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Michael Dorfman
BY Michael Dorfman
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Back To School: How to Write your Child’s “Owner’s Manual” for Special Education Teachers

Every new car comes with a large owner’s manual detailing what every dashboard light means and advice to troubleshoot problems with the vehicle.  Every make of car is different requiring a specific manual for your make and model.  While two people may own SUVs–a GM SUV will have a completely different set of maintenance requirements than say, a Honda SUV, and those two owner’s manuals could not be used interchangeably.

Kids with special needs are no different than cars.  Two children with autism, or two children with ADHD, are nothing alike, other than having the same diagnosis. That is why each child with a physical and/or learning disability attending school needs an “owner’s manual” to accompany them.  I have used the term “owner’s manual” facetiously because it’s a common and understood term, but not any better than “user’s guide.”  From this point forward the manual will be referred to as the “All About Me” pamphlet.

The All About Me Pamphlet

Teachers, social workers, therapists, administrators and all other school employees are getting larger caseloads and less time to work with students individually.  The “All About Me” pamphlet will describe your child, what makes him or her tick, triggers, biographical information, and any other details you deem pertinent.  This pamphlet allows the school personnel working with your child to get to know him or her quicker and help plan efficiently.

How the Pamphlet Works

The pamphlet is usually written from the child’s voice, but in adult language.  The pamphlet does not have to be fancy and can easily be created in Microsoft Word.  Every year, we include photos in the pamphlet of our child enjoying his favorite activities and photos of our family to show that he is surrounded by people who love him and that he is valuable.  In essence, the pamphlet is partly biographical and partly informative.

You Cannot Go Wrong

There is no right or wrong way to prepare this document.  On the first day of school, we make copies and put them in the school mailboxes of every employee who will interact with our child.   These pamphlets are usually 5-6 pages long.  Too much information, like a car owner’s manual, will guarantee the person to stop reading after a few pages.

We use the following headers for our pamphlet:

Introduction

This is where we describe our son.  We talk about his personality, our family, and things that he likes, i.e. hockey and cooking.

Disability

In this section, we describe my son’s learning disabilities in detail.  If there are physical disabilities or illnesses, include them in this section as well.  Don’t assume that the teachers or other personnel understand, or have even heard of the issues your child is dealing with.  We use language from the websites that specifically deal with each disability.  We then interpose examples of behaviors that my son will exhibit that are connected to the said disability(ies).

Your Child’s Needs

Does your child need sensory breaks?  Does your child need to sit in the front of the classroom?  Does your child need help with social interaction?  This is the section to describe them.  Remember, you are not placing an order and don’t phrase it like it’s a command.   You are communicating what will help your child to thrive in each individual classroom setting.

Past Successes

Include a paragraph on ways your child has thrived socially and/or academically in the past.  Sometimes a teacher does not need to re-create the wheel for your child.  Remember, this is not an IEP document.  It’s an informal way to demonstrate ways that your child has succeeded in the classroom.  This section can discuss ways to motivate your child or systems that have helped.

Triggers

This section is vitally important.  It can prevent a lot of headaches for your child and the teacher.  In frank language, explain what sets off your child, i.e. frustration, loud noises, movies, dark room, etc.  Detail what can make him or her upset, cry, violent, shut down, sad, or angry.

Explain the signs that these emotions are going to come out in your child.  We all know when are own children are off, and we know the signs.  We need to convey those in the pamphlet.  We also need to explain what to do when these feelings or emotions comes out at the wrong time.  If your child is crying, what will help him or her stop?  Equip the teacher with the tools that you use to quell a disturbance.

Conclusion

No one knows your child better than you.  However, with great communication and a team attitude, your child’s teachers and other school personnel will know how to work with your child in the way he or she learns best.  The above are merely recommendations and there is no right or wrong way to write a pamphlet.  If you’re creative, add an artistic flair to it.  If your child is capable, do this as a project with them.   Enjoy the journey and know you’re doing all you can for your child to succeed.

Michael Dorfman

Written on August 21, 2014 by:

Michael R. Dorfman is an attorney and partner at Nykanen Dorfman, PLLC in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  In his special education law practice, Michael represents students and their families when there is a conflict with the school district or when an appropriate education is not being provided.
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  • Jessica Cambronne

    This is an incredible post, thank you so much for writing about how to create an “owners manual” for caregivers! I have been working on this concept for several years now, but have struggled with finding a way to keep things short and sweet, while at the same time conveying all of the information needed.

    I am a PCA and used to be a Special Education teacher, and I’ve also worked for many years at a camp for children with special needs. My obsession with this concept came from my time at camp, when a young man who had Cerebral Palsy and was non-verbal came for about two weeks. Someone had typed a nice one or two sided document introducing him to new people. It was laminated, and hung off of the back of his chair in a place that couldn’t be missed by caregivers. I have found some useful links related to this concept, but they usually result in a large book being created, which most people aren’t likely to read. (I learned this from my teaching and classroom management experience).

    Jessica

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  • 20autismmom10

    I’ve been a volunteer advocate for 18 years and have encouraged families to turn their annual advocacy letters into “self-advocacy” letters for their student during transition. In fact, we request it as a transition activity (and tie it into a vocational goal in the regular IEP for accountability) to create a self-advocacy letter for teachers. It is especially helpful for students planning on attending college. Using my original “welcome to a new school year” letter as a template, my son now writes his own for each professor and shares them with the college Disability Services Office. There was a little parent-assist the first year at community college, but he’s done it all by himself since. It’s equally important that the student is able to explain strengths and needs. Someday we’ll be dead. We hope to have guidance/caregivers/supports in place when we’re gone, but our kids will need to start learning how to be good advocates without us.

  • [email protected]

    Two child with extreme introvertedness, or two kids with ADHD, are nothing similar, other than having the same finding. That is the reason every tyke with a physical and/or learning incapacity going to class needs a proprietor’s manual to go with them.

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