Reflection & Revision: What I’ve Learned as a Special Needs Mom and Teacher

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As the new school year is about to begin, I can’t help but look at my daughters and reflect upon how far they have come in their 15 years of life and learning. Eight years ago, when my girls were in 2nd grade, I was slogging and blogging my way through each day, trying to figure out autism so I could better understand my kiddos and their needs. Fast forward to now, with 10th grade looming in the near future (and driving, and dating, and college, and who knows what else), and I am blown away by the progress that I see.  My daughters have learned and grown so much–academically, socially, and emotionally–that I find myself breathing a sigh of relief. They are going to be alright. They are going to make it without me. With the help of some amazing educators, friends, and family members, I have been able to teach them what they need to be (mostly) functional adults. It’s a liberating feeling!

What I am MOST in awe of, however, is how much my daughters have taught me. My relationship with my girls has been a journey of love, struggle, and transformative learning…every day. The learning journey I have been on with my daughters has fundamentally changed me–rocked me to my core–and revised my thinking about four very important ideas: perfection, temperament, patience, and success.

Perfect is a word that should only be used as a verb.

Before I had kids, perfectionism was a problem of mine–it was my end goal for all things, regardless of my expertise or capability to obtain perfection in a particular skill. I mean, why do anything if you don’t plan on being the best, right? Life, after all, is survival of the fittest…(see my Type-A peeking out, there?) Except, it really isn’t about that at all. My kids very quickly taught me that perfection is NOT about getting a thing right the first time, but rather, it’s getting better at that thing with each try. It’s not giving up. It’s trying again, even when you fail. Perfection is a process–a series of trials and errors–that you must put energy into in order to develop your skills. It’s not an end goal, it’s the work you put into improving, and it is measured by your personal growth. Once you realize this truth, you will find the word “perfect” a lot less intimidating, and so will your kids.

Temperament might be defined by nature, but it is informed through nurture.

Anyone who believes that they are purely a victim of their DNA and “cannot help the way they behave” simply doesn’t want to put in the work to improve. Believe me–I know. Before having kids, those who knew me would have described my temper as hot, and possibly a bit vicious. I was quick to fly off the handle when I ran out of patience, and then I would get loud. And rude. Quite frankly, my temper was embarrassing at times, but I never saw the need to do much about it because it “runs in the family”–what can you do? Besides–they should have known better than to upset me! But tell that to a toddler with autism…Let’s just say my temper did not help anyone when my kiddos were in emotional crisis. And that was the motivation I needed to get it together and control my temper. It took some work (and still does), but I manage. My practice of checking my temper also made it abundantly clear that my kiddos could benefit from practicing their reactions in undesirable situations, too. And I don’t mean working solely on anger, but also other key components of temperament, like attitude and social skills. With practice and positive modeling, my family and my students have benefitted from “nurturing their nature.” No one should be allowed to use DNA or a diagnosis as an excuse for not trying.

Patience is the simplest, most effective way to show love.

When most people think of showing their love for someone, they think of hugging, kissing, holding hands, saying “I love you.” Love is often demonstrated physically. Except with my children. My children, like so many “spectrum-y” people, don’t care much for the touchy stuff. Or the “feely” stuff. When my daughters were little, this was hard for me–I wanted to hug and kiss my kids! However, I came to realize that putting my wants above their needs was not fair. By being patient with them and understanding their needs, I was still showing them love. Moreover, it was an expression of love that my girls appreciated and were comfortable with. Once they knew that I had the patience and desire to understand their needs, my relationship with my girls began to flourish! They trusted me enough to take risks and try new things because they knew I would be patient with them, no matter what that meant. And you know what?! The same thing is true with my school kids, too. Patience is a universal expression of love that everyone deserves.

Success is about getting better, not about getting first place.

Success is setting a reasonable goal and obtaining it through hard work. Success should be celebrated frequently–each time we try and get better during the process of perfection, we have succeeded. Success is not a trophy or certificate that states you are better than someone else. Rather, success is measured in terms of where you started versus where you are now. Success is personal–have you improved today? Have you learned something new today? Have you put forth your best effort? You don’t have to be in first place, make a 100 on a test, make lots of money, or even get recognition from others to be successful. You just have to make progress.

So, as we begin this new school year, I urge you to take a moment and reflect on what the ideas of perfection, temperament, patience, and success mean to you in your classroom. In an era when so much of one’s self-worth and value is tied up in rankings, test scores, performance ratings, and other people’s definitions of success, let’s consider finding value in the process of betterment–in the desire to improve and the work it takes to do so. Let’s show others we value their efforts as much as their outcomes. Who knows?–by replacing the notion of “be the best” with “be your best,” we might find that we’ve been looking at this education thing all wrong. We might find that our students are learning more than we give them credit for and that they have a thing or two to teach us, as well.