By Dr. Monica Simonsen
Shante was a student in my very first class. She was 15 years old and had a mild intellectual disability. She would sulk into my classroom, sit in the back row, and put her head down. I had been so excited about the welcoming and motivating classroom environment I created, the positive reinforcement behavior system in place, and the fun engaging first day lesson. I had no idea what to do with her. I wanted to establish the expectation that everyone should be ready to learn. I wanted to make sure she demonstrated respect. But, I had no idea what to do. I tried kneeling down and talking quietly to her. She glared at me. I tried demanding that she sit up. She glared at me. I tried praising her peers, threatening to call home, and even bribing her. Nothing. I was in my classroom a few days later when I heard a commotion in the hallway. Another teacher popped her head in to tell me that Shante’s mom was barreling down the hallway. I knew by now that this was a common occurrence and that most of my colleagues thought that she enabled her daughter and bullied teachers. Admittedly, I was a little anxious. She marched in and I jumped up to shake her hand. She seemed startled and shook my hand. I asked her if she wanted to sit down and offered her a bottle of water. Again, she was taken aback but accepted.
By the time we began to talk, she seemed less like the bully my colleagues had described and more like a mom. A mom who was frustrated and tired. I asked her how I could help her daughter feel more comfortable. She said (and I’ll never forget these words)- “Just let her be.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t pay her no mind. All that pressure ain’t helping her.”
How could I do this? Not hold her to the expectations I set for all of my students? Not follow through with my behavior plan? How would she complete her work and how would I document progress towards her IEP goals? Still, it was worth a shot.
Within the first week, I noticed her slowly lifting her head when I said something funny. In two weeks, she began to sit up for entire lessons. Eventually, she moved into her assigned seat and suddenly, she was participating. Shante was in my class for a few years. I was also responsible for coordinating work-based experiences for my students. I knew that this would be difficult for Shante. Her mom wasn’t sure Shante could ever work. However, I had gained her trust and we worked together to think about possible job sites.
I knew it was important to find a place and supervisor who might “let her be.” Her mom remembered that her neighbor worked in a nearby school cafeteria. We worked together to allow Shante to simply observe in the cafeteria during her shift for a few weeks. Before long, she was pitching in and helping. Shante went on to have a number of successful work experiences and graduated with a paid job. We worked hard to make sure that she had a lot of support transitioning to new settings and had the tools in place to support her.
Nothing else about her story was remarkable- except that it could have had a very different trajectory. Mom had a reputation as being abrasive and meddling. Shante had a reputation as being withdrawn, noncompliant, and was labeled a “behavior problem.” Her mom was just a mother who wanted her kid to feel safe and supported. She knew her daughter better than any of the professionals she had been dealing with for 15 years. Shante’s anxiety about new situations manifested in her shutting down. Perhaps her mother wasn’t able to articulate that to the professionals or perhaps they didn’t listen to her.
As educators, we know that families play an integral role in their child’s education. Research increasingly shows that high levels of parent involvement is correlated with student achievement and that family expectations significantly predict post-school outcomes (Simonsen & Neubert, 2013; Carter, Austin & Trainor, 2012). In Shante’s case, mom knew that Shante needed time and space. She was not only able to provide insight into Shante’s needs, but she also provided a job lead. This mother, who had been considered a bully and an enabler, turned out to be a resourceful partner.
I went on to teach hundreds of other students, many of whom with more significant behavior challenges and/or families that seemed difficult to engage, and the lessons I learned from Shante and her mom stayed with me. I am grateful to have learned early on the importance of building a relationship with my students’ families and for looking at the assets and resources each family brings to the transition planning process.
As educators, we often talk about “involving families” and “raising family expectations” but it is critical that we stop and try to view our students, their children, through their lens first. The same parent who has a reputation for not being involved in her daughter’s life because she doesn’t come to IEP meetings might be the youth group leader at church so that her daughter is included. Maybe she can’t take off of work to attend IEP meetings during the school day. How could you accommodate mom’s schedule to make sure she was involved in the IEP process?
The seemingly litigious father may genuinely be scared that his son will fall through the cracks and afraid that no one is looking out for him at school. How could you communicate your commitment to his son’s success?
As special educators (or special educators-to-be!), we understand the concept of individuality. We write individualized goals, positive behavioral support plans, and student contracts. We know that when a student isn’t making progress, we have to change course, and try another way. I challenge you to look at your relationships with students’ families in much the same way. If something isn’t working- try another way. It might not be as simple as offering the mother a seat and a bottle of water (and, if I’m being honest, my relationship with Shante’s mom was much more complicated than that). But, it’s a start.
Dr. Monica Simonsen is the Program Designer for the Secondary Transition online graduate program at the University of Kansas. Dr. Simonsen’s primary research interests are the role of secondary school programming, transition services and family expectations/engagement on the post-school outcomes of youth with disabilities. A particular area of interest is the role of the transition specialist, including their personal, attributes, characteristics and practices. Dr. Simonsen previously worked as a Senior Research Associate at TransCen, Inc., providing technical assistance and research expertise to a variety of state and national transition projects.
In this capacity, Dr. Simonsen worked closely with communities in Maryland to implement a model of seamless transition and improve the post-school outcomes for youth with disabilities. This involved conducting needs assessments, using the findings to help the communities develop action plans, and helping to coordinate appropriate technical assistance and training activities.
Prior to joining TransCen, Inc., Dr. Simonsen worked as a secondary special educator and transition specialist in Maryland, coordinated a post-secondary program for 18-21 year olds with intellectual disabilities, and completed her doctorate at the University of Maryland.