When learning went online adoptive mom Helen Tracy had to prioritize advocating for her son’s education
By Nadra Nittle
As a parent and a teacher, Helen Tracy has unique insight into how to best meet her son’s academic needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and her husband, Jon Tracy, adopted 6-year-old Cree in June after being his foster parents for two years. Since he has abandonment-related PTSD, she knew that the abrupt closure of his Stillwater, Minnesota, charter school in March would prove triggering to Cree so she explored different ways to help the then-kindergartener adapt. She urges fellow parents — biological, foster, kinship or adoptive — not to be afraid to advocate for their children during this period of uncertainty.
“It is your job to stay on top of the school to make sure the needs of your student are met,” she said. “No one else is going to fight for them like you will, so if the school is failing your child, say or do something. Your silence will only make the situation worse.”
For Cree, that meant first trying distance learning at home and then at his adoptive grandparents’ house. When neither of those arrangements quite worked, the Tracys took him to his school campus, where a small group of students and teachers were allowed to continue visiting in person. Returning to his K-12 school gave Cree the chance to interact with educational assistants and paraprofessionals and stay focused on learning, which proved difficult from home. But attending school post-pandemic still triggered Cree, leading to temper tantrums and a call to the special education director.
“We completely restructured everything for him,” said Helen Tracy, who teaches sixth grade at Cree’s school. “Instead of being in the open room with the other kids, he went into the learning lab for our lower school for kindergarten through fourth grade, which is a totally different feeling of an environment. We incorporated fidgets and different sensory tools.”
To help him concentrate, they decided to drop music and art classes and allowed Cree, who also has a speech impediment, to take breaks between academic tasks. Helen Tracy also worked out of the back of the learning lab to calm him in case he became emotional and needed more support than the two instructors in the lab.
As a teacher at her son’s school, Tracy recognizes that she’s in an unusual position but said that all parents can advocate for their children and shouldn’t hesitate to speak to faculty about their concerns.
“The teachers and administrators are specialists in their field, but you are a specialist about your child,” she said. “Instruct them on what they need to know and what they need to do.”
She recalled how a parent sent documents to the staff about a child’s disorder, highlighting problems related to it and providing helpful interventions. The faculty appreciated how proactive the parent was, she said.
During the pandemic, however, foster and adoptive parents may focus more on meeting their family’s emotional needs than their educational ones, according to Heidi Wiste, director of social work for the foster care and adoption program at the Children’s Home Society and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (CHLSS), the agency that connected the Tracys with Cree.
“From my perspective, I would encourage families to take time away from one another, even as we encourage how to make the best of time together,” Wiste said. “We know that recharging, a change of scenery and a step away where individuals can tune into themselves and their needs to refresh is a helpful pause.”
She advises parents to engage in self-care in whatever form that takes — FaceTiming relatives, walking outside, or trying a new hobby the family can do together. To help caregivers stay balanced as they pair child-rearing with working from home, CHLSS has presented online trainings, support groups and family check-ins at least once a month during the pandemic.
“Our team is reaching out to families with resources, checking in on how they are doing socially, emotionally and as a connected family,” Wiste explained. “We are asking about how they are feeling, if they’re able to step back when they need to.”
One way Helen Tracy and Cree have connected over the summer is by working on his reading skills, which are slightly above grade level. The mother-and-son have been reading a book a day, including “Pirate Pat,” “Dog Diary,” and “A Bus for Miss Moss,” she said.
Jon Tracy has observed his son’s resilience but also seen how Cree has struggled during the pandemic. Friends who’ve adopted children from foster care have noticed the same, and one even had to place their child in a psychiatric facility.
“Even our son’s mental health therapist, she’s seen a big regression in all her patients, in their emotional and psychological development,” Jon Tracy said.
And before the pandemic struck, Helen Tracy said it was difficult to convince the special education faculty that a disorder like PTSD had any bearing on Cree’s ability to learn. When the coronavirus separated him from fellow students, it became clear the condition was an issue for him. He clammed up during video calls and longed to see his classmates in person once more.
The school year ended with a call to the special education director who agreed “that there would be some extreme and massive changes to school next year for him no matter what,” Helen Tracy said. “We need to figure this out for him, even if we’re at 100% distance learning.”
Ensuring that her child gets the best education possible during the pandemic helps her understand how frustrating navigating school during this time may be for other parents. But Tracy firmly believes that the situation will improve in time. She offered the following tip for caregivers: “Take joy in the smallest of accomplishments and the shortest times of peace. Sometimes, those are the moments that get you through.”
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist covering young children and early childhood education for The Imprint. Nittle has written about a wide range of issues, including health, education, consumerism, entertainment, and public policy. She has two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree from Occidental College, and her writing has appeared in The Guardian, NBC News, The Atlantic, Business Insider, and other outlets. Nadra has more than 15 years of journalism experience, serving as a staff writer for news organizations including The Gannett/USA Today Network, Digital First Media, and Vox Media. She is now a senior reporter for Civil Eats.