Getting a diagnosis of a disability for your preschooler can be anxiety producing. Finding the right educational setting that will allow them to learn and flourish – which is difficult for any parent – just became a lot more challenging for you. There is help available through Build Up Michigan, part of Michigan’s Early Childhood Special Education program. Build Up offers specialized instruction designed to help 3- to 5-year-old children – and their parents – overcome learning challenges and unlock the abilities and talents each child has.
Iris Falconer is the mother of Apollo, a 5-year-old boy with autism. Robb Drzewicki has two sons, Jackson, 9, and Jameson, 8, who are on the autism spectrum. Both have navigated the process of getting services for their children, and both have useful advice for parents at the beginning of this journey. “Don’t look at it as a roadblock,” says Falconer of the obstacles parents can face finding help for their children. “Look at it as a way for you to find a detour.”
Here, Falconer and Drzewicki share seven things they’ve learned from their own experience of being parents of young children with special needs.
1. Soak up every bit of information you can from the school and from your child’s team.
Preschools are nearly as much about teaching parents how to help their children at home as they are about teaching the children themselves.
2. Embrace the lessons your children are getting that go far beyond ABCs and colors.
For Drzewicki, who works with people with disabilities, his sons’ experiences in a very neuro-diverse classroom will carry lessons that last the remainder of their lives. “My children are going to be immune from thinking differently of people with disabilities,” he says. “I see adults deal with stigma on a daily basis – to know my children won’t be the ones producing that stigma for them is quite heartening.”
3. Reach out to other parents – they can be a road map for you as you can for them.
Falconer says she reaches out to parents everywhere she goes, and offers herself as a resource for parents just at the beginning of their journey. Drzewicki is active with the parent-teacher association at the school where his children attend and finds the other parents are very accepting of his kids and are able to offer them stability and support at school activities.
4. Academics are important – and children can do very well with early interventions – but so are social skills, and that’s what you’re likely to see emphasized in a special education preschool.
“The real value of schooling is the social interaction – how to get along with human beings who are a similar age group to you,” Drzewicki says. “I know a lot of those soft skills came out of their preschool program and I know they wouldn’t be where they are right now had we not had those early interventions.” Falconer started reinforcing social skills with her son when he was very young, asking him to go over and introduce himself to other children and coaching him through the process of making a friendly connection to other children.
5. Find the people in your child”s school who are constants and get to know them – and make sure your child does, too.
While classroom teachers can change as a child moves through a school, the special education teachers, custodial staff and resource teachers are often the same year to year and can be a much-needed source of stability and calm for kids.
6. Learning happens outside school as much as it does in the classroom, so sign your child up for activities and use family outings as learning opportunities.
It allows them to practice their social skills in less stressful environments, with you right there to help them. Falconer took her son to ice skating and swimming lessons, and she’s seeing the effects now as his social skills have begun to blossom. “You don’t want to isolate your children,” she says. “You have to get them out to meet other family members and make friends.”
7. Be persistent in advocating for your child.
Digging for information isn’t always easy, but it’s important to find the right environment for your child early so that they can reach their full potential. “You have to know you are creating leaders,” Falconer says. “Find resources. Keep fighting. You are not alone.”
Content brought to you by Build Up Michigan. For more information, visit buildupmi.org.