The following article was contributed by Patricia McGann, principal at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Bethesda, Maryland.
I think we can all agree that the admissions process we employ when we are working with parents of children with special needs must be a process that is characterized by compassion and care. Can you imagine how difficult it is for the parent who calls our school seeking a safe place to land for his disabled child, for his family? How many times did he begin to dial and then hang up the phone? Where did he find the courage to ask for acceptance from strangers in a world that shuns that child daily? Our response to that first call is not just a “secretary’s” response, or a “school’s” response. At that moment, we speak for our Church. What do we say, and how do we say it? Before we ask parents to complete an often complicated and expensive application process, we take the extra time and effort to talk and to listen.
We don’t say, “We don’t have the resources to teach your child.” We don’t suggest that public school is the preferred option for children with special needs. We don’t ask for an IEP or testing before we have ever laid eyes on a child. We treat this family with compassion. At the same time, we take care not to mislead families, and we take care to be sure we have enough information to make a reasoned decision about whether or not we can provide a child with a meaningful educational experience. This part is harder. This is the part where we must suspend our need to know that a child will learn how to read fluently or multiply and divide. This is the time when we must focus on the needs of the child rather than our own need to be sure. All the assessments in the world cannot predict that a child with special needs will benefit from the instruction we provide. They can direct instruction, classroom placement, and scheduling, but they only present a piece of the picture of the child before us. We must take care to hold hope for the family – to begin by asking, “What can we do to make this school work for this child?”
Don’t be reluctant to invite parents to take a tour of the school and meet with the principal. During that first meeting the goal is to find out what they are looking for for their family. Ask open-ended questions, encouraging parents to express their hopes for their child, and describe their family. This interview can allow you to travel at least a short part of a difficult journey with this family, and maybe even make that journey a little easier for them. If, however, your focus is on convincing them that you cannot serve their child, you will surely add one more heartache to their lives.
Simply ask, “Tell me about ______”, and you will find that most parents focus first on labels and diagnoses. To redirect the conversation, you might simply say, “Tell me all the good things about______”, or “Tell me what she likes to do.” Ask directly, “What are you hoping to find here at our school?”, and you will get a good sense of who these parents are and what they need. You won’t know whether or not you can meet their need, but you have accomplished two important things in your first meeting. You have allowed the parents the opportunity to make their case for inclusion, and you have gotten enough information to know what you need to know next.
Schedule a family visit. The Resource Director/Teacher will meet with the child and his or her siblings. At the same time, you will meet with the parents to review the testing they have sent you since their last visit. By then you will have reviewed the testing with the Resource Teacher, and you have a good idea of what supports this child will need to be successful in your school. After this visit, meet with your Resource Teacher to decide on admission. Ask yourselves, “What can we do to make this work for this child and for his future classmates and teachers?”
The must haves before you make a decision:
- Confidence that you and the parents can agree to be partners in the education of their child.
- Confidence that teachers and parents will be able to communicate candidly ensuring that this child can be successful in school.
- Confidence that all students in the class will have access to outstanding instruction and appropriate support as they navigate the school year.
- Confidence that you have explored options such as placement in another class, or flexible scheduling.
- Confidence that you can and will provide teachers with necessary ongoing professional development with respect to inclusion and specifically for the needs of this child.
- Courage, and commitment to make your school a school that values the gifts and needs of all children and families.
God sends the families of children with special needs our way for a reason. With compassion and care you will make the right decision. When you decide to accept a child with special needs, arms wide open, you will not only change his or her life, you will change the lives of every person in your school.
Ask Jesus what he wants from you, and be brave! Pope Francis