Steps on how to advocate for your child with needs or differences.
By Michelle Massie
Kids are back in classrooms, so most parents are busy juggling supplies and schedules. But if your student has special needs or learning differences, the start of the school year can be a terrifying time, especially if your child is very young and just starting out. We are plagued by questions: Will the curriculum be adapted? Will they be able to make friends? Will they be safe?
The first step is to help create a school environment where all students can thrive together.
That may sound daunting, but there are so many more resources now than there were even 20 years ago! Let’s take a look…
Where Do I Start?
Your child’s teacher is always a great place to start. Many parents are worried about adding to the burden of our already over-worked educators, so they hesitate to meet with them. But you’ll find that most teachers really appreciate getting to know how best to help your child, especially since each person with a disability is so different. They need resources as much as we do, so let’s start the conversation! Here are some tips:
- Start by asking the teacher how they like to run a typical day so that you can help them figure out the best way to integrate your child into the classroom routine.
- Ask about what your school already has. Many campuses already have activities in place, such as buddy benches and programs that mainstream special day classes for part of the day.
- Let your child’s teacher know that you’ll support them in whatever way you can. If you can volunteer in the classroom or provide supplies, that’s great. You can also ask to do a one-time talk to the whole class, keeping it simple and brief. When my son started pre-k, I simply explained that his body worked differently and that he needed a wheelchair to move around. Then I asked if there were any questions (this really helps to take the mystery out of things. When questions are answered, kids generally move on.) There were only a few, after which all of them accepted my son’s presence as perfectly normal.
How Can I Help?
- Find out how to expand what’s already in place. This is where Inclusion Matters by Shane’s Inspiration really shines: this amazing resource is the go-to for creating a truly inclusive campus. It has classroom education programs, the best buddy playdates and beautiful, accessible playgrounds all over the world…many of them right here in Los Angeles (see inclusionmatters.org/playgrounds-list/). And I am here to tell you that Inclusion Matters Education Program, Together, We Are Able, is gold. Specialists come out and speak to general education classrooms before a field trip and answer questions. They then arrange transportation to one of their accessible playgrounds. Once there, typical kids are paired with buddies who have special needs and then…magic happens! Afterwards, the same specialist comes back to the classroom to talk to students who always say they had a great time and want to know when they can go back and play with their buddies again!
How Do I Get Everyone On Board?
It’s as easy as finding your peeps!
- Special education teachers, general education teachers, resource specialists, OT/PT/speech staff and classroom aids can all be enlisted. (This is also a great way to build relationships outside of IEP meetings, which can sometimes be challenging.)
- Rally other parents. This is your best bet for marketing your message to administration and staff. Presenting a kind, united front will facilitate getting programs like those from Inclusion Matters that will ultimately benefit allstudents. And don’t forget your PTA. Creating an inclusion committee is a great way to get everyone involved.
Make it Fun!
- Check out My PlayClub events at Inclusion Matters playgrounds. It’s a great place to connect with other families like ours and they are a blast. There are crafts, face-painting stations, story time and lots of other inclusive activities.
- Create inclusive recess events that parents can volunteer to run.
- Plan an inclusive family movie night. Invite other classmates and parents, pop a big bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show!
And finally, this: Starting school can be scary. Will my child be accepted? Bullied? Left behind? Remember that building relationships is the key here because it normalizes diversity. When everyone is learning, working and growing together, it organically changes the narrative from separation to inclusion. Focusing on what we have in common — instead of on our differences — sends the clear message that school, and the greater community, is for all of us.
Michelle Massie is a mom, a writer and voice-over actor who lives in Los Angeles.