The original version of this article was posted in GLEANINGS: Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
We Are the First Responders
We educators are often the “first responders,” the first to articulate to a family that their child is struggling in some way. It takes time for families to process this information. Some will be receptive (“Oh, yeah! We see that at home, too.”) Some will be resistant (“C’mon, he’s a five-year-old boy. Aren’t all five-year-old boys occasionally overactive and disruptive?”). Some will be offended (“Clearly you don’t know our daughter. We are taking our tuition dollars elsewhere.”)
Particularly in the first discussion with the parents, we should expect a wide range of responses, some of which seem to blame the messenger. The emotional journey for a parent of a child with special needs is long and complex. Whatever the initial response, try not to take it personally. I have heard many parents put down the first educator to point out their child’s difficulties, and later say, “In the end, she was right, but she didn’t tell us in the right way. I would never go back there.” When a family is in pain, or in shock, or simply not ready to hear what you have to say, there is no right way. The first person to tell a parent “the truth” will often be vilified. Remember: even if parents behave as if they are furious at you, angry at the school, or disappointed in the teacher, what they are really expressing is pain for the situation their child is in.
Tips for Difficult Conversations
Try to report specific data rather than general impressions.
- Do say: “What we see is that Joseph has difficulty getting started on a task and often needs one-on-one support at the beginning of a new activity.”
- Don’t say: “Joseph always seems scattered and confused.”
- “We would like to know whether you’re seeing some of these things at home, as well.”
- “Can you tell us a bit about how Joseph gets started on his homework? Are there any other things you’re seeing at home that you’d like us to know about?”
Take a team approach.
- Try to help parents understand the need to work as a team. All adults on the child’s educational team have the same goal: to help
- the child. It’s important to try to get the team working together, rather than against each other.
Don’t go it alone.
- It’s best to have support when approaching difficult conversations. Make sure the school counselor, learning specialist, or other specialist is in the room with you, so you can collaborate on sharing difficult information and offering a plan of action.
Working Together to Open Doors
We must reach out and make connections with other educators. We must be honest about the “pain points” in our communities, identify where we struggle, and work together to find solutions. The Messiah will come only when we all see special education as our business. We need to find a place at the table for all our kids—even if that place is at our neighbor’s table.
The answer is not to shut the door and say (as I once heard an admissions director say is his stock answer when a “rejected” family asked for other options), “The Internet is a great resource these days. Good luck to you.” The answer is to open as many doors as possible and invite parents to walk in.
To be sure, there is a steep learning curve and emotional process for parents—who may not be ready to walk through those doors yet. But we are obligated to be honest with them and help them find resources. They will claim them for their own when they are ready.
What We Must Not Do in the Meantime
- Pretend (at the time of either admissions or re-enrollment) to be able to support a child properly when we can not.
- For any reason, keep a child too long in a setting that does not serve him or her. (Resist all reasons, including fear of lowering enrollment; fear of having a tough conversation with parents who have not yet accepted their child’s needs; even optimism: “Maybe we’ll see—one more year.”)
- Fail to help find resources for a family that asks for them. We must make this part of our job.
- Deny a child access to resources, especially in Hebrew or Jewish studies. (This might happen, for example, if a child needs a reduced Hebrew load but requiring less Hebrew doesn’t reflect the school’s values as a school, so for its own reasons, the school says no.)
What We Must Do in the Meantime
- Expect pushback. Example: A child with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) has been disrupting the educational experience for everyone around her and is dangerous in the classroom; the parents are in denial. We told the parents what we saw, expressing it in a thoughtful way, with the school counselor present—beginning with the student’s strengths, offering specific examples of her challenges. We concluded the discussion by recommending therapy for the child. The parents told us they didn’t believe in therapy, and the child never returned to our school.
- Expect the unexpected: gratitude. Example: A child with profound hearing loss needed supports our school did not offer. We put her parent in touch with a school for the deaf and offered resources in the Jewish community. The parent responded with profound gratitude; no one had ever helped the girl in this way before.
- Recognize that we are all in this together. Only when we work together to create multiple solutions (inclusion, stand-alone, school within a school) will all our children be served.
Please read the full article with additional resources and suggestions here.
Dr. Laurie Katz Braun is a rabbi, educator, and writer living in New York City. She currently serves as a pastoral counselor for special needs families and is a writer with the BMI musical theater workshop.