Where are the Special Needs Parents?


I did the unthinkable during our district’s conference week. I missed my daughters’ conferences.

How in the world did I manage that? After all, isn’t their education a priority to me?

Absolutely, I value their learning immensely. If learning weren’t significantly important to me, would I have gone into teaching?

My problem? Childcare.

In high school, students stay home while their parents attend conferences. After all, what 15-year-old can’t stay home alone?

Mine, that’s who.

It’s times like this that the practical issues of caring for a child with significant disabilities remind me just how different the lives of special needs families can be. I thought today might be a good one to share with teachers and school administrators why your special needs families might participate less in school activities than you wish.

In the days-before-disability, I was part of a staff discussion at our elementary school on why special needs parents are so noticeably absent from Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meetings. There was speculation among teachers; now I know the reasons why. Let me offer a little insider perspective.

1) Childcare is a real issue, especially as our children get older and bigger. If conferences or PTA meetings happen during hours our caregivers are not normally scheduled, we often cannot get help that frees us to attend.

2) Parents need time to catch up when our kids are gone. It’s tough for special needs moms to volunteer at school during the day. We need that time for doing tasks many mothers do when their children are home. As a wonderful mother of a busy, busy (busy!!!) student with autism in my class once said so eloquently, “When he’s home, he’s all I can do.”

3) Our kids often can’t come with us. Routines are hallowed to some kids—and inflexible. Only those living with our children can understand the cost of disrupting these routines and that we may have to pay dearly for days to come. Is the PTA fundraising event worth it to our family?

Our school’s PTA generously provided childcare in the room next door to the room where parents met. However, the sitters did not have the training necessary for the special health and behavior challenges that come with disabilities. The “provided childcare” couldn’t accommodate their needs.

4) Parents don’t have energy for extras. Let’s face it, getting through the day with all the lifting, chasing, handling explosive behaviors, loads of extra laundry, driving to therapies, cooking special diets, feeding, advocating, telephoning, toileting, and such...means that we may not have energy to go to a PTA meeting in the evening.

5) Parents may have different priorities from the school. Few special needs parents would suggest that PTA is a bad thing. But some are fighting for some basic needs in life—a sense of normal for our family, for our children’s health, or even our children’s lives. In the grand scheme of thing, PTA may not be that big of a concern to us.

How can you help special needs families?

Find out what method of contact is easiest for these families. It may be email, a handwritten note, the phone, or it might be when the parent drops off or picks up their child. Families have specific reasons for finding one of these methods best to connect with you. ASK.

Try to be flexible with meeting times. Childcare is a major issue for many families. It isn’t like we can simply phone a neighbor or send our children home with a playmate while we attend a meeting after school. If you can offer multiple time slots, there may be one that actually works with our family’s schedule.

If flexibility isn’t an option, give us lots of lead time to plan for childcare...and a loving reminder when the meeting gets close. It can take weeks to arrange for a caregiver to come watch our children. Trust me on that one...I’m not being dramatic. And then, because our memories are so overfilled that we sometimes can’t remember to check our calendars, a polite reminder notice that the meeting is scheduled for the next day is helpful and appreciated.

Suspend judgment when parents don’t come to functions. It may have nothing to do with our commitment to our child’s learning or to your school. Our families deal with very real, practical issues that you may not be aware of.

Thank parents for participating. We may have made sacrifices to attend a school function. You never know. When you see us, let us know you appreciate our effort to come.

What would you add to this? Are there things you have done as a teacher to support families in their relationship with the school? Families, what would help you participate more easily with school?


Unknown said...

Great blog! So real!

Clara-Leigh said...

You put it so clearly into words!!
I was just having this discussion with my mom about how instead of trying to be a member of one of my typical kiddos' gymnastics boosters club where they do fundraising to help pay for each child's workout suits, leotards, etc., it is just easier and in many ways "less expensive" to just pay out of pocket for ours because I cannot even begin to join the booster group and get together all the time and sell stuff!!! THANK YOU for posting this and I plan to share it with my son's school.....if you don't mind!!! aaejgmom@gmail.com
Email me if you would rather me not!!

Rose-Marie said...

Thank you, Chaney. I'm glad you find value in the blog.

Absolutely, Clara-Leigh, please do share this post wherever you feel it might help people understand. I so agree with you that it is easier to just pitch in for activity costs rather than raise funds... Since you know what life is like in both the "typical" and special needs worlds, you can appreciate how different those two can be at times. I think that can be really difficult for someone who is isolated from either one of these perspectives.

A said...

Excellent points!

Gina @ Special Happens said...

Great list and suggestions. I hope many read this and 'get it'.