By Kathy Kuhl
As homeschool group classes, co-ops, and extracurricular activities start up, what do we tell the teacher or leader about our child’s learning challenges? Do we say anything? Will we scare them off? What will help them?
Whether to tell a teacher about your child’s learning difficulties
is a personal decision. I don’t know your child or your teacher. But here are some guidelines:
- Does your child have issues that will be obvious to anyone who spends much time on academics with them? (Living with an exceptional child, we adjust to behaviors others may find annoying, distracting, or just odd.)
- How well do you know this teacher? If the child has invisible disabilities that you don’t often disclose, do you have reason to believe this teacher will keep confidences? Does the co-op have a policy about keeping this information confidential?
- Do you know of other parents with kids with challenges who thrived with this teacher?
If your child’s behavior or needs may make it hard for them to participate in the class, it’s only fair to your child, the teacher, and to yourself to discuss them with the teacher in advance. If you start a class and have to drop out, you may be keeping another child from joining the class. You may lose money if tuition is non-refundable. Most of these groups operate on a modest budget, and some have promised to pay a teacher based on number of students.
Why group classes?
Small group classes can enrich your homeschool. They can give your child valuable experience, a place to practice social skills, and great preparation for college. Having different teachers is a co-op is good preparation for having different bosses when they start work.
I don’t see how I could have homeschooled without the groups where my son took classes. For our last seven years of homeschooling, he took one or two classes most years: viola, Spanish, biology, chemistry, Mock Trial, composition, geometry, English, and design and technology. Since I don’t know viola, Spanish, judicial practice, or how to build anything, these groups were a huge help.
These classes can also give you a precious hour of respite, especially if they are not co-ops that require your participation.
Thirteen tips for good communication with your child’s teachers
As a veteran homeschool mom of a child with invisible disabilities, and with eleven years teaching in small groups, I suggest:
- Begin your communication with the teacher by expressing gratitude.
I don’t mean a groveling “I’m so glad you took my kid. No one else will!” Try a short, simple expression: “Thanks for teaching this class.” Add whatever positive detail you can sincerely say: “Jon is eager to learn to draw better,” or “My friend told us how much her daughter liked your class,” or simply “I am so glad you can teach my son Spanish. He wants to learn it, but I don’t speak it.”
- Keep it simple. Briefly describe your child’s challenges. If your start by sending a three-page email with links to six articles describing your child’s conditions, their eyes will glaze over. If you begin your first conversation with a five-minute lecture, they want to hide next time they see you coming.
- Mention the most common misconceptions. If your child has a learning disability, explain it doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. (I like to say, he has trouble learning sometimes, but once he gets it, he can run far with it.) Especially if they have a less commonly known disorder, explain what it means.
But if your child has Nonverbal Learning Disorder, first say she has a disorder that makes it harder for her to understand nonverbal communication and cues.
- Mention some of your child’s strengths that are relevant for this class.
How to ask teacher for accommodations
- Ask, don’t tell, what extra help you’d like for your child.
- Ask specifically for one or two things he or she needs most:
-for a child with an anxiety disorder, you might ask that the child not be asked questions in class the first two weeks.
-if the student has dysgraphia, ask if assignments may be typed.
-for the distractible child, ask if the teacher would consider printing and handing out homework assignments, or posting them on the web.
- If your child needs more accommodations to succeed, discuss them before class starts, perhaps even before you register, or soon after, before it’s too late to drop the class.
- Don’t ambush teachers with questions right before or after class. Email or ask when’s a good time to phone because….
- These teachers have lives and needs outside of helping you homeschool. I’ve known co-op teachers who were:
-homeschooling their own children,
-caring for kids with chronic illnesses or special needs,
-caring for parents with serious health problems,
-single moms supporting their families.
Obviously, your co-op teacher should not have to disclose such personal struggles.
This is why I have no sympathy for those who feel they shouldn’t have to pay teachers. “The laborer is worthy of his [or her] hire.”
- Communicate kindly. Because of their other commitments, we shouldn’t expect our co-op teachers to be on call 24/7. If they don’t reply, we should follow up that unanswered email again in 24 to 48 hours with a phone message (or vice versa), but not expect instant access. As a co-op teacher, I always appreciated being asked if parents were calling me at a convenient time.
- Listen to what these teachers say about your child. Their observations can be invaluable. Don’t contradict them, though you can certainly say, “Wow! He’s never done that at home.” Thank them for their comments.
If they are vague but seem helpful, ask them to be more specific. Not just “Janie seems spacey at times,” but how and when. If they say Will is distracting his classmates, ask what he is doing.
- While almost all the parents of my students have been gracious, I know of parents who want to hear nothing about their child’s showing symptoms or a learning problem. Teachers usually aren’t qualified to diagnose, but if they’ve taught many students and never seen one like this, that’s worth listening to.
Don’t assume the worst.
If you are distressed about what the teacher says, it may be best to ask another time to talk, after you have had time to collect yourself. Don’t rush to judgment for or against your child.
- Finally, don’t confuse a teacher’s initial firmness or discomfort with distaste or prejudice. Walk in their shoes. Listening to you describe your child’s challenges, a co-op teacher may be thinking:
“I’m already swamped with kids with challenges in this class.”
“I’m already spending too much time on prep for these classes.”
“I can’t help this kid. I’m not qualified.”
Assure them that you want to help them help your child succeed.
What has helped your child succeed in homeschool classes and co-ops? Next time, I’ll share more specific suggestions you might ask your child’s small group teacher to try. I welcome your ideas. Please comment below.