I already had 25 kids before I joined the world of special needs parenting! I was a brand new special educator with two classes full of preschoolers with Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, speech and hearing impairments, physical disabilities, and general developmental delays.
My days were spent planning and implementing lessons and activities, meeting with parents, and coordinating with speech and motor therapists.
Then I would go home and cry because I felt like I had failed every single one of my students. My students needed a teacher with all of the answers and brilliant strategies that would help them succeed. They were so young (3-5) and I knew the importance of intervening early with services.
I had the education and lots of extra hours of training and reading on my own. But I still felt like a big failure. The kids were happy to see me every day and I loved being there, but I knew I wasn’t doing enough.
My son was born in 2008. When he was in second grade, his teacher called me and suggested I get him tested for ADHD. She said he was very impulsive, could not stay focused on his work, and became easily frustrated. We went to his pediatrician, and she gave me a stack of checklists to fill out and turn in, but I knew what the results would be before she told me.
And I was right.
Now I was the parent hearing the testing results. I was the parent in the special education meetings. Now I was the parent staying up at night wondering if my son would be able to do all the “normal” things — get good grades, go to college, find a rewarding career, have friends, have romantic relationships, remember to pay his bills on time.
I was also the parent who every day felt like I was not doing enough. I had a young son with ADHD and I had the same feelings I did as a new teacher. I loved him so much and so glad he was my son, but I felt like I failed him every day.
I saw him struggle so much and I couldn’t fix it.
Not So New Teacher, Not So New Mom
Flash forward to 2021. My son is now 13 and I’m still an early childhood special education teacher.
I’m proud to say that while I still don’t have all of the answers, I know I’m a much better teacher now. I have worked with hundreds of toddlers and preschoolers with special needs and their families. I have helped parents and other caregivers figure out their child’s strengths, build on those strengths, and teach new skills.
I’ve read a lot, gone to many trainings, and asked my colleagues to help me when I was stuck. In 2007, I also went back to school to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. I feel much more confident as a teacher.
But with my son I still regularly think, “I’m not doing enough for him. I need to help him more. I’m a special education teacher. I should know how to help him.”
Then one day (in the not so recent past), I realized the lessons I learned as a special education teacher can be applied to being a parent of a child with special needs. It took me a long time to figure this out, but here’s what I realized:
Not everything will work!
I spent hours planning lessons and activities only to have my students be not impressed at all. On Monday I would come to school with a behavior idea I was sure was going to work. I read lots of articles about it, but it completely backfired. I learned that I had to either kept at it, tweak things a bit, or tell my assistants “Well, that didn’t work.”
I had to learn to do the same with my son. Read, ask for help, try it out. It might work and it might not. Try something new.
Find Your People.
Being a parent of a child with ADHD was not something I ever thought about. It wasn’t a club I wanted to join. BUT — there is a huge relief when you find someone else that “gets it.”
As a teacher, I have other special ed teachers, speech therapists, and motor therapists who get it. We know what it is like in the trenches of early childhood special ed. We often can’t fix each other’s problems, but we’re sounding boards and support for one another and I know they will be there for me on my hardest days.
So as a parent, I had to find my people. I talked to co-workers that had kids with ADHD or other special needs. I read a lot of books about raising kids with ADHD. I (carefully) looked into Facebook groups. Hearing other parents were dealing with what I was (and often more) didn’t fix anything but I knew they knew how I felt. That was so powerful and comforting for me.
OH! — and grandparents are a blessing like nothing else!! My mom and dad had to learn about my son’s diagnosis, how it impacts his behavior, and when to give him his meds, but they have a different type of love and patience for him that melts my heart. They accept my little guy for who he is.
You Don’t Have to Fix It All at Once / Let Some Things Go.
As a teacher, I am able to clinically observe my students and figure out what I want to focus on first that will give them a skill we can build on to increase their independence, decrease problem behaviors, and help their parents feel confident and successful with their child at home.
I needed to learn this lesson as a mom too. Tackling everything was not working. I had to look at my son and our life and figure out what is going to give us a quick win.
For me, it was a checklist. I lost so much time (and patience) every morning telling my son every little thing he needed to do to get ready for school. Quite often, I left the house at 7am in tears and/or full of swear words.
The checklist wasn’t perfect. But it increased his independence and decreased how much I had to tell him each morning. Again, not perfect but I felt that learning how to follow a list and doing more on his own was the most important thing right now.
At the same time, I temporarily had to let go of the quality of bed making and clothes folding and putting toys away. That was something to tackle later.
Your Inspiration / Strengths
I wasn’t prepared for being a special education teacher or a special needs parent. But I figured out how to apply these three lessons to my parenting.
One meme I recently saw said, “There are no parenting hacks. Everything is hard.” That’s the truth!
So today, think about at least one skill you have in another area of your life you can apply to special needs parenting.
What’s something you learned in your current or previous job?
Did you read a book that inspired you to change a part of your life? Start a new habit?
What do other people in your life notice about you? What are they always complimenting you on?
Pick one of those things that just popped into your head and think “How can I use this in parenting? How would this help me parent? Would this help my child?”
For me, it was these three lessons I figured out as a new teacher that I then carried over to my parenting.
What is it for you?