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Educating the Educators About Invisible Mental Illness

by | Parenting

Of all the crazy things we’ve experienced over the years in parenting our kids who had a rough start in life, by far the most frustrating has been educating the schools about how complex and serious early childhood exposure to trauma really is. It isn’t just an “at home problem.” It isn’t “normal kid stuff”…and it certainly isn’t something they will simply “outgrow.”

Technically speaking, RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) is part of the Developmental Trauma umbrella and often goes hand in hand with other issues such as FASD, PTSD, ADHD, mood disorders, and many other “alphabet soup” type diagnoses. Regardless of what name “it” is called, this stuff affects every aspect of the child’s life…and very often FOR life. It affects every social interaction and relationship. It impacts how a child thinks, feels, speaks, behaves, and processes information. It also has a very large impact on how and if they learn.

Educating educators…even if they don’t want to be educated

I am a big believer that the schools NEED to have information about the issues our kids’ struggles. Even if they don’t want it, or they don’t want to hear it, or they aren’t willing to do anything about it (as has been the case with at least one of my kid’s schools) we still need the school to have all the information we can possibly get them to take in their possession. For us, quite frankly, it is a liability issue. When and if things do happen at school, they can’t come back and say they didn’t know or hadn’t been warned. It then becomes their responsibility to deal with it, not mine.

I have tried many different approaches to try to help those who work with my kids understand what’s really going on. My kids are fabulous little chamelons. They are often very charming and very compliant for others, but are helll on wheels at home…especially after they’ve been triggered at school all day long and exhausted themselves trying to hold everything together so no one else sees their true colors.

Some of those attempts at educating have failed miserably. Others have been WAY too long (our first IEP meeting lasted over 3 hours!) Other attempts have been ok, but not really worth the investment of my time and energy for what the receivers got out of them. After much trial and error, I finally found an approach that works…and has consistently worked quite well for several years now.

Making meetings work

Over the years, I have learned there are two primary factors that make a difference in whether a meeting will be successful or not. The first is the willingness of the receivers to listen and take action based on what they learn. The second is how the information is presented.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to accept that I don’t have any control over whether someone is willing to listen and learn or not. If they want to see and have a desire to understand how they can help a child, they will. If they don’t, they won’t regardless of what I do.

What I can do, however, is present the information in a way that will entice them to want to pay attention.  There are a lot of voices out there who say you have to keep whatever you share with the schools short, sweet, and limited to only a couple of pages. I learned long ago that with as complex as my kids issues are, there is no way to condense everything my kids teachers and school administrators need to know into “short” or “sweet” and still keep it anywhere close to effective. The alternative, then, is to make it interactive and engaging.

Even if the formal decision makers (aka administrators) won’t do anything or insist on throwing up ridiculous roadblocks by claiming there is nothing wrong with my child or their issues have “no educational impact”, there will always be someone who IS willing to listen. For us, the teachers who are on the front line and interact with our child on a daily basis are generally the ones most invested in learning. They may not make the rules, but they are the ones who spend the most time with them, are most impacted by problems, and they are also the ones who have the most motivation and power to prevent them.

Tips for hosting an effective meeting

I have 3 kids who each have their own unique set of challenges. I’ve also had many years in which they all went to different schools. That also means I have been to a lot of school meetings and worked with a lot of different teachers and administrators. I’ve learned a few tips and tricks over the years that help make our meetings work.

Schedule enough time

While the school might suggest 20 minutes for a meeting, I tell them up front that I need a full hour. I will not even attempt to do a meeting if they won’t allot that much time.  If they protest, I remind them this is a complex case, there is a lot of information to share, and it will ultimately be in everyone’s best interest for them to know what they will be dealing with up front rather than trying to piece things together and fix things after problems have come to the surface. Yes, it makes scheduling a challenge, but it always proves worth it in the end.

My goal is to keep the meeting focused and on track. The object is to power through a lot of information as quickly as possible and hopefully finish early. I secretly work  hard to have everyone out the door in 45 minute. Everyone is always thrilled to get out of a meeting 15 minutes early if we can make it happen. If we can’t, at least they’re not grumpy because our meeting ran longer than expected.

Preparation Matters!

I provide a full-color printed information packet about my child for every teacher and administrator I will be meeting with a day or two before our meeting. Even if the school is willing to photocopy the information for me, I don’t accept the offer. I provide them with enough original color copies (plus a couple to spare) to distribute to everyone. Why? Color makes the brain happy, it gets a lot more attention, and it looks a whole lot more professional than photocopied black and white. Yes, it takes quite a bit of preparation (and paper and ink) to make this happen, but it has proven many times over to be worth it.

I ask those who will be attending the meeting to quickly read over the information, write down any questions they have and bring them to the meeting.  I usually just give the information to the school administrators or my child’s case manager and have them disperse it to everyone who will be attending the meeting. This is especially helpful once the kids hit middle and high school and have a gazillion different teachers and other staff members who who need to be there. If I am only meeting with one teacher at an uncooperative school, I bypass the administration and just send the information directly to them.

Presentation Matters!

I never show up to a meeting in jeans. Those I am meeting with might, but I don’t. I want them to take me seriously and know that I know what I’m talking about. The fastest way to sabotage progress and relations is to show up looking or acting like a tired, haggard mom. I dress as if this is a high-powered business meeting with a lot at stake…because, quite frankly, there is.

Keep the meeting on track

I have found the best way to keep our meetings focused, effective, and as short as possible is to use the very same information packet I hand out as my script…and then stick to it! As the attendees have already received the material prior to our meeting, I assume they have already at least skimmed through it before showing up (even if they really haven’t.) During our meeting, I verbally run through the whole packet with them and add any additional clarifying information that may be needed. I also try to anticipate questions that may come up and answer them throughout my presentation. This really helps keep things cohesive and organized.

As I start the meeting, I tell everyone in attendance I’ve done a lot of these meetings over the years and I know what does and doesn’t work. I remind them that we have a lot of ground to cover and I want to keep things on track and get everyone out of there on time.  More often than not, their questions get answered as we move along. I let people know this right up front and request they hold questions until the end of the presentation unless they are directly related to the topic we are talking about.

This has worked very well!  The questions that do come up, especially at the end, are almost always really good quality and well thought out questions that benefit everyone.  They reflect a concern for my child and a desire to understand.  Many of them also become topics for the whole teaching team to brainstorm together on.

Talk about a person, not policies

I almost always do my presentation meetings at the beginning of the school year before most of the teachers have met my child. Yes, I’ve had many of them bawlk and tell me they want to get to know my child before they hear from me. I respectfully inform them the child they will meet is a great performer and puts on a good show. If they want to learn how to prevent problems and truely be able to teach and help this child, there are things they need to know before they meet him.

I find it very helpful to bring a large picture of my child with me to the meeting. It is a good reminder to everyone that we are talking about a real child who has real struggles. They are far more than just a set of issues or statistics. I know several people who bring a framed picture they can set on the table for the duration of the meeting. If that works for you, great! Personally, I have a large binder full of all of my kid’s current records that comes with me to every meeting. I use his picture as the cover insert. It works just as well and is one less thing I have to remember to grab as I run out the door. I can stand the binder up so everyone can see it if I deem it appropriate. 

Keep the meeting as light and friendly as possible

School meetings can get REALLY heavy, uncomfortable, and completely overwhelming for everyone if we’re not careful. It is also very easy to get sidetracked and end up way out in left field and talking in all kinds of circles if there isn’t a planned agenda. This is, by the way, exactly what makes these kinds of meetings much longer and more frustrating than they need to be.

I like to end the meetings on a lighter note. We talk a lot during my presentation about chameleons. We talk about how they change colors to fit their environment, why they do it, and how my child does the very same thing. We also talk about what chameleons do when they get angry or scared. In case you yourself don’t know, they turn black and hiss at you…and my kid will also do the same thing!

I noticed a couple years ago when I first put this presentation together that our dollar store regularly stocks packages of little plastic chameleons in all sorts of funky colors. I now buy them in bulk whenever I see them! I keep enough on hand so at any given time I have enough for all my kids’ teachers plus a few extras.  When meeting time rolls around, I take them with me and give them out to the teachers at the end of the meeting. I suggest they put them somewhere in their classroom where they can see it as they teach. That way they have a tangible reminder that there is a human chameleon in their classroom and to handle him with care.

I personally have never had any success with taking food or other treats to a meeting. I have, however, had it backfire on me big time…so I don’t do it. It is quite amazing, though, how effective and how well received these little plastic chameleons are.  The teachers really do enjoy them…and many of them do put them up in their classroom and leave them there all year long!

It also isn’t uncommon for them to tell me on their own why they picked the one they did. I love it! The more associations and connections they make with them, the more I know they really were listening and that they took our meeting seriously.

What do I include in my teacher information packets?

Regardless of who I’m meeting with or why, there are two must-haves that I give to everyone.  The first is a colorful, well laid out, and very personalized information packet about my child. The second is my “Developmental Trauma At-a-Glance Chart” that shows all the common symptoms neatly organized on one page.

Personalized introductory information

I’ve also learned quite a few tricks over the years for creating an effective packet people will pay attention to. These are some of my favorites…

•  Write the information as if the child is introducing himself and sharing their own story and needs.

•  Opt for well organized, engaging, and easy to skim materials rather than short.

• Use a straight to the point, multi-sensory approach.  Teachers are no different than any other human. Just like our kids, they learn best when all their senses are engaged, too.

•  Break the information into sections that include the child’s history and diagnoses, what might show up at school, and what they can do to help.

I have had numerous requests over the years to make a full template for creating this packet available. I’ve finally been able to make that happen! I now have an instantly downloadable, fully editable and customizable template available for purchase. The includes full text that is completely editable and customizable to suit your child and situation, corresponding full color photos, and the ability to create an effective, personalized to your child presentation in minutes rather than days. At least at my house, that’s worth its weight in gold!

“At-a-Glance” Chart

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. It has definitely proven true with this chart. For a very long time, no matter how much I tried to “tell” people about RAD, they couldn’t get past what they could see on the surface.  They couldn’t “see” the whole picture or grasp the seriousness of this illness.  Nor could they  comprehend that early trauma affects the whole person in every aspect of their life for a lifetime. My chart has changed that!

This handy, one-page chart is useful even if your kids don’t have a formal mental health diagnosis. I have included two different versions of the chart in the download. The only difference between them is the center bubble. One says “Attachment Disorder” and the other says “Developmental Trauma”. I personally never use the Attachment Disorder one, but a lot of people still request it, so I kept it in there. I believe Developmental Trauma is a much better and much more accurate descriptor. If you’re not sure which one to use, check out this post on the difference between Developmental Trauma and RAD.

I deliberately include this chart as part of the information packet I give to each teacher with no explanation as to what it is or why I’m giving it to them prior to our meeting. I figure they are more likely to actually read at least some of what is in the bubbles and try to figure out what all of it means if I don’t explain it first. I find that strategy works quite well, too.

Once we’re all gathered together and ready to get started, I like to pull out this chart and ask two questions:

  1. “How many of you find this chart overwhelming?” Several hands usually go up.
  2. “How many of you wondered ‘How much and what of this applies to this kid?’” I usually get even more hands going up after that question.

I then answer both questions. I point blank state that early childhood exposure to trauma IS overwhelming…and big and scary and messy and encompasses the whole person…and does so for life. Much to the surprise of many, I then answer the second question with “ALL of it applies to my child.” That usually gets their attention pretty quickly! I’ve done this meeting enough times now that I actually have to fight back a smile myself as I hear the surprised gasps and watch at least a couple of people sit up a little straighter in their chairs. That’s my cue to pause for a moment to allow the note taking pens to come out. It happens at EVERY meeting!

We then talk for a bit about internalizers vs. externalizers. This is important for me for two reasons. First and foremost, I have two kids who look the same on paper, but present with their stuff VERY differently. Many people we work with now know both of them, or have at least already worked with my older child. It is important to point out how different they really are and what worked for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other.

I also let them know that even though they might not see all of my child’s stuff outwardly manifesting itself at school, it is all still there and it all of it still impacts his ability to learn and understand the world around him. I also know my kids aren’t the only tough kids many of these teachers have. For that reason, I seek to educate about issues first and then we talk about how the apply to my specific  child. I have had many teachers thank me for doing this and tell me that what I share helps them better understand and work with other kids as well.

Breaking down the chart

The chart is set up in four different quadrants. Orange is all about relationships, blue is typical behaviors, purple reflects internal beliefs, and green is all things related to academics and school. You’ll notice a few of the cells in each quadrant are highlighted. These are some of the most important /most common/most pressing issues for outsiders to be aware of in each area.

One of the highlighted cells in the relationship quadrant is that parents can sometimes appear angry or hostile, while children with attachment disorder are often charming, engaging, and compliant for outsiders. When I first created this chart, I knew some of the people I was speaking to had already seen that in me. I explained that if they do ever see as hostile or angry to please remember that things aren’t always as they appear on the surface and I (and other parents like me) was exhausted. When they have the whole picture of what RAD really is right in front of them, it’s not too hard to see why!

I made an accidental discovery when I printed this chart the first time. There was an errant piece of white cardstock left in my printer I didn’t realize was there. It turned into something I now recommend that you do if you use this to teach a group of people like I did.  Cardstock will stay standing up straight while you cover stuff up with one hand and hold it with the other. Regular paper will not, at least not with a lot of fidgeting.

One of the things I really like about how this chart turned out is I can cover some of the color quadrants with my hand while leaving others exposed. My favorite  thing is to cover up all but the green “academic” quadrant.  I ask the group what happens when you only see the academic piece.  It takes about .2 seconds for everyone to realize the chart now looks a whole lot like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic!

I also talk about relationships and how what is in that quadrant doesn’t just apply to me.  My children also have relationships with their teachers and peers, too…and those relationships, while different than they are with me, are equally as stressful for them. They don’t understand social cues, how to choose good friends, or any real friends for that matter. They are still lacking the basic foundational skills to make any relationship with anyone truly reciprocal or healthy. They are also street smart and if pushed too far or perceive that they are being picked on or unsafe, they WILL fight back.

Here’s the best part…all of that and more is now taught in about 2 minutes!  Really. Even when I’m working with a whole group of people who know very little about attachment disorder, they can “see” it and start to “get it” within just a few minutes. It has also proven to be an excellent segway into the details in the information packet.

WHEW!  That’s a lot of information!

Hopefully you’ve found some new ideas to help your own meetings be more productive.  Leave a comment!  I’d love to hear how you implement these ideas and what works for you as well.

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