A parent of a preschooler in my class corners me every day at pickup and drop-off time with so many questions about her child! This child has special needs, and I understand her mother's anxiety and concerns, but I don't always have the time to talk with her for as long as she'd like. What can I do?

Parents, being wonderfully human, will put themselves into their children's shoes, identifying with their difficulties, as well as with their successes and joys. In the case of children with special needs, parents' questions, anxieties, and tendency to over-identify with their children can become much more pronounced. It may be hard for them to understand what their children are going through, so quite a few experience extreme reactions that range from guilt, fear, and worry, to overidentification with their special-needs children's vulnerabilities. All parents secretly hope that their children will achieve what they themselves weren't able to accomplish in life. But it becomes clear that those aspirations most likely will not be realized by their special-needs children. There is perhaps no worse situation than experiencing such feelings all alone.

Suggest Support Groups

Most parents are very eager to find ways to improve the opportunities for growth and development for their special-needs children. So having the chance to interact with other parents in similar situations, to share experiences and receive practical help, can be of tremendous value.

Support groups are tailor-made for these needs. Such groups can also be helpful for teachers. Although teachers are trained to work with children, they are often not fully equipped to deal with all of the emotional challenges involved in working with special-needs children and their families. So some teachers like to participate in a support group. Others find it to be an excellent resource for parent referrals. And they are comforted by knowing there are others besides themselves supporting these parents.

Plan Teacher Participation

Teachers can also gather a great deal of information about community resources and programs through the groups. An ideal situation would be one in which the teacher and parents have an ongoing working relationship: The parents would have regular access to the support group, while the teacher periodically visits with the group, which a number of her students' parents attend. This would create something similar to a supportive extended family.

Create a Model

The model that I recommend for the support group itself requires awareness of the six functional-emotional developmental capacities. These are the ability to:

  • focus and attend
  • engage with others
  • read and respond to emotional signaling
  • problem solve
  • use ideas creatively
  • use ideas logically

It is very helpful for the group to review and think about each of the children in light of this framework. They can share information about how they try to mobilize these different functional-emotional developmental capacities. Group members can exchange thoughts and explore the types of interactions that seem to work for each of them. They can also look at how the support group functions vis-a-vis these same six levels. For example, they can examine how well they're able to:

  • focus and attend to one another
  • truly listen to one another
  • engage and trust one another
  • read and respond to one another's nonverbal signals
  • be empathic and responsive
  • help one another verbalize what's on their minds

If the teacher is part of the support group, she can look at how she facilitates these capacities in the classroom.

Try Self-Examination

It's very helpful for teachers and parents to look at their own individual differences. They need to examine the way they themselves process information; how they respond to sounds, and visual and spatial information; and how they can become better at using their motor systems. As they look at themselves, they can gain greater empathy for the children's problems. All in all, the support group can be very useful in developing a deeper understanding of the children. It can also help by encouraging brainstorming of practical issues, such as available services, what kinds of progress can be expected, and so on.

Start Small

The best way to form such a group is for either a teacher or a parent to agree to be the coordinator. This person can send out notes to all parents, inviting them to attend a get-together. Sometimes, with the teacher's cooperation, the idea of a group can be raised at a back-to-school night or PTA meeting. Try to form a group that has somewhere between 4 and 10 members. If there are more who are interested, plan to start a second group.