As a teacher at a private, faith-based school, I saw the effects of saying yes to something you’re not equipped to handle. In short, it creates a lot of problems. The issues don’t always present themselves immediately. Sometimes it seems like smooth sailing until the problem reaches critical mass and becomes a liability.
The school I worked at didn’t have on-site special education support. There were no paraprofessionals, EBD teachers, special education staff, or school counselors. They also didn’t have a vice principal, principal, or superintendent. While it’s part of every teacher’s job to meet the diverse needs of their students, general education teachers aren’t specifically trained or experienced in special education. When you don’t have those resources available to your school, it becomes very difficult to adequately accommodate special needs.
Invariably, I’d get a call from the board over the summer for a potential new student with special needs. I’d say the same thing I usually said which was, “If you accept them, I will do my best, but I’m not trained in ____ and we don’t have support staff to help with any issues that may arise.” The school reserved the right to accept or deny any new student, but it was hard for them to say no to a student we weren’t equipped to handle because their hearts were bigger than their brains. I know there were only good intentions, but good intentions don’t magically equip you for something you’re not prepared for.
One year, a third of my class was on the autism spectrum. I loved the kids dearly, but every day felt like I was in over my head. I wanted to do right by those students, so I read books, attended workshops, and did a lot of personal research on autism. I felt like I was making a lot of progress and getting the hang of it, but there was one child who continued to cause disruptions and engage in conflicts with other students at lunch, at recess, in the halls, on the bus, occasionally in the classroom, and at specialty classes. Parents started to complain. They brought their children there to escape “all that,” and they weren’t happy. I remember sitting down with the parents and trying to work out a plan to minimize the behaviors. It was a good meeting, encouraging.
The next day the board got involved. They laid out an ultimatum, which was the child needed to decrease behaviors by 90% in two weeks to stay at the school. I knew I couldn’t fight it. Three other parents were ready to yank their kids out if this child didn’t leave or change overnight. I also knew it was game over. An ultimatum like that was setting up a child with autism for failure. And sure enough, the child wasn’t capable of meeting those expectations and was asked to leave.
It was one of two situations in my teaching career that still haunts me (perhaps I’ll share the other in a future post), mainly because it was entirely preventable. If you don’t have the resources for a child, if you aren’t equipped to meet a certain need, or you know you have deficit in a particular area, then don’t agree to it. If you feel called to it despite all that, then figure out how you’ll make up for your lack of know-how. Go into it with eyes open.
You will receive calls for placements that will be too much for you. My advice is to exercise caution. Our first placement came from a home that only had him a month before throwing in the towel. She was a new foster mom and just wasn’t prepared for the amount of work he would require. Because she agreed to it when she wasn’t ready, it meant one more failed home for our 1 year old foster son. I would have rather she said no than disrupt the placement.
Let’s talk through 6 reasons why it’s okay to say no.
- Number of children: Our first foster son had two siblings. They originally asked us if we could take all three. I didn’t want to be the person to break up a sibling group, but we also knew we couldn’t do it. We only had one extra bedroom, max of two seats available in my small car, no available daycare (I even called around just to give it a chance), no beds or other materials prepared, and this was our first placement. We wanted to ease into it and start off with a single child. Your agency might happily give you a variance, but stick to what you already agreed to and know you’re comfortable with.
- Age: Be okay with saying no to children who are older or younger than your limit. They’ll call with referrals that are outside of what you specified to see if you’ll make an exception. Stick to your guns especially in the beginning. There will be plenty of time to make exceptions down the road.
- Behaviors: If the child has a history of being physically or sexually abusive, that’s a big deal. There are definitely homes equipped to handle that, but it’s not always a good idea to introduce those behaviors to homes with other children.
- Medical/special needs: It feels sort of wrong to say you won’t take children with certain needs because we know that we aren’t looking for perfection in our foster children. We know that a lot of needs are represented in foster care. Still, everyone’s knowledge and experience with special needs varies. For example, you might not want to take in a paraplegic if your home isn’t handicap accessible, you work a full-time job, or you’ve never even met someone in a wheelchair before.
- The needs of your family: I write about this a lot, but our biological son is still in preschool. There are a lot of referrals we’ll turn down after considering how it might affect our son. For us, we know that certain needs or behaviors will be difficult to care for while our biological son is still so young. As he gets older, we’ll likely be able to accept children with more needs.
- Your spouse: I think with my heart, and my husband thinks with his brain. When I get a call for a placement, my mind is immediately going to “this child needs someone to love on them. I’m someone. Let’s do this!” while my husband is taking a good, hard look at it and thinking critically about the logistics. If it were just me, my agency wouldn’t have any trouble at all keeping my house filled to the max with kiddos. But it isn’t just me, and I need to defer to my husband for final say. This used to really bother me, but I’ve learned that my husband balances me out, and we’re better the two of us.
It’s important that you know what you’re getting into and know what your weaknesses/limitations are. It’s okay that you aren’t equipped to handle every need out there. No one person is able to do it all, so focus on what you can do, and do that because you’ll experience a lot more success when you operate in your strengths than when you’re floundering in your weaknesses.
We became foster parents because we want to love on every kiddo we meet, so it’s very difficult to say no. Despite how hard and sometimes painful it is, you’ll have to get used to it. You’ll probably end up saying no more than you say yes. Remember, what’s a no for you will be a very excited yes for someone else.