Today’s guest author is Lisa Nieman.
Lisa Nieman is a parent of a teen and a tween – one with disabilities and one without disabilities. She lives in Colorado with her kids, husband, and many pets. Lisa works full-time in a field unrelated to education or disability.
When I held each of my two kids as newborns, I promised to keep each of them as safe as possible. I know that the world isn’t fair and that no parent can (or should) shield their children from all of life’s difficulties, but I thought that since I had a relatively safe childhood, I could keep both my kids safe from abuse and trauma as elementary school students.
Spoiler alert: It was easy enough to keep my child without disabilities safe, and I heard she was a “pleasure to have in class.” I could not keep my son from abuse and trauma at the same public neighborhood elementary school.
While so many of us parents wish that the laws would change, I wanted to put together a practical guide, parent to parent, of what I wish I knew so I could have kept my son safer.
There are lots of great resources out there. (I’ve listed my favorites below.) But if your child has “challenging behaviors,” or if you have more than one child and maybe a couple of pets (some of whom may also have “challenging behaviors”) – you might not have the time, energy, and focus to be able to kick back and read another parenting book or watch an interview, panel discussion or recorded webinar, or listen to a podcast.
The bottom line is that no kid deserves trauma. Here’s what I wish I had read when my son was younger:
- Some therapy or approaches can be harmful to your child. You’ll notice I’m not saying “ABA” – and there’s a reason for that. First, I never signed my child up for ABA, and he experienced trauma at school. I think parents have a false sense of security if they think just saying “no” to ABA will keep their kids safe from harmful practices. Second, therapy and parenting approaches go by many different names, so, unfortunately, you’ve got to figure it out for yourself and your family – but you can reach out for support. Federally mandated Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Behavior Improvement Plans (BIPs) can be counterproductive. Something that used to be helpful to your child may now be harmful. Something may be both helpful and harmful. (You can do better!) A therapy or approach may not be harmful to all kids but could be harmful to your child. Even people who have good intentions and are nice people have the capacity to provide harmful therapy or advice. Sometimes you can trust your gut, but not all the time. If you realize a therapy or approach has harmed (or is actively harming) your child, it doesn’t make you a bad or abusive parent. It’s happened to lots of us. Don’t let the fear of hurting an adult’s feelings cause you to continue something that’s harming your child. Even if your provider or professional has documented progress, take your child out if the child doesn’t feel emotionally or physically safe.
- Listen to Autistic adults and teens – and ask for their specific advice and resource recommendations. Many people from around the world volunteer to help parents keep kids safe from trauma. This advice could be your key to keeping your child safe – and it’s likely free. Like with any group of people, no one will be exactly like your child, but many of them had “challenging behaviors” as kids and want to help your child. Take them up on it! As always, some advice might be more helpful than other advice, but don’t dismiss an entire group of people who have had similar experiences to your child.
- Never agree to any school or program you’re considering for your child if you haven’t seen it first. (Even if it’s the only program/classroom/school your district recommends.) When you visit, ask about discipline. (Red flag if the whole program is based around discipline. Also, a red flag if the parents are never called during the day because the program/classroom can handle all behaviors.) If the school does “time-outs,” ask to see where. Ask to see the Cozy Corner. Is it cozy or creepy? What is the academic curriculum like? Does it seem like a babysitting program? Do students “earn” their way back into general education? Ask when the last time a child was restrained or secluded.
- Prioritize your child’s emotional and physical safety over their academic education. It took me too long to realize that if my kid had 1:1 access to the best reading specialist in the world, it wouldn’t do any good if my child was actively emotionally or physically harmed. You may have more options than you think. In our situation, we pulled our son out of a harmful situation and had a “homebound” school for a few months, which gave us a little time to figure out what to do next. It wasn’t as good an education as his non-disabled sister was receiving, but it was better than before and allowed us to get him into a better situation.
- Find someone – probably privately – who can be on your kid’s side. Someone who can help your child improve their communication skills, identify and solve problems, and self-advocate. Ideally, find someone who can attend an IEP meeting, state why a specific program or school would harm your child, and recommend an alternative.
- Lean into your child’s interests and strengths – and don’t make them “earn” it with good behavior at school. It will improve your relationship with your child and help them build skills in other areas.
My favorite resources:
Here are a few of my favorite resources that have helped me on my journey.
Autism Inclusivity – Get advice from Autistic people around the world. (Or scroll through their advice to others.)
The B Team – Run by Lives in Balance, the nonprofit started by Ross Greene, one of the authors listed below. The moderators’ advice in this group is both amazing and thought-provoking. It helps parents shift their perspective if they want to move away from behaviorism toward Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS).
Alliance Against Restraint and Seclusion – Advocates to end restraint and seclusion.
Ross Greene – Offers how-to advice for people who want an alternative to rewards and consequences.
Mona Delahooke – Explains the difference between “bottom up” and “top-down” behavior and offers researched-backed explanations that overturn the assumption that kids with impulsive and negative behaviors are continually making “poor or maladaptive choices.”
Debbie Reber – Digestible book on all the different ways we can think about getting an education for our children.
Tilt Parenting– Hosted by Debbie Reber, who interviews experts on areas of neurodiversity and education.