7 life lessons I've learned as a special needs parent

Kimberly Schuchman, RPh, CWC, is a Registered Pharmacist and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She has been working at her private practice, Strong Self Wellness Coaching, since 2014. Her mission is to support and empower parents to prioritize and practice regular self-care so that they feel strong and energized. She also provides educational/parenting support to families with special needs children. Before finding KoSchool in Austin, Kim spent nine years advocating extensively for her 2e son in public school. Were pleased to welcome her to the blog to share some of the most important lessons shes learned along the way. Kim may be reached through her Facebook business page or by email at kim@mystrongself.com.

Parenting. It’s the most difficult job many of us will experience in our lives, and one that we receive the least amount of formal training for. Even if you were to become a “certified parent” prior to your first day of parenting, you would still have much learning to do, as each child comes complete with their own set of unique strengths and challenges.

When a child has a diagnosis such as autism, ADD/ADHD, a learning difference (dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia), sensory processing disorder, health issues, or mental health issues, the parenting waters can become even murkier and more turbulent to navigate. Layer multiple diagnoses onto the same child, and it can feel like “man overboard”!

The good news is that parenting can also feel amazing, exciting, and downright miraculous. It is incredible what your children can inspire you to be, do, or have as a result of their mere existence.

The following are some pearls of wisdom that I’ve gained from my very own special needs parenting experience:

Take time every day to appreciate your child's strengths, no matter how difficult the day has been. Parents often feel a sense of urgency to “fix a problem” when they see their child suffering or struggling in some way. While there are many special needs related issues that may require additional outside help, that process can be all-consuming and deficit-focused. It is important to reconnect daily with your child’s positives, and remind your child of what those positives are. This will help your child develop self-efficacy beliefs.

Use humor, even during difficult moments, and laugh often. Despite our children sometimes embarrassing us with their behaviors, their shameless honesty can be downright funny. Life is too short to take everything so seriously. Laughter and humor can often diffuse a situation more quickly than anger and stern discipline. In addition, laughter reduces stress, elevates mood, and can even contribute to building a stronger immune system.

Build a support network. It takes a village to raise a child, and a city the size of Manhattan to raise a special needs child. Ask for help and support for yourself and your child often. Sources of support can include your spouse, professionals involved in your child’s care, support groups, family members, and friends. Don’t be afraid to share your story and learn from others with similar experiences to your own.

Connect your child with positive adult role models in areas of interest. You can't be everyone or everything to your child. It is especially important for children to have other adults, besides their parents, who can serve as their cheerleaders and mentors. Connecting your child to adults who share their interests can foster their innate desire to want to learn and grow, and help them envision their positive present and future.

Prioritize your concerns. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your child. Children with special needs often have multiple areas in their development where they are struggling. Pick one or two important goals each year that you want to focus on with your child. Ask for their input, if they are able to give it. This approach is less overwhelming for both parent and child.

Give yourself permission and time for daily self-care. It is vital for us as parents and caregivers to take time out each day to recharge our own batteries. As they say on the airplane, “Place your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others.” Even if it means letting go of other tasks that need to be completed, take 15–30 minutes (or longer if you can) to do something that is especially for you. Ideas for self-care can include meditation, reading a book for pleasure, taking a walk, running a warm bath, or calling a friend.

Practice self-compassion. In a nutshell, be your own best friend each and every day. Life is not perfect, and neither are you. Pat yourself on the back for what you did well and forgive yourself for what you would do differently the next time. Share these thoughts with your children. They will appreciate your honesty and understand that it is OK to make mistakes and learn from them.

Kimberly Schuchman

“A way of learning that’s full of connections”: Socratic discussion in Austin’s alternative schools

One of the most inspiring forms of learning I’ve encountered is Socratic discussion (sometimes called Socratic dialogue or Socratic seminar). Yet I often find myself in consultations struggling to adequately describe it to families who've never experienced it themselves or seen it in action. So I suggested that our staff writer-researcher, Shelley Sperry, delve into some local versions of the Socratic method with the help of students who love it. Here’s what she learned from them.

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

I remember my old high school was so divided. You were an island. But Socratic is a way of learning that’s full of connections.
                                                             —Cade Summers, KoSchool

Socratic discussions are powerful ways for students to help each other explore ideas, values, and opinions on important political, social, philosophical, and artistic issues. The Socratic method originated, as the name suggests, in ancient Greek philosophers’ methods of teaching and learning. Today, in some of Austin’s alternative schools the focus of “Socratics,” as students often call them, is on listening to all members of the group and finding common ground and new approaches, rather than trying to persuade or rigorously debate. During Socratics students try to develop a shared understanding of a particular essay, poem, or problem through analysis and creative interpretation, but the goal is never winning or losing a point but rather deepening the students’ own thinking.

As a newcomer to this way of learning, I wanted to understand how various students employ Socratic discussion in daily practice, so I interviewed three students who are fans of it. I am deeply grateful for the time they took to talk with me. I came away impressed by their ability to reflect on their own learning and communicate with a novice like me. The students I interviewed are Jesse Estes, age 18, who attends Skybridge Academy; Sam Sandefer, age 14, who attends Acton Academy; and Cade Summers, age 18, who attends KoSchool.

I learned through these interviews that the three schools’ Socratic programs have much in common as well as some differences. For example, Skybridge Socratics place emphasis on drawing personal connections to the issues and ideas under discussion. At Acton, focused Socratic discussions often explore ongoing, overarching themes like the “Hero’s Journey,” but Socratic questioning also takes place throughout the school day. KoSchool’s Socratic courses, much like college seminars, encourage students to delve deeply into complex texts and write clearly about them. I’ve edited my conversations with the three students to make these connections and subtle differences among their schools’ approaches clearer.

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

How would you define or explain Socratic discussions for a total newcomer?

Jesse: It’s an open-ended dialogue where you make sure everyone has a voice, and the goal is less important than the process.

Cade: Socratic is a more personal way to learn. Even if the group is divided somewhat in terms of the points everyone is making, you’re always connecting and learning from other people.

Sam: It’s really about learning to ask questions instead of giving and getting answers.

Can you talk about how the discussions work in practice? What’s a typical Socratic like?

Jesse: In our school, the student leader or the teacher/guide has a topic or question to consider, but then the floor is open to all students. Groups vary in size, but it’s usually about 10–12 people, which I think is optimal. We sometimes have as few as five people, but then discussion is slower. We each voice our thoughts in response to what someone else has said. Sometimes in philosophical discussions people do take sides, but in a lot of discussions there aren’t sides—there’s more of a spectrum. We do things mostly freeform and orally, but there is a whiteboard if someone needs to illustrate a point.

Cade: We practice Socratic dialogues in normal classes every day and I also host a “Bonus Socratic” after school. We usually have around 6 people, but it can be as few as 4 or as many as 11. The number doesn’t matter once you have a group that functions well. Michael—we call him a guide, not a teacher—often brings in a text, but students bring in poems and articles too. We might read the text, or part of it, to start the discussion. Then students just start sharing ideas.

Sam: We weave Socratic discussions through the day, not just in one particular time period. When you ask questions, you usually don’t just get one answer, you get another question to help lead you to an answer. So for example, if I ask someone about a math problem, instead of telling me the specific answer, the person might say: “What do you think the first step is in finding the answer?” Or they might say, “Could you try this? Or could you try that?”

Do you have any favorite discussions or moments during discussions in the past year?

Jesse: One of the best questions we had—and one that people kept talking about after class, like a running joke, was: If you have a boat and you take away one piece each year and replace it, until every piece is replaced, at what point do you have a new boat? We talked about this for three hours with no conclusion, but everyone participated and people changed opinions, and then kept talking about it after class.

Cade: I remember at one discussion a friend of mine was feeling a lot of anger coming into it, but having the Socratic turned the way he was feeling around. Discussion can help you alleviate some stresses because you can say what you’re thinking about issues—political or social or other things—and you can get some different contexts from other people and see things in a different light.

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

Finally, what’s the value of Socratic discussion for you, carrying forward after high school or with your family and community?

Jesse: You learn how to draw people into conversation and to really listen to and understand their points of view. I think I have a much stronger voice than I had earlier, and my perspective is wider. We’re encouraged to lead our own discussions during the semester, so you also gain leadership skills, and now I’m leading my own class. It’s inspired me to look at something related to leadership and teaching when I go to college.

Cade: Learning how to discuss and communicate is invaluable. I definitely spoke more when I started, but I’ve learned gradually to be more introspective and really listen. I think at home I take a more introspective approach now, too, and work on my ability to empathize and understand other people, including my younger brother.

Sam: I think it’s made me much more independent—so rather than relying on someone else to give me answers, I want to find them on my own.

Shelley Sperry

3 reasons personal development is essential to 21st-century education

Guest contributor Letsie Khabele is co-founder and CEO of KọSchool, a unique high school in south-central Austin. He joins us on the blog today to share some of his expertise on personal development, one of the pillars of a KọSchool education.

Many high-performing athletes, entrepreneurs, and leaders stress the value of personal development. While there are variations on approaches, there is a lot of consensus on the goals: How does a person increase their performance in any area by becoming more responsible, more compassionate, creative, and present? Oddly enough, an emphasis on personal development is either missing or marginalized in traditional schools as it’s typically considered silly and unnecessary. However, rather than minimizing its role, 21st-century education requires personal development as the foundation for student growth and success.

1. Being an Effective Learner

Hard work and studying matter. But they’re no longer sufficient. To deal with the abundant and ubiquitous data and information of our times, learners increasingly require presence, focus, and an optimal mindset. Consider the different results when a student spends two hours on pre-algebra with the mental model “I’m horrible at math” versus the same amount of time on the exact same subject with the mental model “Math is a puzzle that’s fun to figure out.” A core practice in personal development is becoming aware of one’s attitude and mindset around a particular activity, taking full responsibility for it, and then embodying an attitude that’s more effective. Unless students are in control of their mindsets, they’re often resigned to drudgery and struggle to “just get through the classes,” which can color their educational and learning experiences for life.

2. Having Purpose

Getting through secondary school and graduating from college can be challenging. Without purpose, it’s often daunting, meaningless, and uninspiring. Students who have purpose, who have passion, who have a context for their experiences, are more likely to make the most of their time in any school. Developing an authentic purpose necessitates a level of personal responsibility, self-confidence, and self-awareness. When schools neglect to provide students opportunities to develop these characteristics, like anyone else, they are less likely to overcome challenges or connect with their inner fire of motivation. Worse, once structures of accountability disappear upon graduation, many young people are left rudderless, without a developed connection with their inner compass. On the other hand, when educational systems invest in teaching personal development practices, purpose and meaning naturally emerge. Students become increasingly likely to succeed on their educational path and even enjoy the process.

3. Embracing Change

There’s a saying that the only thing that is constant is change. I’d argue that even change is changing. What I mean is that the speed of change is accelerating. Driven by technology and demographics, there will be more disruption and change in 2017 than there was between 2000 and 2005. Successfully navigating change requires years of personal development work. Without ongoing practice, the vast majority of people automatically fear change, with many being prone to intense anxiety. With practice, not only can students learn how to stay centered and proactive during times of rapid change; they can also learn how to embrace it. While most are feeling overwhelmed and reactive, people who have been practicing personal development will create new ways of providing value, will discover new solutions, and will find ways to make a difference in the world.

At KọSchool, all members of the community engage in a sustained personal development practice. For our students we use group exercises, socratic inquiry, and personal coaching to expand their capacities of mindfulness, integrity, and self-awareness. Our mission is to develop “FutureAuthors”—students who continuously improve, can teach themselves anything, and are driven to make the world a better place. If you’re interested in learning more, please join us for a tour or our upcoming open house.

Letsie Khabele