Friday, August 24, 2007

LETTER TO ERIC- Back to School Inspiration for Parents of Kids with Special Needs

It's that time of year again when back-to-school advice is everywhere you turn.

If you check out my previous blog, you'll see that I've added my strong voice to this discussion as well. But getting ready for school is about more than new backpacks and jeans and IEPs and figuring out how to work with brand new team members. It's also about attitude adjustments and big parenting dreams.

This is often a highly emotional time, especially for families of children with special needs. It's a time when guards are up, and a parent's expectations are often questioned by others who may have never met their children, yet act as if they already know all about them and their future outcomes.

Not all back-to-school needs can be met at Wal Mart.

So I've pulled a sacred letter from my writing archives to provide you with some back-to-school inspiration to help calm some of those frayed nerves that might be working overtime right about now. It's a letter I wrote my son as he left the safety of our family nest to test his fragile wings at his neighborhood school in 1995.

Talk about an unnerving time...

Instead, it turned out to be the beginning of a challenging and rich journey filled with life lessons that remain deep in my heart and soul today, powerful experiences that continue to fuel my work as a writer/speaker/advocate. They have molded me into the person I am today, someone of whom I hope Eric is proud.

Unfortunately, my son passed away in 2003 at 12, ending our back-to-school adventures. But every Fall, I feel Eric's special presence, smell his sweet hair, see his enchanting smile, and remember with deep love and gratitude the back-to-school adventures that we took together. They turned out to be the adventures of a lifetime.

May these heartfelt words of one mother inspire you in much the same way as they continue to touch me. Perhaps you'll even be moved to begin your own letter-writing tradition. I highly recommend that you do just that.

Now, please pass the Kleenex......and have a wonderful first day of school!

August 28, 1995

Dear Eric:

Today, as you begin kindergarten, I’m writing you a letter, a tradition I began with your big sister, Jenna, seven years ago.

The first day of school is a fall rite of passage, like brilliantly changing leaves, crisp evening air and earlier bedtimes. For our family, it also represents hard-won success. Some professionals believed the physical challenges of cerebral palsy would prevent you from learning in a regular school environment. Armed with cold, hard statistics, they warned of a life of segregation. But our family doesn’t bank on statistics. We invest in the human stuff, like love, faith and hard work.

We chose a different road.

From the moment you first dramatically graced our lives, we’ve focused on your ability. In turn, you have exhibited a spirit of survival that astounds me. We’ve endured too many moments of grief and ignorance. Yet, what I remember most is your first smile and giggle, your first word and your success at a regular preschool.

You are a wise and handsome child, with inquisitive brown eyes that miss nothing. Much of your ability to positively impact others has come from their first impressions of you as a cute child. Your long and lanky frame holds just thirty hard-won pounds, but you are far from being a lightweight in this life. There have been critical hospital stays, invasive procedures and moments when your life was in peril. But today, we celebrate school and a powerful lesson in letting go.

Today, our family is no different.

In your back-to-school outfit of GAP overalls, white Mickey-Mouse T-shirt and black Oshkosh shoes, you charm me. But there will be challenges. The ground we tread is fresh, presenting a challenge to those uncomfortable with inclusion, a word promising equal educational opportunities for all children. Some people won’t understand our fight and won’t want too. Yet, other educators will also teach from their hearts.

This will be a year of new challenges. When people assume physical challenges include mental impairment, you’ll be the first to forgive. I pray that others in this new world take time to discover how gifted and talented you really are. I want to meet the new friends willing to look past your wheelchair and into your eyes—and into your soul. I eagerly await book fairs, walking down school hallways and making red finger Jell-O at Christmas.

As your special bus disappears from sight, I’m a wreck. In a rare moment, I doubt. Are you ready? Am I ready? Your bus is equipped for wheelchairs and separates you from your able-bodied classmates. Someday, that too must change.

You grin at me through the tinted bus window. You are more ready than I am.

As the bright, yellow school bus disappears from sight, as its larger version did with Jenna many memories ago, I’m overcome with emotion. Safely inside, I release the tears of far too many harsh moments spent in the presence of people wrongly judging your value. But my tears of frustration and anger give way to unconditional love for the wise little soul who has become my greatest life teacher.

You are much wiser than most.

As you begin this new journey, son, you must continue to grow increasingly independent, just like other children. But I promise that dad and I will be right beside you ready to dry your tears on the roughest days, and thrilled to champion the dreams that others will try to tarnish.

Forgive them.

On this exceptional day, words can only begin to express what I feel in my heart, Eric Richard Winter. Thank you for coming into my life and teaching me more than I ever thought I had to learn. I’m incredibly proud to be your mom.

With much love always,


p.s. Have a wonderful first day in kindergarten!!
Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations

Monday, August 13, 2007

QUICK TIPS for Back to School & Special Needs Students!

I can't believe that summer is almost over, but with the back-to-school media and retail blitz beginning in earnest, it must be true! So, I'm coming in from the beach briefly to give you my seasonal input on this important subject- I can't completely let go of the summer sand, surf and blazing sun quite yet....even if it has been too darn hot and humid!

Global warming anyone?

We all know we shouldn’t judge others based solely on outward appearances and physical beauty, right? But fact is, in today’s celebrity obsessed universe, looks do matter more than ever before— especially when trying to lay claim to a coveted place in those unnerving and rigid school social hierarchies, including at the lunchroom table!

Remember some of those awkward moments and the guts it took just to show up, much less eat the food???

Navigating school social systems can be tough reality for kids with special needs at greater risk for teasing and bullying because of their differences. The social challenges facing these students hoping to fit it with their peers can make the annual rite of back-to-school preparation extra important.

So here are five simple back-to-school tips for parents to help get their children with special needs off to a great school year start—allowing them to navigate the often unnerving school hallways with a tad more confidence:

•Get your child a good haircut in a current style.

•Go back-to-school shopping with your child and allow him/her to select a cool backpack, the necessary school supplies, and their clothing.

•Outfit your child in stylish, up-to-date clothes and include a sharp new first-day-of-school outfit. If your budget is of concern, shop discount stores, sale racks, second-hand shops and garage sales in upscale neighborhoods. Make preparing for the school year FUN for both of you!

•Pay close attention to your child’s personal grooming every single day—that includes clean hair, clean body, and clean clothes.

•To help reduce stress and alleviate those first-day jitters, visit your child’s school before the school year begins and allow him/her to meet their teacher, principal and bus driver. Talk about the first day of school in advance.

Also, as most of you know by now,the choices made by parents of children with special needs are often the key to determining that child’s educational— and life success.

Here are five tips to help parents become increasingly empowered and effective child advocates:

•Believe in your child’s value—no matter what!

•Believe in your child’s right to an appropriate education, and to their right to attend their neighborhood school whenever possible.

•Check your child’s school file to make sure that the information included is accurate, up-to-date and appropriate. If it’s not, take further action.

•Foster your child’s growing need for independence; don’t further disabled your child—enable him or her!

•Educate yourself about your child’s needs and their educational rights under the law. It’s tough to advocate effectively without such knowledge.

Now, I've got to go get the sand out of my ear....

For these tips and more for families of children with special needs, check out my book Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations (Jossey Bass/Wiley Publishers, copyright 2006), or visit