“E is just weaker in certain areas at this point, or maybe I should say not as fully developed.”
My back stiffens. I am in a meeting at E’s school with two school administrators, his teacher (Ms. R), and the school diagnostician. The purpose of the meeting is to review the elements of E’s first Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and make changes if needed. One of the administrators has been speaking, and his use of the phrase “weaker” to talk about my son has my hackles up.
“You are clearly weaker in your understanding of autism and your communication skills,” I want to shoot back. But I hold my tongue. This is the first big meeting with these administrators, and despite my anger I don’t want to begin the relationship on an adversarial note. That will only hurt E.
The fact is that despite the poor word choice, the administrator is correct that E is facing developmental delays. Such delays are a defining characteristic among children on the autism spectrum, in fact. Things like delays in speech, eye contact, smiling, fine motor skills, potty-training, ability to sleep through the night, and social interaction, to name a few.
The administrator is still talking, but he lost me after he called my son “weaker”. No parent wants to hear from someone else that their child is anything less than perfect, even if we know that’s the case.
There is a pause in the conversation. My attention snaps back to the present.
“I’m sorry, so what is it that you are recommending, then?” I ask.
“We think the current IEP provides the support E needs. Ms. R has developed some tools to assist E in the developmental areas where he is lacking, while he works alongside his general education peers in her classroom.”
I glance at Ms. R, who is sitting at the end of the table. She is not meeting my gaze. Instead, her eyes are cast downward at the table. Her body language says all I need to know. And what this administrator does not know is that I have done my homework.
“Sir, Ms. R has 25 students in her kindergarten classroom, already three students more than the maximum allowed by the state. I presume you have sought and received a state waiver for the overage, but even if so, that is a lot to ask of one teacher. Given the challenges she is seeing with E in the classroom, and the size of the class, it is clear that E needs a shadow assigned to him. So I would like to formally request that as part of this review.”
Silence. Eyes widen across the table. It doesn’t appear they were expecting an informed parent ready to fight for what her son needs.
I wait. I’ll sit out the awkward silence. The ball is in their court.
“Ummm, well, we will have to evaluate that, Ms. Johnson…” the administrator begins.
“I’m sorry, isn’t that the purpose of THIS meeting?” I say. “The situation has already been evaluated. We’ve heard from Ms. R with respect to the challenges in the classroom, and as the parent I am requesting the additional assistance that it is clear E needs. It seems wholly unreasonable to ask one teacher to handle 25 kindergarten students, including a special needs child, without assistance. Given that number is beyond the state maximum, I’m unclear as to what further ‘evaluation’ would need to happen for a decision to be made and implemented?”
Since I’m on a roll here, I may as well say everything I want to say, I think.
“To be honest, having read the IDEA law myself and the obligations it places on individual school districts I’m a little surprised that you all wouldn’t have suggested a shadow for E already, not just because of his needs, but because of the obligation to ensure that Ms. R can provide appropriate focus and instruction to the other 24 students in the class as well.”
Out of the corner of my eye I catch Ms. R trying to hide a grin. I probably just said everything she wishes she could say.
The principal jumps in to reply now, after casting a quick glance at the administrator who had been doing all of the talking up to this point.
“Mrs. Johnson, we will certainly do everything required and everything we can to ensure that E has what he needs to have a successful academic career here,” she begins. “You’re right that our class sizes are higher than we would like; the growth in this part of town has been significant the past few years and we are struggling a bit to keep up. It may take us a little time to identify and assign the appropriate staff to provide a shadow for E, but we will begin that process right away.”
“Thank you,” I respond with sincerity. “Please keep me posted on the progress, and in the meantime I’d like to ask E’s therapist to talk with Ms. R and provide some ideas and strategies that she may be able to implement with E in the classroom to help.”
“Oh that would be great!” Ms. R pipes up from the end of the table. “I’d be very happy to get input from his therapist, I really want to do everything I can to make this a successful year for him.”
“Thank you, Ms. R,” I smile as I turn toward her. “I know that is your intent and I appreciate all you are doing. Your passion for your job and your kids is evident.”
My use of the singular “you” to Ms. R is on purpose. She has earned my trust; the administration has not, at least not yet. I hope they will, but my role as Chief Advocate for my son means there is a high bar for earning that trust. It’s not personal, it’s business. The business of my child’s development and future.
As the meeting wraps up and the appropriate forms are signed, I take the opportunity to look each administrator in the eyes. Before turning to leave, I have one more thing to say.
“You know, at the beginning of this meeting someone referenced that my son is ‘weaker’ in certain areas because of his developmental delays. I don’t agree with that. He’s not weaker, he is stronger than most because he has to navigate things that most of the population doesn’t. My job is to help equip him to do that as successfully as possible, and I’m not going to let him down.”
As I make my way outside to the car, the adrenaline that has been fueling me for the past hour begins to wane, and I am suddenly exhausted and emotional.
“Fighting for you is hard work, baby boy,” I say to no one but myself, as hot tears stream down my face.
“But I promise I will be strong for you. Stronger than I’ve ever had to be before.”