So the school year is going along nicely – your child is settled, you have a nice rapport with your child’s teacher, everyone is getting used to the routine, and then – BAM! There’s a substitute teacher. Even the most wonderful substitute is probably coming into the classroom without any prior knowledge of your child. And this can mean trouble. Despite terrific skills, the substitute has the cards stacked against them as they encounter a child, your child, fearful of change whose natural anxiety is revved up, simply because this person is an unknown.
So how do you prevent that “rug being pulled out from under” feeling? By being proactive, and preparing a Tip Sheet. This one-page document contains the valuable information a substitute needs to help your child be successful in the absence of their trusted teacher. Laminate it or place it in a plastic sleeve – that way it will last all year and be less likely to get lost. Give it to your child’s teacher and case manager. Keep a copy for yourself to give to a substitute if the other copies can’t be found.
Here are my tips on what to include:
List your child’s name and their teacher’s name at the top of the page. Then start with something welcoming, such as “Understanding Jane.” It will come across as more helpful than “Things You Should Know so Jane Doesn’t Have a Meltdown.” The goal is for someone to read it and embrace the information, not feel nervous about the students they have that day.
Try not to be too wordy, while still getting your point across. It is helpful to use bullet points, rather than writing the tips in paragraphs. Start out with positive statements about your child, such as, “She is enthusiastic,” “She loves to learn and very much wants to be part of the group,” or “She enjoys having a classroom job.”
You can then move on to practical suggestions that make up a successful day, for example: “It helps to have her attention visually before giving instructions,” “If she gets verbally stuck on a topic (or goes off on her own topic), make eye contact, and say ‘We’ll talk about that later,'” even “She may not ask for clarification if she doesn’t understand. She may instead be sitting and looking at others instead of participating.”
Finish up by including “bottom line” information – things that could make or break success. Statements such as “She may not always stop to use the restroom, feeling like she’ll miss something,” or “She is nervous about using the common restroom– last year she preferred to use the restroom in the Health Office,” or “She is very sensitive to being watched by others if she feels she is not doing something correctly or is taking too long.”
Other tips to include in this section are meltdown triggers for your child, “She’s very invested in the rules, so if you will be doing something different, be sure to explain that you do things differently than Mrs. X,” or “Touching her makes her nervous. Be sure to get her attention in another way,” or “She doesn’t like to lose, reminding her to use her calming strategies if games are part of the day, will help her have fun.”
A Tip Sheet can be useful not only for substitute classroom teachers, but the other specialists (music, gym, art) your child might encounter throughout the year. Hopefully this can alleviate some of the fears you or your child might have. But be sure to prepare your child for substitutes, not just the substitute for your child.
I recommend a Social Story or two. Talk with them about substitute teachers. Then read the Social Story which should include common things that come up for your child – different people have different rules and expectations, and how they can appropriately respond to those issues. With enough preparation of your child and school staff, a substitute can be a great opportunity to teach your child flexibility. And then you’re well on your way to a happy school year!