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posted: 10/2/2013 8:36 AM

How to communicate with your child's new team

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By Sherry Manschot

Another school year is in full swing. There is a new teacher and maybe a change in your child's special education team at school. How are you going to work with them to make this year a success for your student?

No matter what goals you have for your child in school, one of the most challenging things to do can be communicating with your child's team. As parents, it's only natural to find our emotions sometimes driving our words and actions when our child's future is at stake. After all, isn't it a parent's job to advocate for their child?

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One thing to always keep in mind is that the school's team is on your side. "We want parents to know that teachers and the special education team have one purpose and that is to help students succeed," says Scott Radford, director of Student Services for Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200. "We realize that your child is the most important thing in your life. It's OK to get emotional. We understand," he adds. "Just know that we are all there for the same purpose. We are there to help your child."

Radford encourages parents to keep an open line of communication with your child's entire team. He suggests finding out which is the best way to contact them. Is it through email, phone calls, or notes?

He also suggests establishing an ongoing dialogue. "Don't wait until there is a problem," Radford suggests. "Parents should feel free to reach out if there are questions or concerns. For instance, if there is difficulty with the amount of homework, the teacher may be able to make some accommodations. They may also be able to help parents figure out strategies that can work at home."

I recently chatted with a high school parent who has already weathered elementary school and middle school and is now in the thick of the high school system. She recommends keeping one thing top-of-mind at all times: No matter what, you have to take as much of the emotion out of your conversation with school professionals as possible.

While school professionals understand the emotion that comes with talking about your child's needs, it can sometimes get in the way of communicating your wishes. Keeping emotions in check was echoed by many parents and they offered some additional advice.

One of the best ways to prepare for conversations that have the potential to become highly charged is to prepare. If you know that it is difficult for you to stay calm, bring a friend or other advocate who can remain detached, support you and act as a second pair of ears. Compare notes after the meeting. Was their take away from the meeting the same as yours?

Have a goal for the meeting. If there is something you need to ask for, be sure you do so. Be sure to have support or even documentation as to why what you are asking for is appropriate and within the school's ability to provide.

Being informed can help focus conversations. Be sure you are educated on the special education laws and rights for your child. Consider investing in a few books that will serve you well throughout your child's 12-plus years in the school system. Knowing your rights allows you to have a more productive discussion with your child's team.

Talk to other parents about their experiences. Often they are the best resource and very willing to share their experiences. You have the ability to learn from what they did right and what they would have done differently. Understandably each child and each situation is vastly different, but you have the opportunity to gain valuable insights.

Do your homework on the school's own mission and policies. Their websites can give you pointed information to use as support when advocating with the team. What better way to advocate than to remind them of their published commitment to families and the community.

Never underestimate the power of being involved. Taking an active role in your child's class, the school, or PTA lets you see firsthand just what your child, as well as the other special needs students are experiencing. This may give you a whole different perspective on what is possible and how it might work for your child.

Both parents and school professionals agree that the emphasis should always be on what's best for the child. A healthy, open dialogue with your child's team can go a long way in making this year a success for your student.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at sherrym@wdsra.com. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.

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