Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a bit of a situation with my son’s school, and it has sparked a wider conversation as I’ve shared about it on social media.
My seven-year-old son is clinically diagnosed with ADHD. We have the privilege of being in an incredible school district that takes all matters regarding neurodivergence, mental health, and child safety seriously. I was amazed by how swiftly the school administrators arranged my son with a 504 plan and weekly meetings with a child psychologist through the Chris180 program. With these accommodations in place, he is truly thriving in school.
But for the last week, my happy and confident child has been coming home despondent. A few times, he came home in tears. My husband and I tried our best to get to the bottom of the problem, but all my son would offer was that he was having a rough week at school. When we finally got a breakthrough, we learned that his teacher has been out with a family emergency and a substitute has been managing her classroom. Evidently, the substitute was not following my son’s 504 plan. Without those accommodations, my son has a very hard time at school, and this was creating friction between him and the substitute. The substitute was yelling at him, scolding him often, and throwing him dirty looks. My son spent every day in class feeling like a burden. And he didn’t want to tell us because he didn’t want the substitute to get in trouble.
My son’s 504 is incredibly simple. It includes things like having a desk near the front of the class, being allowed to stand up when he feels fidgety, and getting to chew gum when he’s anxious. These accommodations, though small, are enormously helpful for someone like him. I assumed the substitute may not have been informed of my son’s 504 accommodations, so I politely reached out to his school psychologist to ask for assistance in getting the substitute on board.
I heard back from the psychologist later that day. She let me know that until my son’s teacher returns to school, he will be moved to another teacher’s classroom. This teacher knows my son and is familiar with following 504 and IEP plans, so there would be no problem. She was excited to have him in her class. And, according to her, my son seemed happy, too.
I’m incredibly grateful for this accommodation. I’m grateful for a school that will take action, always. That said, it feels like a work-around. Specifically, a work-around that comes at just about everyone’s expense except the substitute’s—who seemed, at least to me, to have a hint of an authoritative nature and was in an unnecessary power struggle with my seven-year-old son.
All I wanted was for the substitute to stop acting like my child was asking for “special treatment” and to instead follow his 504 plan. I figured that a quick conversation with the school psychologist would sort everything out. What I wasn’t expecting was for my son to be displaced from his classroom and away from his friends, and for another teacher (who probably already had a very full class) to become responsible for him.
Shouldn’t the substitute be expected to follow the 504 and IEP plans of the students in his care? These plans are federally protected, after all. And though I firmly believe that all 504 and IEP plans should be honored, I am especially troubled by the fact that my son’s 504 is so simple and easy to follow. It doesn’t require any special training or education for the teacher. It just requires patience and perhaps a bit of empathy. My son having to spend the unforeseen future in a different classroom leads me to believe that this substitute simply lacked those traits or flat out refused to summon them to honor my son’s 504.
And that is heartbreaking for my son.
As I spoke about this on social media, a handful of people implied that I was being a Karen about this—that substitutes have it hard enough, and I should have empathy. The thing is, I don’t lack empathy for this substitute. I do understand that substitutes are often underpaid, under-supported, and often tossed into classrooms without much information ahead of time. I am grateful for the folks who step up to take care of our children when their teachers can’t be there.
That said, I will always advocate for my child. And if anyone thinks that I should have more empathy for a grown-up who is being paid to be there than for my seven-year-old son who is not, they’re violently mistaken. What is the point of being my son’s mom if it’s not to be his fiercest ally—the person who fights for him when he doesn’t have the power to fight for himself? I will always handle my advocacy with kindness, showing respect and positive regard for the teachers and administrators who take care of him. But I am affronted by some people’s suggestions that the real person deserving of empathy here is the substitute.
My son deserves empathy. It is sad for him to be separated from his friends and the classroom that comforts him because a grown-up refuses to abide by his 504. The teacher who took him in deserves empathy, too, for having to take on a new student when she is probably at her reasonable limits. And, the substitute also deserves empathy, as I’m sure there are elements of this story that only he knows and that are valid to him. All three people in this situation can be deserving of empathy at once. But I’ll be damned if someone suggests I should have more empathy for anyone over that of my own child—the only child among grownups in this situation.
Advocacy isn’t an attack. It’s a plea for understanding. I appreciate my son’s school making the best they could out of an unfortunate situation. I just wish it had been the adult substitute teacher who was expected to stretch himself out of his comfort zone than my seven-year-old child. I wish this substitute had been more concerned about my son’s mental and emotional well-being than whatever power struggle he imagined himself to be in with him. I wish he had chosen to give my son the benefit of the doubt instead of treating him like he was a problem that couldn’t be solved (if only there was a well-thought-out legal document that would show him exactly how to do that). I wish he thought more about what his actions were doing to my son than he did about whether he was being paid enough to handle a kid “like him.”
Most of all, I wish my son didn’t have to bear the weight of responsibility, instead of the grownup who had all the power and nothing to lose.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.