Give teachers a handy cheat sheet

Jewel’s first day of kindergarten went like this: the teacher introduced herself, and then said, “There’s only one rule in my classroom, and that is everyone has to be a USC fan.” And with that, Jewel lost it. Big, hard wails and screams from my girl permeated Room 3. The other kids, some of whom had been crying as their moms and dads left, turned to watch her in wonder instead.

Two minutes into our great general-education experiment (she had been in a special-ed preschool program), and the kid had an epic outburst. By way of (semi-) explanation, we are UCLA fans, not hard-core or anything, and she took an uncommon interest in the rivalry in her early years. She began to avert her eyes or flinch when she saw someone wearing a USC sweatshirt on the beach path, and she never used the red and yellow crayons together. It was one of her quirks, in which logic and common sense were of little use in the face of USC=bad.

I wasn’t aware then of the front loading and preparation needed when Jewel started a new school year or other big transitions, which are big deals for all kids and bigger deals for kids on the spectrum. When we met with the kindergarten teacher the week before for introductions, I thought we were good to go. The teacher ruefully told me at the end of the first day, “I blew it in the first two minutes!”

I don’t expect general-ed teachers to commit her IEP to memory … some of ours are 60 to 70 pages long. And there’s certainly no way I can expect a substitute to read that if he or she just got the assignment 10 minutes before the bell rings.

So now I put together a “sensory profile” of Jewel for teachers and others who come in regular contact with her. It’s a one-page simple cheat sheet to her quirks, what works with her, her triggers, etc. This gives teachers a way to find common ground (talk about her pets!) and explains why she might physically react to certain things (green characters are non-starters, because of the witch in “Wizard of Oz.” Don’t get me started about all the ads I had to avoid when “Wicked” was in town).

What to include in the sensory profile for your child? Ours has evolved over time, with issues falling off and items added, but here are the current categories, followed by some examples, which of course can be amended to fit your needs:

Interaction style she best responds to (calm, consistent…)

What makes her feel safe and secure (predictability, organization…)

Her strengths and interests (academic subject matters and outside interests, to forge bonds)

Teaching strategies (say it once and check back with her unobtrusively, show flexibility…)

Her dislikes and tolerance levels (specific sights, sounds, sensory stuff, rigidity in teachers and situations, as well as “body in space” issues)

Overwhelming triggers (cafeteria chaos …)

Soothing ways when escalated (“Place demands on hold” should be on everyone’s list).

This is not to say everyone has to kow-tow to my kid … it just explains her reaction if it falls outside the norms. School works infinitely better when there is a partnership between parents and teachers. No one knows your child better than you do, and sharing that knowledge is the best way to advocate. And teachers, don’t be afraid to ask parents for such a cheat sheet. Ideally you will have a chance to meet with them at the beginning of the school year, and you can ask them to do one up for you or hand them a sheet with the category headers to fill in the blanks. You never know what the triggers are unless you ask. Or a 5-year-old screams inconsolably about being forced to cheer for the USC Trojans.

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