By Nickie Brandenburger

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” That quote by American author John C. Maxwell is well known because it rings true in all of us.

My son, Thomas, is a typical 13 year old boy. He loves video games, skateboarding, gross jokes, hates to shower and forgets to wear deodorant which can cause a physical assault on my olfactory system especially when trapped in a car with him. He is also on the cusp of full blown puberty. His sleeping and eating habits are all over the map as his body adjusts during this period of intense physical change. He is close to looking me straight in the eye, only a couple more inches to go; when I least expect it, I will be looking up at him.  Thomas also has Sensory Integration Disorder and Anxiety which can make puberty even more challenging than it already is.

Thomas is currently in his final year of middle school. Sixth and Seventh grade were not easy for him or for us. He struggled socially and emotionally. By the end of this past school year we were all exhausted. That was when my husband and I decided to pursue private school. At the time, we knew that we could only afford one year of tuition but we felt confident that if he had one goodyear of middle school, he would be better prepared for … gulp … high school.  Many have asked why we made the jump to private school for only one year. It might seem counterproductive to make a significant adjustment during such a transformative time in our boy’s life. Our answer was simple, we all needed a change.

The school we chose has exceeded our expectations. He receives personalized support educationally, emotionally, and socially. The teachers are highly engaged, students have hands on learning, and Thomas comes home with a smile every day. I could go on and on about all of the benefits however, I want to highlight one particular aspect of the school’s philosophy: student led parent and teacher conferences.

Let the phrase sink in for a second, student led conferences. Instead of the parents and teachers meeting to discuss the child, the student takes the lead at his own parent-teacher conference. A week before the meeting, the student creates personal goals; they can be social, academic, and/or emotional. During the conference, the student verbalizes and discusses those goals and what they need for themselves, the teachers, and the parents in order to reach those goals. It is about taking ownership of the student’s learning and life at school. I know, I know … mind blown! My son has never been to one single parent teacher conference in his 9 years of schooling.

On the day of the student led conference, I was not sure what to expect. My efforts to pry details out of my teenage son were unsuccessful. I was going in clueless. My expectations, if I have to admit, were somewhere in-between this is going to be awesome and this is going to be a disaster. My son’s educational experience had been so strained over the past few years with the social and emotional struggles he encountered that I had come to dread parent teacher conferences. Historically, I would walk out of the conference feeling defeated, as if I had no business raising a child like Thomas.

We were greeted by the science teacher, Ms. Anders, who asked that Thomas take a seat at the head of the table with me flanking him on his right, she on his left. A second teacher, who would be the note taker during the conference, took a seat at the end of the table across from Thomas.

Ms. Anders briefly thanked me for coming and then said, “As you know, Thomas will be leading the conference today. He has been preparing all week and will take a few minutes to read through the personal goals he has identified.” She stopped talking, smiled at Thomas and nodded for him to begin while I sat wide eyed with anticipation, my hands a bit sweaty.

Thomas went on to review his goals including social, academic and personal. The note taking teacher tucked his head as he focused on writing down everything that was said. Thomas was able to articulate, with great detail and insight, what was working and what wasn’t. Every time, he identified a barrier or challenge, Ms. Anders would softly interject with a simple question such as; “Why do you think that is a challenge?” “What can you do to fix that?” And so on.

After each question, Thomas would pause for a second, rocking the chair onto its back two legs and balancing himself with his hands on the table. He answered with thoughtful self-awareness and enlightenment, while I sat quietly listening, free of judgement, suggestions, and comments. Thomas identified solutions and Ms. Anders would respond with a simple: “Cool, what are your next steps?”  And that was that. It was simple. Thomas recognized the problem or barrier and then identified a solution all on his own.

As the conference neared the end, Ms. Anders recapped what was said, ensured the note taking teacher had recorded everything and praised Thomas for his work. She explained that after each student identifies their goals and strategies, the remainder of the conference is set aside to address any discrepancies between the student’s self-report and the reports from the other teachers. I braced myself for what was to come, after all, my previous experiences had been sitting across from a teacher (sans my son) as they identify all of Thomas’s barriers, with very few solutions.

Ms. Anders said, “Thomas you did a great job and everything you said is in line with the feedback I have received from all of your teachers.”

“Cool.” said Thomas with a smile, rocking his chair onto it’s back two legs and balancing himself once again.

Ms. Anders turned to me, lifted her eyebrows and asked if I had anything to add. For once, I had nothing more to say. Thomas and his teachers had identified what was working and not working and I was simply there to hear the outcome and the plan. For the first time in 9 years, I was confident that my boy and his teachers were figuring this school thing out together and it was a beautiful thing.

I suppose most parents might feel sad at their diminished role in their child’s educational experience. I, on the contrary, am thrilled. With high school looming right around the corner, Thomas is learning and practicing new skills that will prepare him for the future and for that, I am eternally grateful. The changes my son has experienced and will continue to experience are inevitable but personal growth is his choice.

**Nickie Brandenburger is married to Mark and is a mother to Thomas and Leah. Thomas participated in Early Intervention services when he was a toddler and receives ongoing support for Sensory Integration Disorder and Anxiety Disorder. Originally educated as a special education teacher, Nickie began working in Support Coordination in the early 1990s at the onset of Virginia’s participation in the Home and Community Based ID Waiver. She worked in South Carolina’s Developmental Disability service system and spent 17 years at Chesterfield Community Services Board helping families of adults and children with Intellectual Disabilities. She is now the Director for the Family to Family Network of Virginia at the Center for Family Involvement.**

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