Personal Advice from Fathers of 

Children with Special Needs

If another dad came to you for advice regarding his child who is having trouble at school, what would you tell him? We recently posed this question to our ADAMS ESQ dads who have successfully weathered the special education process. Here is their unfiltered response:

1. Show up. It’s important to show up for back to school night, parent/teacher conferences, IEP and 504 Plan meetings and the like. How you dress matters to these people. So dress like you mean business. It’s also important to volunteer for field trips and support your child’s extra-curricular activities at school. Be present. Handle drop-off or pick-up when possible. Those everyday interactions help you to learn more about your child. They also show the school that you are involved.

2. Take action. My biggest mistake was that I should have gotten outside help sooner. Meet with the school right away, and if you don’t like what they’re saying, get a second or third opinion. Get educated immediately on whatever the prognosis is of your child. Don’t focus on the labels, but when you know your child needs help-get it. The sooner you get help for her–whether it be a counselor, attorney, IEP, new school, medication, therapy-the better. It’s hard to go against a powerful school district and make a personal choice to override their decision about your child.  Come up with a plan of approach to protect your child. You and your family may be faced with very hard choices. Don’t wait. Make them.

3. Present a united front. You must be an advocate for your child. As his father, you must stand up for what you believe he needs. Advocate for him even in the face of opposing viewpoints from other family members. For example, his mom might think medication is needed but you want to try therapy first. Keep the lines of communications open with your spouse and child. It’s ok to have different opinions and even disagreements. But always present a united front when dealing with the school district.

4. Lower your expectations. Be aware of what you’re dealing with. We were taught to respect our teachers and rely on what the school says as the truth. We thought they knew what they were talking about. But you’re dealing with an institution. And school staff develop a mindset based on the institution itself. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can take action. For example, I asked my daughter’s teacher “are you teaching critical thinking?” She said no, we just teach according to state guidelines and she would not even entertain going outside of that. At that point, I knew that there was going to be a problem. The system is teaching conformity, and if you have a round kid that can’t fit into a square hole, there’s going to be a problem.

Also, don’t expect school district behavior to always present as logical. When your kid has a problem and you sit down and meet with them, they may make you feel like you’re the problem. You might have a great family life and you’re doing everything you can for your child, but they may make you feel like crap. They may say that you or her mother are “bad parents” and you are to blame for your child’s extreme emotional or behavioral challenges.  Don’t feel ashamed or believe it was something you did or didn’t do that resulted in your child’s disability and problems at school. It could be something genetic or otherwise completely outside of your control. Remember to check the side effects of any medication that your child is taking. This could be as simple as a decongestant. Adverse reactions to medications may cause her behavior to be different in class and sometimes even trigger suicidal thoughts. Your child could get wrongly labeled and not get the appropriate help.

5. Know that you’re not alone. More families are going through this than you think. But because everyone is afraid of the stigma, nobody wants to talk about it. Explain what is going on to your other family members and close friends. They may be able to provide support and resources that you did not know about.

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