And the Greatest of These is Love: Partnering with Parents

Deborah Henderson, Assistant Principal, Frank Wagner Elementary, Monroe SD
Apr 01, 2024


This article is one of three in our "Stories of Hope" series written by outstanding Washington state school leaders. We hope they inspire you! Check out our blog for the other two articles in this series.


The walkie crackled, “Sky’s mother is in the office.”  

I pushed the button, “Copy.  I’ll be right down.”

I signaled to the teacher I would be back.  She continued to watch Sky as he was starting to right the chairs he had thrown.  As I walked, I repeated my mantra for hard family meetings: “be credible, be a partner, show love.”  

I opened the office door and saw Sky’s Mom sitting on the bench, clenching her hands together.  She knew from our phone call that he had escalated again and we were not going to be able to get him on the bus, but I knew she didn’t yet know what escalation really meant - tipped tables, thrown chairs, ripped papers, books and crayons scattered across the floor.  I knew this was going to be hard for her to see and started speaking to her as we walked down the hall.  “It’s been a hard day, but we have gotten him to de-escalate and he is working now on cleaning up.”  We got to the room and the tears started.  She had told me at previous meetings, “I’m a cryer.” so I expected this.  I put my arm around her and told her once again that all kinders are working on different things and self-regulation was what he was working on. She kept saying, “I just don’t know what to do.”  I explained to her the calm down strategies we were teaching him and gave her the same materials she could use at home.  By this time Sky and his teacher had put the room back to how it should be, and he was tired and ready to go home.  As she left, she thanked us again and again for helping him and for not giving up and told us she was so happy he was in a place where he was so cared for.  “Be credible, be a partner, show love.”  We hadn’t solved Sky’s issues but we had made a small step forward.  I said good night to the teacher, told her to get some rest and walked back to my office.  I thought about where this mantra came from. 


Sawyer John chose to come into this world in an unexpected manner.  I was at work when I got the text that my sister was in labor.  I told myself to stay calm; he was only 3 weeks and 5 days early and it was going to be fine!  Her first child took 24 hours to make an appearance; I had time to write up notes for my student teacher and then I would leave.  Then I got the next text from my brother-in-law letting me know the baby was breech and they were going into surgery now.  I stuffed my computer in my bag, and as I walked through the office I told my office manager I was leaving for the day.  If I weren’t so panicked I would have laughed at her look of shock at my unusual behavior.  

By the time I reached the hospital, Sawyer had made his appearance, and after the NICU nurse forced him to breathe, he was declared healthy.  After giving his big brother some time to meet him I entered the room and was handed this beautiful baby, with his feet up by his head.  After a traumatic birth, we were told to “just let him uncurl on his own time.” He looked like a little kangaroo in a pouch and I fell in love immediately.  

We soon learned this little boy was going to have a pattern of worrying us for no reason.  During his in-depth physical that afternoon, his parents were told he might have hip dysplasia and he might require skull surgery for prematurely fused skull bones.  We would need to wait and see.  So we waited…and waited…and loved him…and waited…and at his sixth month check up he was once again given a clean bill of health. A few days later, in true Sawyer fashion, he gave us something else to worry about.  A lump suddenly appeared on his neck.  His doctor wanted to see him the next morning.  After that appointment I was told the doctor had used her cell phone to call and get him an appointment at Children's Hospital at 8:30 the next morning to ensure it was not a cardiovascular involved tumor.  As an educator I hear all the time about wait lists to get into Children’s, but I didn’t say this to my sister. I just said how happy I was that he was going to be seen by the best doctors and I was sure he would be fine.  I, however, woke up several times that night, thinking about worst case possibilities, calculating how much leave I had to use, and just worrying in general.  And of course, in true Sawyer fashion, it was not a tumor, but a condition called Torticollis and completely curable through physical therapy.  The next morning started 18 months of physical therapy every Tuesday.  

The next 16 months were spent loving this child while trying to encourage him to suffer through increased tummy time, arguing with him to turn his head a certain way, and him proving how stubborn he could be when he didn’t want to do assigned exercises. He reminded me of me and I loved this time with him!

At 16 months, Sawyer and his mum taught me one of my most valuable lessons as an educator.  It all started with a text from my sister informing me that she was a terrible mother.  I asked her what happened and she sent me a screenshot from his fancy daycare of a three page report card that showed Sawyer being behind in all of his milestones. It was put in his cubby with no explanation or conference with his parents. I looked through it and realized it did not have who evaluated him, what assessments were used, and was mostly incorrect. As an educator, I was appalled.  As an Aunty, I was enraged. Sawyer had failed “pointing in a purposeful way.”  That in itself invalidated the report.  Sawyer had been crawling to the nearest adult, signing “Up please,” pointing to move them to get what he wanted for over a month.  He had earned the nickname, “tiny dictator.”  I tried to point all of this out to his Mum over the next three hours, but she was just too upset to hear why a report card for a 16 month old was ridiculous and that Sawyer was just fine. 

Two days later I got another text from her at work.   This one was a screenshot of a report from the early childhood center where he received physical therapy.  As I read this, I became a bit upset.  I knew who gave him the evaluation, what assessments were used and had no reason to doubt the validity of this report.  It stated that my 16 month old nephew was showing a 7 month delay in expressive language and a 4 month delay in receptive language.  While I had known he was not speaking like his older brother did at this age, I hadn’t mentioned anything to parents because I didn’t want to worry them and I was hoping I was wrong.  This proved I wasn’t, and while it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, being almost half your life behind in something didn’t seem great either.  After the ordeal of the report card, I was sure I would have to leave work and go pick my sister up off the floor. She was going to be devastated.  I called her that afternoon, and was completely unsettled when she started laughing, asking if I had read the description of Sawyer.  I guardedly said yes, feeling way off kilter as her response was the opposite of what I expected.  She went on to read how “while Sawyer is showing a 4 month delay in receptive language, the evaluator who has worked with Sawyer feels like this may be more of him being stubborn, choosing not to follow directions, rather than an actual speech delay.”  

“I love her!  She really knows Sawyer!”  my sister said.  She then went on to say she was going to email out the steps the evaluator gave that we needed to do with Sawyer when we were watching him.  I hung up the phone, feeling completely confused. 

Over the next few days I tried to figure out what caused her to be happy about this second report, why she wasn’t crying like she was with the report card.  I finally decided it came down to three things.  First, there was credibility.  The assessments used were clear and the evaluator was an expert in her field.  Second, there were steps given that would allow Sawyer’s parents to take an active role in his therapy.  Finally, and most importantly, the evaluator “really knew” Sawyer and it was clear she loved working with him.  


It’s been five years since Sawyer’s speech report.  At work, Sky’s family moved out of the district two years ago, but he continues to attend our school on a waiver because his mother “loves our teachers.”  He is in third grade, in class all day and achieving grade level standards.  My stubborn, sassy, loveable nephew has entered kindergarten and has caught up on all of his developmental milestones.  As she deals with all of the day to day challenges and joys that two little boys bring, my sister has forgotten all about the three hour cryfest she had over an invalid report card and the determination that a valid report brought her four years ago, but I remember. I remember this time every time I sit in an IEP meeting where a parent is going to be told their child has a learning “disability,” or when I meet with a parent of a child who is struggling and they say they feel “like a failure.”  I remember it every time I coach a new school psychologist or a first year teacher in how to enter a parent meeting.  I remember that we have to have enough knowledge to show we are credible, present ways in which we can actively partner with parents, and make sure that families need to know we love their child no matter what.  My mantra to great parent partnerships: credibility, partnership and love. And after several years, I believe the greatest of these is love.

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