I’m not a parent, and I may never fully understand the experience of raising a child with special needs. But I have seen the pain, the disappointments, the desires, and the hopes of parents who struggle every day for a better life for their exceptional kids.
I’ve heard that parents of special needs children experience intense grief repeatedly throughout their child’s development. Each developmental milestone is a reminder of what is and what isn’t and what that might mean for their child’s future. Well then, for parents, the IEP meeting must feel kind of like a funeral… a ritual of sorts, a reminder of the loss of certain hopes or expectations. During this ritual, there may be opportunities for celebration and acknowledgements of progress, but these may be easily overshadowed by deeper desires and disappointments: the loss of what could’ve or should’ve been. Special education teachers are responsible for providing a clear, objective picture of each student’s current performance so that the IEP team can set reasonable, obtainable goals. As much as we try to do so gently and empathically, it’s easy to miss the impact of our words.
Many times at the IEP table, I have felt caught between the facts and the emotions, trying to balance the current needs of the student with the hopes and disappointments of the parent. For a period of four years, I participated in one family’s journey. Their son was incredibly smart, creative, and witty. However, he required intensive supports within a therapeutic day school to address significant challenges including emotional regulation, anxiety, social interaction, and sensory integration. His parents were known for their high expectations and for their dissatisfaction with the school system. Preparation for IEP meetings always felt a little like preparing for battle. I think his parents probably felt the same way….
At the therapeutic day school, their son had made steady gains in social and emotional skills. Yet, he had begun to fall behind academically and was beginning to demonstrate increased performance anxiety. His parents pushed for better curriculum, more time in group instruction, more data, etc. As much as I tried to respond to their requests, it was never right. Then one day in passing, his mother said something to the effect of, “We’re running out of time. He won’t be ready for college.” Then it clicked. This parent was holding on to the desire that her son would attend college. She was in a conversation about her son’s future while the rest of us were in a conversation about the here and now.
Fact: we all have emotions that impact how we communicate and how we interact with others. Parents who are in the midst of such grief challenge teachers and professionals like me to listen more deeply.