Iris Garcia heads up the committee on special needs for the Operation Exodus Parent Advisory Council, a group of parent leaders in the Exodus community. The Parent Advisory Council empowers parents to work peer-to-peer, creating an active parent body that welcomes and informs parents new to Operation Exodus.
Iris, a mother of two, has a son who was born with Down’s syndrome. This is her story of how having a child with special needs has shaped her views on public education, parent involvement and the 4 P’s of a stress-free back-to-school season.
In the many years that I have been working to find the best education for my son, it became important for me to be sure to bring the information I find about children with special needs to our community of parents at Exodus.
I believe in helping my children grow into independence. I want to make sure that both my children know how to take care of themselves, but especially Vlad. I teach him many, many skills at home. Whatever he is learning at school I make sure to reinforce it at home. I use games and learn other ways to help him do things for himself, and then I bring those ideas and teach them to any group of parents at Exodus that would like to learn about them. Of course, I work with Germary on building her skills at home as well.
The most important thing that I communicate to parents who ask me for advice, especially when it is time for the children to go back to school, is that they must get involved in the school.
When my daughter first attended school I became part of the Parents Association. At one time, I was the Vice President. It is very important to be there for all of your child’s accomplishments. They look for you and they want to be supported. Maybe there are presentations or conferences with the teacher; if parents are in the school and participating, the children will think “They are watching. I have to do what I need to do to get things done.”
Of course there are many parents that cannot be present for many of these events. If you can attend an event, don’t just think about your child, think about the child whose parents are unable to come. Try to visit and admire their work as well and show your support.
A family must plan ahead if they are to manage all of the details, events, and grades that happen during the school year. Have a homework plan in place before the beginning of the year and try your hardest to stick to it. Of course, many times it doesn’t go the way you would hope. If you have a plan for when they will do homework, your child will know what to expect. They will think, “I should do my work, I know Mom is going to check!”
I have a neighbor that came to me and said, your daughter is always on time, and we’re always late. How do you do that? I asked them what time they go to bed and they said 11 o’clock at night! A tired child who has only a few hour of sleep will have trouble getting to school and they can’t assimilate any information when they are there. I told my neighbor that they should plan for an earlier bedtime, and set a good example by also getting enough sleep. I told them, if you go to bed too late, you wake up tired, and in a bad mood. You will feel rushed and not be able to prepare for the day, and be on time. Your children will sense your stress and their academics will be affected.
If you have not planned for homework time, time to play or relax, and time to rest and your child brings home a poor grade, you can’t just say, ‘you didn’t meet the standards. You have to look at yourself and ask, did I meet the standard as a parent?
There are many values you can pass on to your children at home that will also help them at school. Taking care of the home, for example, will help them grow good habits that will help them become good students. I know parents can get anxious when there isn’t order and they want to rush in and restore the order. But, if they do, they are not teaching responsibility or independence. You have to think long-term and be patient.
Becoming a part of the Operation Exodus community helped me create a foundation so that I could build a strong family unit
Which brings us to the last point Iris makes, that parents should never give up, especially parents whose children have special needs.
“When I began looking for a school for my son, I visited at least six. I spent a great deal of time investigating each school, speaking to them about which services they would be willing to provide. In the end, I found P.S. 138, a local school where my son has a team and lots of support. The communication is very good, and we, the teacher, therapist, principal and myself, get together often to talk about his progress and what needs to come next. He is improving and growing skills every single day.
For years I have researched many places and many services that are free. If I had not gone and knocked on those doors, I wouldn’t have known about them. For example, my son goes to wonderful summer camp, where he has played golf, learned to swim, and has received lots of academic support. For example, he has weak very hands, so this summer they worked with him on strengthening his hands and improving his fine motor skills.
Sometimes, I have applied for resources, or attended workshops and training, only to be told that my son did not qualify. It’s a good life lesson. They will tell you so many times, ‘no, these resources are not for your child.’ Keep on knocking and keep asking, and maybe that door will open.
Patience and perseverance are important at home, too. It can take time for a child to learn and gain independence, especially a child with special needs. They may not remember to hang up their coat, put away their shoes, or clean up their room right away but, that does not mean he or she can’t do it. You have to think long term and how they will benefit when they do learn. Right now I might have to ask my daughter seven times to pick up her clothes, I only have to ask my son once!
Becoming a part of the Exodus community helped me create a foundation so that I could build a strong family unit. That was the first step of my journey helping my kids to succeed. Finding out about and working to get help for my kids allowed me to keep moving forward and grow as a person. Once I had my family unit working well, I moved on to connect with the school, and then the community, like joining this parent advisory council.
However, none of it would have been possible if I hadn’t been seeking God and his grace through it all. I cannot work without Him. We must ask him for discernment, understanding and a vision of what we can accomplish. Then we can move forward. Without Him we don’t know where we’re going. He gives us the strength.
Attitude is very important. It may seem like the job of being an involved parent, especially of a special needs child, is too hard. I understand that those parents might say to themselves, “I can’t do this, it’s too hard.” You don’t have to do it all at once. All you have to do is take the first step. And understand that the Parent Advisory Council at Operation Exodus is here to help.