Classroom Success Next Year
By Dan Coulter
Do you want next year to be
If you want the coming school
year to be better for your child with Asperger Syndrome, whip out a sheet of
paper. Now, let's do a review of what worked this year and what you'd like
to see carried over into next year. What did Jimmy like about school? What
did Mary do best in? What did the teachers do that worked? What did you and
your child do that worked? What do you want to make sure you capture and
repeat next year?
Okay, now for the dark side.
What didn't work? What do you really want or need to change? The first
step is to write out what the problems were, then brainstorm about what you
can realistically do to make next year different - and better.
Keep in mind actions that you
and your child can take over the summer, such as social skills training.
Probably the single most
important external factor affecting how your child does in school is his or
The best teacher-student
matches for kids with Asperger Syndrome tend to be instructors who have a
lot of structure in their classroom, but who are also flexible. Structured
but flexible? This is not a contradiction.
Here's an example. Mr.
Johnson's a math teacher who always has the day's homework assignment
written on the board. He gives clear instructions and due dates when he
assigns projects. He has a quiz every Wednesday and a test every Friday.
While Mr. Johnson provides
structure, he understands that Jack (who has AS) has a problem wanting to
talk at great length whenever he answers a question. Mr. Johnson is willing
to work with Jack on signals just the two of them know that help Jack
realize it's time to stop talking and give someone else a turn. In other
words, Mr. Johnson provides the structure that Jack needs to understand the
assignments, but he's also flexible enough to accommodate and help modify
some of Jack's Asperger Syndrome-related behaviors to help him learn and
minimize class disruptions.
So, how do you get your child
into a "Mr. Johnson" class?
First, talk with your school
counselor, principal or other appropriate school official about
student-teacher assignments. Schools do this at different times: before
this year ends - during the summer - at the beginning of the next school
year. Whenever your school makes these assignments, it's best to get your
input in early.
Take your list of what will
help your child learn - and what will hinder learning - when you talk with
your school contact. Your approach is that you want to provide the school
input for their teacher selection. Things tend to work best if you don't
ask for a specific teacher or teachers. Show the school that your child
will learn best - and have fewer problems that could result in class
disruption - if he is matched with teachers with certain attributes. Then
list the attributes and the advantages.
You're a salesperson, showing
the school contact why it's in the school's best interest, as well as yours,
to make a good teacher-student match. If the school has already made a
match that doesn't look workable, this approach could help convince them to
change things around before the school year starts. It's in everyone's
interest to have the year go smoothly.
Once a teacher is selected,
move heaven and earth, Mars and Pluto to get a meeting with the teacher (or
key teachers if your child has more that one) before the school year
starts. At that meeting, offer information to help them understand your
child and make things go smoothly. You're not telling them how to do their
jobs, you're providing information they can use to make decisions.
Always counsel from
consequences -- and experience.
"Andy really responded well
when his teacher called on him first or second." "Sally tended to get very
upset when her teacher had the students pick their own cooperative learning
partners." "Kumar has tended to learn best when his teachers have used
visual aids and the lessons weren't purely verbal."
Be careful not to overwhelm
teachers with information and don't forget that your child is only one of a
classroom full of kids that a teacher will need to manage. Teachers tend to
be stretched very thin these days. Some students with AS have the help of
in-class special educations teachers and aides, but many are in classes with
one teacher at the front of the room. Ask the teacher to call you if
problems arise and not to wait for regularly scheduled parent-teacher
You may need to educate a
teacher about Asperger Syndrome, but don't offer a stack of books. Start
with a single article or video that a teacher can read or view in less than
an hour. (My wife and I made a 44-minute video for this purpose after
having to explain our son's AS to new teachers each year.)
Most teachers tend to
appreciate your sharing information with them if you take the right
approach. It's a mixed blessing that there's a dramatic increase in cases
of Asperger Syndrome being diagnosed. No one wants more kids to have AS,
but the increase means teachers are gaining experience in teaching them.
And you may just find a Godsend of a teacher who wants more reading - or is
interested in attending seminars or conferences on AS as part of their
continuing education training.
It also helps if your child
can have a school "safe harbor." This could be a counselor or other person
at the school that your child can seek out if he or she becomes overwhelmed
and needs an understanding soul to help put things back on track. Setting
up this safe harbor before the school year starts - and helping your child
understand when and how to go to this person -- can be a lifesaver.
From the time our son was
diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, we worked closely with his schools and
sought out compatible teachers. There are a lot of great teachers out there
and we were lucky to be able to help maneuver our son into some of their
classrooms. An investment in skillful, tactful lobbying for the right
teachers can make a tremendous difference in your child's school year.
A final thought. Especially
in the younger grades, the teacher is often the person who can most
influence whether a child with Asperger Syndrome is accepted by the rest of
the class. Our son Drew (who has AS) had some very rough times in his K-12
journey. Kids with AS often are among the last ones picked for teams - and
this hurts. But in one class, when the kids were picking academic teams,
they would clamor that they wanted Drew on their side, because he always
knew the answers. You can imagine what this did for his self-esteem.
Find a teacher who can help
other children see and respect your child's strengths, and you've given your
child and that teacher something they can hold onto not just for a year, but
for the rest of their lives.
Copyright 2004 Dan Coulter
All Rights Reserved Reprinted with permission.
*Dan Coulter and his
wife, Julie, are the producers of the video, "ASPERGER SYNDROME: Success in
the Mainstream Classroom." You can find more articles about AS on their