This School Year, Shout Loudly with Optimism

by Paul Lloyd, Technology and Accessibility Consultant, Disability Ally and Parent of a Kindergartner

A Kindergarten teacher provides support and guidance to three students. at a classroom table.

A mentor is, above all things, somebody who helps you find your potential. That person spends time showing you what you can be, where you are and how to navigate the space between. Sometimes it’s just as simple as pointing you in the right direction, and other times a mentor holds your hand and spends extra time with you until you understand what you are truly capable of achieving. This time of year, think of our first mentors, including our grade-school teachers.


Every year, depending on your location, August and early September mean back to school, and let’s be honest: back to work. The traffic is lighter, daytime lasts longer and there are less people around us as we work. The schools, while not empty, are serene. Even the hardest worker among us takes a week off in the summer. And then suddenly, without so much as a backward glance, summer comes to an end. Everything, everybody, is changing.


So little time
Try to understand that I’m
Trying to make a move just to stay in the game
I try to stay awake and remember my name
But everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same

For students, each school year brings significant changes and new experiences. Some years are especially remarkable: a teenager’s first day away at college, a ten year old is making all new friends at school after moving across the world or a young child’s very first day of Kindergarten. As students transition from education to employment and move into the workforce they seek mentors to provide guidance along the way. As children, their first mentors outside the home are often teachers. This is especially vital for students with disabilities as the foundation for positive outcomes is set very early in the process.

Not too long ago, students with known disabilities were placed in separate classes from their same-aged peers. This was integration yet not inclusion. Inclusion, or more importantly, a sense of belonging, is what we strive as inclusive classrooms are beneficial for all students.

Students with disabilities who are placed in general-education classrooms get more instructional time, have fewer absences, and have better post-secondary outcomes. Studies also show there is no negative impact on the academic achievement of non-disabled students in an inclusion classroom; those students benefit socially by forming positive relationships and learning how to be more at ease with a variety of people. — Jackie Mader, The Atlantic.

With inclusion comes great responsibility. As schools make an effort to support students with disabilities in the general classroom, facilitating connections between the teacher and child become increasingly important. Some teachers profoundly influence twenty to thirty young children every single year for decades. Over a career, a teacher may work with a thousand students, a hundred of which are known to have disabilities.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 13 percent of all public school students receive ‘special education services’, 35 percent of which had specific learning disabilities.

Parents are tireless advocates for children with known disabilities and seek out like-minded and similarly-spirited teachers and administrators. Yet a percentage of students with disabilities can often struggle, not-yet-diagnosed or unable to advocate for themselves at such a tender age. Their teacher, therefore, becomes an important advocate with an effect on children that will ripple throughout the rest of their lives. The teacher helps the student build self-esteem and self-worth, while providing positive experiences. Their teacher is why they have better post-secondary outcomes. Their teacher sets the stage for a lifetime of learning.

All parents, myself included as the parent of a newly minted ‘kinder’, worry about packing the right snack and their kids adjusting to a new schedule. Parents of students on the Autism spectrum especially concern themselves with the role of the teacher in the child’s life. Sometimes you just get lucky, a wonderful teacher comes into your child’s life and you have an instant mentor relationship. Other times you have to move your child from school to school until you find a good match or work with the entire school to ensure a successful transition.

Recently I was able to interview a friend regarding her son’s transition into Kindergarten. The exchange was englightening and I share a single quote from the child’s mother, with her permission.


“My son Henry is on the autism spectrum and just started Kindergarten this year. As any typical parent of a kindergartener, I felt sad/happy/nervous all at the same time about sending my ‘baby’ to school. For me, his disability amplified my feelings of anxiety as I started to wonder how others would communicate with him and react to his lack of expressive speech and constant fidgets and movements.

“For me, his disability amplified my feelings of anxiety as I started to wonder how others would communicate with him and react to his lack of expressive speech and constant fidgets and movements.”

Will he be misunderstood, mocked, or ignored by other students or teachers? But I decided not to let the anxiety take over and instead became an even bigger advocate for my child by attending every school event leading up to the first day of school, meeting with the school administration and teachers, and reading up on ways to help partner with the school system to help my child be successful. Overall, I think by becoming more educated in school system and how they support children with disabilities, my mind is at ease and I feel confident that Henry is going to do awesome!” — Samantha Young, Parent, Fairfax County, Virginia.


Another parent with a slightly older child on the autism spectrum shared with me the true difference a specific teacher can have on a child. Her son, while highly functioning, tended to cling to one person (his mother) at the expense of others. How would this play out at school? It all depends on the teacher. In this child’s case, one year the teacher was a perfect fit, another year the child struggled. Technology options that were intended to bridge the gap were not sufficient. As with all students, in order to truly blossom a relationship with a trusted confidant was vital.


In an interview on National Public Radio (link embedded below to full interview), one teacher illustrated this point simply:

“I regularly remind myself: Students just need someone to listen. While advice can be helpful, the most beneficial thing I can provide in most situations is just to listen.“
Troy Cockrum

Mentors can provide a nugget of advice to teachers as well. According to the authors of the embedded article “What the Best Mentors Do” in the Harvard Business Review, the best mentors shout loudly with optimism and keep quiet with cynicism.

If that is not the definition of being a Kindergarten teacher, I don’t know what is.


About the Author: Paul Lloyd is an expert in Technology & Accessibility and a Project Manager, with 16 years experience in Marketing & Communications. Paul has served as the Education Program Manager at the USDA TARGET Center in Washington DC, serving federal employees with disabilities since 2001. Paul is also a member of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition through his employer, Insignia Federal Group.


About the National Disability Mentoring Coalition: The mission of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition (NDMC) is to increase the awareness, quality and impact of mentoring for individuals with disabilities across the nation. Member organizations share core values and align with the Coalition’s objectives to streamline communication, standardize and systematize data collection, reduce duplication of efforts, increase mentoring opportunities, and improve outcomes for youth and adults with disabilities. Learn more about the NDMC, review its Membership, and visit the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame at www.disabilitymentors.org. You can also follow NDMC on Twitter at @DisMentors or email us at dshields@forwardworks.net.


This #DisabilityMentors publication is a space for individuals to share stories and testimonials to elevate the importance of establishing a national disability mentoring policy and increase funding to enable more mentors to raise expectations, build confidence and positively impact youth and adults with disabilities.