What do teachers need to understand about working with families who have children with disabilities?

Page 2: Emotional Reactions to Disability

Principal Morgan believes that teachers can be instrumental in supporting families by learning about the kinds of challenges that they face and by trying to understand what it is like to have a child with a disability. This process entails becoming familiar with the issues that the families of children with disabilities have to deal with in addition to the roles typically associated with parenting. One of these challenges involves dealing with grief.


woman talking on the phoneSome of the parents of children with disabilities are likely to be dealing with the loss of their hopes and dreams for their child. School professionals can help by being sensitive and by making themselves aware of how grief might play a part in the family’s experiences. Similar to families who have had to deal with the loss of a loved one, the families of children with disabilities may go through the following emotional states:

  • Denial
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fear

rollercoasterThese states do not necessarily occur in any orderly sequence, and they can repeat themselves when a family’s child experiences—or should be experiencing—key milestones or transitions. The parents of children with disabilities often describe their lives as emotional roller coasters as they face the ups and downs of raising a child with special needs. Click here to see how these states of grief might impact a family member.


Luz A. Hernandez
Parent of a young adult who has hydrocephaly
Executive Director
Hispanos Unidos Para
Niños Excepcionales (HUNE)

Now listen to Luz Hernandez describe the emotions she has felt over the years as the parent of a child with a disability (time: 2:35).

View Transcript


The parents of children with disabilities also experience and express feelings of strength, hope, joy, love, and pride. In fact, many families find that their child with a disability has impacted their lives in a number of positive ways, such as:

  • Increasing their ability to love and to accept differences
  • Strengthening their family ties
  • Giving them a greater sense of pride in their child’s accomplishments
  • Leading them to learn more about disabilities and advocacy roles
  • Making them more patient, understanding, and tolerant
  • Teaching them to enjoy the little things in life

Shane Nurnberg
Parent of a child who has autism
Program Manager
Roswell Family Empowerment Center

Listen as Shane Nurnberg talks about how parenting a young child with disabilities has had a positive effect on his life (time: 0:36).

View Transcript

The Teacher’s Role

Mom and childIt is important for teachers to understand that the parents of children with disabilities are likely to experience a wide range of sometimes contradictory emotions, and that one of their most important roles is to be supportive. Those families who enjoy a more satisfactory working partnership with educators and school personnel often report a higher quality of life. More specifically, teachers can support families by:

  • Accepting families
  • Understanding that each family is unique in how they deal with their child’s disability
  • Building on the strengths of the family
  • Helping them to become more empowered to help themselves


Shane Nurnberg
Parent of a child who has autism
Program Manager
Roswell Family Empowerment Center

Listen again to Shane Nurnberg as he shares his thoughts about the importance of teachers’ understanding families’ emotions (time: 0:53).

View Transcript


One way for teachers to support families is to try to understand what it would be like to raise a child with a disability. Imagine yourself as the parent in one of the three scenarios below:

  • Your eight-year-old child was recently evaluated for a learning disability. This is your first child and you had no anxiety about his development until his new third-grade teacher voiced her concern about his difficulty with reading. Soon the results of the evaluation come back, and you are informed that your child has a learning disability in reading. In addition, the school states that it would like to evaluate him further for attention deficit disorder.
  • Your 14-month-old daughter is not meeting the expected developmental milestones. Her pediatrician evaluates her based on your concerns and refers you to an orthopedic specialist, who diagnoses your daughter with cerebral palsy. You are told that this condition will likely affect her mobility skills, language development, and, possibly, cognitive abilities.
  • Recently, your two-year-old son has stopped communicating and has begun exhibiting some self-injurious behaviors (e.g., biting himself, banging his head into things). Watching the Oprah show one afternoon, you hear a guest describe the characteristics of young children who have autism. You recognize the same characteristics in your son and call your pediatrician to schedule a visit. Your fears are confirmed after this visit and subsequent visits with specialists for assessments.

Select one of the scenarios above and reflect on the following questions:

  1. What do you think your immediate reaction would be?
  2. What sense of loss might you experience?
  3. How do you think your current friends and family would respond when you told them the news?
  4. How do you think your life might change?
  5. Do you think your dreams for your child would change after learning of the disability? Explain.
  6. What would you want teachers to do to help you and your child?

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