Sunday, January 19, 2014

Preparing for Middle School

This past Friday marked the end of the first semester for my students as well as the halfway point of the thirtieth year of teaching for me, all of which I have spent at the same middle school teaching seventh grade English. Thanks to wonderfully understanding and supportive administrators, I have been able to balance my teaching career with being an autism mom because I only teach three classes in the morning and am home with Alex the rest of the day. While I’m at work, Ed, who teaches afternoon classes as a college professor, takes care of/supervises/entertains/teaches Alex. Through the years, we have realized how blessed we truly are to have jobs that allow us to spend so much time with our son.

Friday also found me sitting in the dentist’s chair having my semi-annual appointment for cleaning and checking my teeth. In chatting with my dental hygienist, she confided that she’s concerned about her son (who has no special needs) starting middle school next year, even though he does quite well in school. Knowing that I teach at the middle school where her son will attend, she began asking me questions about the school that I was happy to answer for her. Apparently, I was able to reassure her that our school is a welcoming place and to allay some of her maternal fears because she told me that she felt much better after talking with me. In return, she assured me that the tooth I need to have crowned will not need a root canal, so I felt better, too.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with an autism mom friend whose child will also be attending the middle school where I teach next year. Feeling déjà vu, I had a conversation with her that was quite similar to the one I’d had with my dental hygienist the day before. Sometime we autism moms forget that all moms have worries about their children; ours are just amplified a bit as we try to protect our more vulnerable children from the world. The same topics of concern arose—opening lockers, navigating hallways, and changing classes and teachers. Another issue both moms mentioned was the major change of going from a small elementary school to a large middle school with an enrollment of over 800 students. Understandably, parents worry that their children—especially special needs children—could get lost in the shuffle.

In preparation for her child to start middle school, my friend has spoken with a special education teacher who offered several good suggestions to help make the transition easier. The teacher recommended requesting that her child have a locker next to the homeroom teacher who could provide extra help, asking for more time to move between classes if needed, having the child’s teachers sign the assignment notebook to ensure accuracy of recording homework, and allowing the child to go to the guidance counselor whenever the child feels overwhelmed and needs a break. As I told her, our school quite commonly makes these accommodations for students with special needs, and she should make certain to communicate with the school ahead of time to put a plan into place before school starts next year. Moreover, I told her, as I had told my dental hygienist the previous day, that many parents help their children by giving them the opportunity to practice before school starts. Specifically, many parents bring their children to school in the summer and help them find the location of their classrooms so that they don’t have to worry about that when school starts. Since lockers can often frustrate sixth graders, parents also often help them learn their combination and how to work the dreaded dial on their lockers in the summer, allowing them to master this skill before the first day of classes. For many students, rehearsal eases their fears and makes them feel better able to face the changes of middle school.

Many parents discover that communication with teachers may become more difficult when their children reach middle school because they have several teachers instead of one. However, many schools offer e-mail, phone, and voice mail access to teachers, and parents should contact teachers regarding concerns. In addition, many schools offer online web pages where they can access their children’s assignments and grades, and parents can easily keep track of what their children are doing and how they are doing. Using these tools to communicate can prove vital to parents, especially since middle school students sometimes communicate less with their parents and don’t always volunteer information readily, as they may have during their elementary school years.

While all parents can help ease the transition to middle school by preparing and practicing with their children and opening lines of communication, special needs parents have the additional responsibility of advocating for their children, who may not be able to advocate for themselves. Of course, teachers have an added responsibility to be flexible in dealing with children who have special needs to help them be successful in overcoming the obstacles they face. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation by veteran teacher and dynamic speaker Harry Wong, who influenced my approach to teaching early in my career. He spoke of how important the first day is to students and how teachers need to prepare for that first impression. As he elaborated upon seven things students want to know on the first day of school, one in particular resonated with me: “Will the teacher treat me as a human being?” As more and more students are diagnosed with autism and more students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms, teachers need to recognize that those children are more than their labels, and we must treat them as human beings. In dealing with high maintenance students of all types, I often stop and think how I would want a teacher to treat Alex and try to muster all the patience, compassion, and fairness I would want shown to him. While middle school can be a tough time for all—students, teachers, and parents—with some preparation, practice, communication, and understanding, fear of the unknown can give way to excitement for new experiences and amazing progress. In the end, as in all times of change in life, things nearly always turn out better than we expect.

“Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives, to help them do what is right, just, and fair.” Proverbs 1:3


Autism United said...

Your school sounds really welcoming. I love hearing about children being mainstreamed with others, no one held separate and labeling them.
And it sounds like you have an open door policy for the guidance department, that is great, kids know then they have somewhere to go if they need assistance or maybe someone to listen.
Good read, thanks for sharing.

Pam Byrne said...

Thank you so much for your nice comments. I am blessed to work in a school that has such a caring environment for all kids, but especially for those kids who need extra help. Unfortunately, not all schools are like that.
Take care,