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Ten Things to Ask of Professionals Working with Your Special Needs Child

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A Fresno, California mother made headlines recently when she sued her daughter’s teacher and school administrators. The mom had paid a surprise classroom visit and allegedly found her developmentally delayed seven-year-old locked in a makeshift cage and wearing a soiled diaper.

The principal of the school reportedly told police the cage was a safety precaution that had been used for several years. The story went viral, probably because it seemed to confirm the worst fears harbored by many parents of children with special needs: that some people we trust to help our children may not be worthy of that trust.

To be sure, very few parents will encounter the situation based on the Fresno mother’s claims. I also do not doubt the teacher’s good intentions. Still, her experience is a reminder of how important it is to invest time and effort in building trusting and open relationships with every professional, caregiver, and educator who works with your child.

As a pediatric psychologist I know that families’ journeys can be fraught with unexpected challenges. Discovering that your child has differences can be daunting, but ensuring that your child’s needs are properly met by the outside world can be even more stressful.

The good news is that we know more than ever about why it’s essential to nurture strengths and relationships as the foundation to helping children with developmental challenges. The bad news is that this new knowledge does not always translate into real- life treatment for your child.

As a parent, you can have significant impact on how teachers and others perceive your child, the unspoken messages these adults offer, and the emotional support they provide. These ten tips are a start. Of course, every child and family is different, and you should adapt the list to your particular parenting beliefs and your child’s unique profile.

As parents we respectfully request that members of our child’s support team follow these tenets:

1. Understand that developmental or neurological differences make our child different, not deficient. We do not want our child to experience unspoken messages that he or she needs to be cured or fixed.

2. Presume competency in our child, and understand that it may take a while for him to show you all he knows. Please have patience and assume that he understands everything you are saying.

3. Do not confuse our child’s inability to speak or use proper language as an inability to think. Our child’s ability to communicate her inside thoughts is not always easy or possible, but she has thoughts, emotions and desires just as any other child does.

4. Prioritize our child’s feelings of safety in relationships as a necessary condition for learning. It is more difficult for our child to feel safe because he can’t easily communicate his needs. Please help him feel secure, loved, and safe.

5. Understand the critical difference between intentional misbehavior and our child’s attempts to communicate distress. (They can look the same from the outside). Our child’s behaviors, which may look negative or attention-seeking are most likely stress responses, “fight or flight” reactions, not aggressive acts.

6. Consider the mental-health implications of every behavior plan, strategy and intervention for our child. Our child feels sadness, shame and embarrassment as any other child does. Please be considerate of his emotions when creating educational and treatment plans.

7. Consult with us, her parents, before attempting to “normalize” behaviors. Some of our child’s behaviors help her feel calmer. If they are not disrupting others, please do not take behaviors away without first speaking with us. This can have an impact on her developing self-confidence.

8. Work from our child’s strengths, natural interests and motivation. Our child, like all children, learns best when he is engaged and interested in the process. Please incorporate his natural interests in his education and therapy sessions.

9. Certain sensory experiences may be difficult for our child. Get assistance from an expert on sensory-motor integration (typically an occupational therapist or physical therapist) to make sure therapy goals are tailored to our child’s sensory processing profile. When taken into consideration and accommodated, our child is more content and learns better.

10. Continue to raise the bar and expect as much from our child as you would from any other child. We have the same hope as all parents: that our child will be happy, secure and live to the highest potential. You are essential in making this happen.

Do you have any questions or comments? I invite you to write them below or visit my Facebook page where I post supportive resources for parents and professionals.

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