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How Parents Can Cope

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

upset momNavigating the many stages of the special education system can be stressful, if not downright overwhelming for parents. In the section below, we offer several suggestions for coping with this stress.

Speak Your Mind

The first stress relieving suggestion is that hesitant parents make a practice of speaking up to offer information and suggestions about their child's needs. A very common source of special-education related stress occurs when parents have concerns regarding the special education process but feel unable to express them to the professionals who are educating and evaluating their children. Wanting to ask questions but feeling too anxious to do so contributes to stress. The best way to reduce such stress is, we propose, to make a practice of asking those questions despite the anxiety they may feel. Doing so will generally be in children's best interest, and will also typically result in fewer feelings of anxiety in the future.

Parents may hesitate to communicate with school staff out of a mistaken sense of embarrassment or shame. They may feel intimidated by the professionals and mistakenly conclude that their own information is less important than what the professionals have to say. However, in general, the very opposite is true. It is the parents who are most sensitively aware of their children's strengths and weaknesses, limitations, needs and desires and the professionals who are scrambling to identify and document the same. The professionals literally cannot do their jobs appropriately if parents do not speak up and educate them about children's needs, and offer constructive criticism about how particular interventions prove helpful or not.

Keep An Organized Record

Parents can also reduce their stress by keeping a careful and well organized paper record documenting their child's entire special education process. A single notebook designated for this purpose, as well as a filing system in which to store documents should be set up for this purpose early on in the process.

Whenever parents send or receive letters or emails related to their child's special education, they should put copies of the communication into the record. They should also take notes about any phone calls or other correspondence they have about their children's special education services and place those notes into the record. Parents should also maintain organized copies of their child's school records such as psychological evaluations, IEP's, grade cards, progress reports, and other articles. By maintaining these records in a central location, parents will never have to scramble to prepare themselves before a meeting or conference. With the record in hand, parents can be confident they have the data and materials they need to back up their observations or to refresh their recollection of some communication, meeting, or event.

Participate in Children's Homework

Parents can help reinforce and strengthen children's learning of new skills by working with children to practice those skills at home. Practicing skills in different environments helps children to better learn them, and to learn to apply them in a variety of contexts and settings. As well, linking parental attention to the completion of homework helps motivate younger children to complete that homework, which in turn helps promote children's motivation and mastery of subject matter. As parents see their children doing well, their own anxiety and stress tends to go down.

Any type of skill taught at school will benefit from repetition practice, including academic skills such as algebra and functional curricula such as learning how to follow a recipe. Parents should communicate with their children's teachers and specialists to learn what skills they've been covering at school and what forms of homework will best complement those lessons.

Parents of children with specialized behavior plans designed to minimize negative behaviors and increase positive behaviors while at school should consider implementing a similar behavior plan for the home. Offering children consistent rules across environments is ultimately reassuring and comforting to children and reduces confusion for everyone.

Allow Yourself Respite

Finally, parents can reduce their own stress by taking time out to care for their own needs. Parents should find a way to rest, to relax, and to treat themselves well at least a little bit on a regular basis. Whether it's a weekly scheduled soaking bubble bath or a monthly afternoon fishing trip, it's important to plan time for rejuvenation. Children with severe physical or emotional needs that require constant care may also qualify the family for community based respite services. Respite services are services provided to parents to allow them a rest. Respite services allow parents to take time for themselves on a regular, scheduled basis, secure in the knowledge that their child is being cared for by people who can meet her needs. Respite providers differ in each community. Parents interested in community based respite services should ask their children's education coordinators, doctors, social workers, or caseworkers about these opportunities.