we understood that we were a part of the team and how we were eager to collaborate with the rest of the team. I can guarantee there will be a time during the meeting that the school team and parents don’t agree. Rather than going on the defensive and jumping to the conclusion “they don’t want what is best for my child,” take it as an opportunity to reach a mutually agreeable decision in a respectful and kind manner. Again, I know that can be a challenge especially if the team isn’t leading with kindness themselves but changing the atmosphere in the room with your kindness can change the course of the meeting. Genuine kindness and appreciation go a long way and with any luck, your kindness and appreciation will be reciprocated and the whole meeting will be positive.
You got this!
Never forget creating an IEP is a collaborative process and YOU are an important part of the team, not a spectator just observing. You do have control over the outcome. Know what you want for your child (short term and long term), educate yourself on the laws governing special education, lead with kindness and be a part of the team collaborating to create an individualized education plan that will benefit your child. With any luck, you will have a positive IEP meeting which will generate an IEP that will help your child to reach their fullest potential. You got this!
IDEA – Building The Legacy of IDEA 2004. (2017). Idea.ed.gov. Retrieved 12 July 2017, from http://idea.ed.gov/
The first game of the NFL season was one day after Jackson was born. My husband had gone home for a quick shower leaving Jackson and me alone for the first time. Still overwhelmed, concerned about his health issues, (minor but at the time felt like a dark cloud hanging over us that at any time could become a huge thunderstorm) and trying to understand parenthood and our new journey, I fell back what was comfortable to me, football Sunday. I turned on the Cardinals’ game on in the hospital room and held Jackson explaining it to him. Arizona Cardinals games had become my families time together. We would attend the home games and watch the away games together. At only one day old, Jackson would become a part of this tradition and watch the first game of the season with me. Soon after that day, he would have a pint-sized Cardinals jersey, beanie, and matching socks; he was then and still is the cutest fan ever!
Fast forward a bit over a year, decked out in his full Cardinals ensemble, he attended his first football game and he loved it! Amazingly, he sat through the whole game and watched the field the whole time. As he has grown, his love of football has also grown and he has become a fan. He still loves going to the games and stays fully engaged the whole time. He loves yelling “third down,” cheering, and eating popcorn. And, it was football games on TV that would be the best motivator to get him to stand on his own. Initially, I was a bit nervous to take him because he was so young and because I always get a bit anxious in situations with crowds. It’s basic math, the more people (mixed with alcohol) the greater the chance of one ignorant person saying something stupid and tearing my heart out of my chest and likely, resulting in my whole family being escorted out of the stadium by security. But at the games he is just one of the Cardinals’ fans, yelling and cheering. Ok, so he is the cutest fan there and he has gained some fans of his own. Walking on the concourse with him is a bit like escorting a celebrity. He gets a ton of smiles, some high-fives and several “look how cute he is.”
Although the pursuit of inclusion discussed in this blog focusses primarily on school inclusion, inclusion is a way of life, not a school placement. School inclusion is just one piece of the puzzle and won’t work in isolation from other aspects of life. Inclusion at home and in the community is essential. Parents know their child best and should be able to decide how much their child will be included with their typically developing peers at school. For our family, we believe including Jackson in all aspects of life now is the precursor to him engaging with his community in adulthood i.e. having a job, living independently and/or attending college, whatever makes our son most happy. We want him to grow up in the same world he will live in for the rest of his life. 321 Inclusion celebrates inclusion at all levels: home, school and in the community because all pieces work in conjunction to create a beautiful picture.
Jackson was our first born child so in addition to learning how to parent a child with Down syndrome, we were learning how to be parents in the first place. Because we didn’t have any prior parenting experience, we focused more on getting the parenting part right and less on how to parent a child with Down syndrome. Although we did research on how to help him achieve his personal best, we didn’t treat him differently than we do his younger brother. To us, Jackson wasn’t our son with Down syndrome he was just our son. Parenting him was all we knew about parenthood and for that I am grateful. We took him everywhere and he was fully included in our lives same as any other child would be. Like other parents, we took hundreds of pictures of our baby and he was the center of our universe. The full inclusion way of life easily became how we did things, without thinking about it. From birth, we have treated him the only way we knew how: fully included in all aspects of our lives so when it came time to discuss where he belonged during the school day, it only made sense to us that his school life should match up with his home life and we knew inclusion would be best for him.
Don’t get me wrong, I have had doubts about putting him in a general education classroom…lots of doubts. Even knowing in my heart it is best for him, I still question it. The battle that goes on between my heart and mind is the result of fear. My greatest fear, by far, is that the other kids will make fun of him or not include him. That’s when the thought of him being in a self-contained classroom where all of his classmates would also be delayed sounds pretty darn nice from time-to-time. But the reality is, Jackson lives in the same world as the rest of us and that world, unfortunately, includes a lot of bullies. It is impossible for me to protect him from that (as much as I’d like to live in a bubble or move to an island). So rather than worrying about how I can protect him from the world, I will focus my energy on how to best prepare him for living in it. Like in football, the offensive line can’t protect the quarterback 100% of the time so the quarterback has to work on ways to protect himself so he can stay standing long enough to throw the ball. I will protect Jackson when I can, but more importantly, I will help Jackson gain the skills necessary to thrive in this world on his own. At each step of the way, I will cheer as loudly for him as he cheers at football games. He is the biggest Arizona Cardinals fan and I am his biggest fan!