Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An Open Letter to Preschool Directors

All too often, parents come away from encounters with their child's preschool teacher struggling with confusion, self-blame and fear. While there is no getting around the pain that goes with the discovery that a child is struggling in school and may have lifelong challenges, there is no need for it to be as awful as it so often is. So I've written to the people I believe have the power to make a difference. 

Dear Preschool Director, 

I know that running a school for children between the ages of 2 and 5 is challenging. It is a business filled with both the fulfilment of seeing children set on a path to learning as well as the heartbreak of discovering lifelong challenges. (With a lot of noise in between.) I'd like to raise a topic that is connected to the more difficult part of the work that you do.  

Your teachers are on the front line of a force that is increasingly besieged. The kinds of challenges that emerge in children during the preschool years are mounting. Your teachers are coping with more than ever before. It is imperative that they be given the tools they need to cope not only in the classroom but outside the classroom, in speaking with parents. Because it is not a question of whether or not a preschool teacher will face such a difficult conversation at some point. As we both know, it is inevitable that your teachers will arrive at a time when they must talk to a parent about challenges, potentially life-changing challenges, that were first spotted in their classroom. 

Your teachers mean well. They want to share what they've learned about a child and offer resources to help. But all too often, frustration and personal feelings are brought to bear on a conversation which requires careful handling. To be frank, I have heard tales of blame, name-calling and conflict. I'll bet you've heard some doozies too. And even when the conversation goes smoothly, parents must sometimes find their way through a maze of recommendations that include alternative therapies, dietary ideas, or parenting wisdom. 

I urge you to gather your teachers for an after-hours training session. At that session, make clear who is authorized to initiate such a conversation (senior teachers only if possible) and guide them through a conversation with the parent of a challenged child. Give them the language and the attitude they need to conduct such a conversation with kindness. Be sure to include:

1. Guidelines about how and when to hold such a discussion. It should not be done unexpectedly or during the chaotic and harried time around drop-off and pick-up. It is a conversation that requires a reserved time either in person or on the phone. 

2. Discuss the language that is appropriate to use in speaking of classroom challenges and the kinds of strategies that have been tried (successfully or not). Make sure teachers understand that delivering a laundry list of ways the child disobeys and annoys will not have the desired effect. Conversations should be focused on the child's difficulties and frustrations -- not the teacher's. 

3. Give teachers a resource sheet with the school's name at the top. List several reputable child psychologists in the area who can do a skilled and neutral psychological evaluation and deliver a written report. Preferably these doctors will be in practices that accept insurance. Explain to your teachers that regardless of their outside contacts or previous experience, only the resource sheet from the office should be given to parents. You can solicit their input about who might be included and vet their recommendations privately. Please don't put your parents at the mercy of Betty's cousin's beloved naturopath. 

4. Role play, role play, role play! Make sure each of your teachers is given the opportunity to practice a conversation with a parent about a child with challenges. Pretend the cultural, emotional, language and financial barriers that are likely to emerge in your particular area. Throw curve balls and help them avoid confrontations. Coach, guide, and teach your teachers how to traverse this minefield. The goal is ALWAYS to help the parent see that outside intervention is appropriate now. The goal is NEVER to convince them to move their child elsewhere because he is driving you crazy. 

Your teachers are already under tremendous pressure to manage full classrooms, financial shortages, and difficult behaviors. I know that asking more of them and of you is no small matter. But ultimately, this kind of training will lead to calmer, more effective conferences with parents and better follow through for children. Your students will get the help they need to be set on the right path for the future. Isn't that why you and your teachers went into the field? 

Thank you for all that you do. 
The Autism Parent Community

Susan Walton is a different kind of autism mom. She tried the diets, the therapy, and even dabbled in some of the voodoo, but ultimately found it wasn't going to take her family where they wanted to go. Instead she dedicated herself to finding adventure along with many other Northern California families in the group Peninsula Parents of Special Needs Kids. Whether she and her kids are swinging from a zipline, surfing in an ocean, or ducking behind a couch, it's all about fun and she wants to spread the word: Life is not over after diagnosis. The adventure is just beginning and you don't need to stay inside the lines. 

Learn More about her book at Amazon.com

1 comment:

  1. Oh this is so perfect for the exact guidance that my son's preschool director needs. You should sign as "The challenging preschool child community", as it applies to so many situations.