Working with children with special needs can be challenging, but it is also one of the greatest joys in my life. I love being able to come to work each day, knowing that I can make a difference in the life of these children. The difference may be small sometimes, but it is there. When I taught in a self-contained classroom, the children often played by themselves. I had to work hard to encourage the children to play with each other and often times their interactions were more forced or scripted than the natural play time interactions of children their age. I have taught in an integrated classroom before, so I jumped at the chance to do it again, especially when my boss said there wasn’t more paperwork (which was so NOT true- the “typically” developing students have more paperwork to be done than my special education kids- NOT COOL!) Even though I complain about all the paperwork, the payoff is worth it. Watching all my students interact and work together- regardless of ability level- and have so much fun together- is the primary thing I love about my job- and integration is the key to all of that!
It is because of this integration that I was able to meet the Leitz family. Her parents felt it was important for her to be educated among her “typically” developing peers and that is how she became a part of my class… and heart. I have been blessed to work with sweet Miss Claire for over a year now. Before Claire joined my class, I knew that integration was important for many kids with special needs but Claire is the poster child for why children with special needs could and should be integrated with their peers. Watching her growth has been amazing. She started in my room saying only a few words and I remember how excited she was when we taught her visual cues to help her say and remember her teachers’ names. It was almost like watching her whole world open up to her. She began talking more and we could even understand what she was saying! Last year, Claire needed to be surrounded by children who wanted to play with her and wouldn’t give up on her because she wasn’t able to do everything they could…yet! She ended up surrounded by 3 girls who acted like her little “mommies” in the classroom- they were kind and loving but a little bossy sometimes- just what Claire needed. They took Claire under their wing and gently “encouraged” her to play with them. It was about the cutest thing I’d ever seen. When the kids would pick what center they wanted to go to first, one of the girls would go over to Claire and squat down and ask, “Do you want to play with us?” or sometimes the more bossy command of- “Come on, you are playing with us.” It didn’t seem to matter to Claire, her face would light up and she would always say, “Yes!” It may sound harsh, but these girls didn’t let up! The would follow her around, make sure she was doing what she was supposed to, ask her questions, try and get her to say certain words, and give her praise for trying so hard. I think they may have been more her teachers -than I was last year! Sure she learned some skills from her adult teachers, but these girls were able to teach her a more valuable lesson than I ever could- what it feels like to be a part of a group and that she CAN fit in.
Claire’s mom, Tami, once blogged; as a parent of a child with special needs- she felt so unqualified. I think every parent feels that way at some point or another. In my opinion, she is a role model for all of us- parents and teachers. Here is my letter to you;
I admire your decision to open your house and heart to a child with special needs. I remember when I was having an ultrasound when I was pregnant with Brian. They told me his femur was measuring a little short and that it could indicate something wasn’t right. Being the person who likes to plan and be prepared, I promptly went home and did a Google search on what this could mean. One of the things it could be was Down Syndrome. I remember feeling overwhelmed and sad- thinking of all the challenges my child and family could face- I had seen the challenges some of my preschoolers and their families had been through and I wasn’t sure I could do it. After a lot of prayer and trust in God, I realized it didn’t matter. I loved this unborn child too much to worry about what could happen and decided to trust in God’s plan for me and my child. Fast forward three years- when I met your family. I went to Claire’s IEP and Nate was there, meeting with Claire’s current team of teachers. I remember thinking- wow, how cool is that to have a dad that is so involved- I rarely have any dads come to IEP meetings! I could tell Nate was unsure of what all was going on- he admitted that usually you did all of this but Claire was sick and you stayed home to care for her. When I got to know your family and learned that you actually came into Claire’s life when she was your foster child and that you went on to adopt her, I was amazed. To be young and choose to take on this challenge was admirable. It is funny to read your blog and hear about your insecurities because when I think about you and your family, I feel like I am unqualified! I am constantly amazed that you find time to run, craft, stay involved, get children to therapies and appointments, and so much more- and especially by yourself when Nate is out of town! You said you feel like you are unqualified to be a parent of a child with special needs, but in my opinion, you are overqualified! I have had several students with Down Syndrome and Claire is the most happy and fun loving one I’ve had the pleasure of working with. She has such a big heart and I know that is because of you and Nate.
When teachers and therapists tell you she had a rough day, you said sometimes you hear- I am a bad mom. This is not true!! I know I am guilty of letting you know Claire has had a hard day- but what I mean when I say it is: You are an amazing mom. I don’t know how you do it all and I wish I could do more to help you. The part about Claire having a hard day is more of an apology that I couldn’t do a better job with her today and a hope that she doesn’t give you the same trouble at home! (And if I could I’d send home a bottle of wine and some bath salts- in hopes that you could find some time to sit back, relax, and have time to think about what a great mom you are!) I know you always thank us for all we do, but I really think you are the one that needs a giant “thank you”! You do so much as a mom that it makes the rest of us look like slackers! Just remember that all these decisions you are making for Claire now- while she’s little- you are doing out of your love for her- so you just have to let go of the worry and doubt- and trust that God will watch over her and help her make the best of everything. He has a plan for her, so just remember to trust in that plan. Even if something doesn’t work out- it happens for a reason- so we can just learn from it and move on. She is a wonderful child and is so very blessed to have you and Nate as parents. As a teacher, I wish all children with special needs have parents like you. You have been awesome to work with- advocating for your child yet doing it in a way that is kind and thoughtful. You have been amazing in how you handle the hurdles that have come your way- knowing when to ask for something you feel strongly about- as opposed to coming in- guns drawn- expecting a fight. You are truly amazing. Thank you so much for advocating for her to be in an integrated class. I am so blessed to be able to work with Claire and your family. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her!