The start of a new school year arouses many feelings. Anxiety, excitement, curiosity, nostalgia, to name a few. The start of a new school year also signifies a milestone in the life of the child: a new grade level, new students, and new curriculum. There are so many new experiences to anticipate, which can be overwhelming. One thing most students can expect is to meet new teachers. New teachers mean learning new rules, procedures, and personalities. This can be stressful for any child, especially for children on the spectrum.
The start of a new school year is also stressful for teachers. Besides all the other duties, teachers are expected to learn about their new students. Though teachers are provided student Individual Education Plans (IEP) prior to the start of the year, it is difficult for teachers to fully prepare for each new student with an IEP. As a classroom teacher, I am overwhelmed with challenges that always come with the start of a new year. I have to learn new school policies and procedures. I have to review curriculum and plan lessons. Often, I have to learn new curriculum as it changes and sometimes I’m assigned classes I have not previously taught. I have to make copies and set up my classroom. On top of that, I need to review IEPs and familiarize myself with accommodations and modifications. Because of all the new information, it takes quite a while before I know each of my IEP students.
Last year, I had one IEP student who I got to know quickly. He sent me an email prior to the start of the year that let me know who he was, his interests, what were his struggles, and suggestions as to how to help him when he is struggling. Not only that, but he included a picture of himself in the email. This was powerful. The student lets me know he struggled with reading but loved to write creatively. Because he shared this information with me I was able to consider what accommodations I could make as we started novel units and offer more fictional writing assignments as opportunities to demonstrate learning. This quick note made it possible for me to get to know this young man and plan how I can teach to his strengths and weaknesses. This year, I am planning to have both of my boys send similar emails to their teachers.
I know children have a spectrum of strengths and weaknesses that depend upon their age and their cognitive development. So, when having a child write an email to a teacher take the following into consideration:
- What is my child’s ability to express his/herself in writing?
- Would s/he prefer typing or handwriting the note?
- Is s/he able to sit for an extended period to write?
- How much help will s/he need?
Parents know their child best and can help support better than anyone. However, I would encourage that we give our children as much control over their learning as possible. The more control the child has over the message the more authentic it will be for the teacher to get to know him/her.
When I approached my boys about writing an email, I made it a conversation. I let them know that their teachers would have over one hundred students next year and it would take a while for them to know their struggles and what they can do to help them. I told them about the boy who wrote the email to me last year and how powerful it was. I asked them what they felt was important for their teachers to know about them. Finally, I asked them if they would like to write an email to their teachers. Ultimately, they were quite willing to do it.
One of the greatest temptations for parents is to take over the task. I warn against this. If your child does not want to write then don’t force it. You are welcome to write an email yourself. If they want to share certain things you feel are not necessary or do not want to share certain things you feel are necessary, again, don’t force it. It is good to help your child revise and edit the note, but don’t make it your note. Of course, if your child needs more assistance, please do so. Just be sure to give your child control over the message.
And if the school year has already started, I still recommend having your child write the message. This note will communicate the child’s needs better than any IEP can. As a teacher, I would welcome a note like this anytime during the year as it would give me a much better perspective of the child.
Lastly, I would encourage that the parent be Cc’d in the email. This will keep the parent in the loop and part of the conversation as the teacher replies. And as the school year progresses, encourage your child to continue to drop notes to the teacher explaining what the teacher is doing well or discuss concepts that the child may be struggling.
I believe the purpose of education is to teach students how to learn and help prepare them for their future. Allowing our children to advocate for themselves is one of the greatest lessons we can offer them. Encouraging self-advocacy early will help our children take ownership of their education and face challenges that will arise throughout their lives.