Cheryl Murphy says she always knew her son Stephen, who has autism and ADHD, was different to her other children.
Once a Kindergarten student limited to saying three-word sentences, the aspiring entrepreneur came first in his Year 12 course in Business Studies at St Mary’s Catholic College, Gateshead.
He is now in his first year of a Business degree at the University of Newcastle.
Along the way, Cheryl, who is the Deputy Chair of the Council for Catholic School Parents NSW/ACT (CCSP) and Chair of the Federation of P&F Associations in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, says the support of many dedicated principals, teachers – including learning support teachers – and health professionals was crucial.
But she found resources for children with a disability were limited. Information to help parents varied greatly from school to school.
“Reflecting over our journey I have often thought, ‘I really wish someone had advised me to talk to the school about what is happening with Stephen’,” she says.
The online resource, Supporting Diverse Learning in Catholic Schools: A Guide By Parents For Parents, is the result of Cheryl’s “dream come true”.
“All parents are time-poor, and this gives parents the tools to be the best advocates they can be for their child,” she says.
The new resource was two-and-a-half years in the making, including work with focus groups in schools, writing, and a professional review process.
Diocesan directors of schools, principals, teachers, learning support educators, psychologists, parents, and carers have endorsed it.
The CCSP published it as an easy-to-read resource covering a range of topics for parents of pre-schoolers to Year 12 students with learning needs ranging from the simple to the complex.
It includes tips for before and after-school routines, communicating with the school, preparing for planning meetings at the school, homework, travel to and from school, mobile phone use, excursions and more.
CCSP Executive Director, Peter Grace, says while the guide is in line with the statutory requirements of schools, it is equally offered in the Catholic spirit of upholding the dignity of each human person.
“The home-school partnership is really crucial because the personnel in the school are the experts as far as the learning goes, but no one knows the child better than the parent, so it’s about pooling that wisdom and working together in the best interests of the child,” he says.
CCSP Chair, Wayne Davie, who worked with Cheryl and the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s Catherine Garrett-Jones on the resource, says he knows it can be daunting for parents to navigate school systems especially if they are still coming to terms with a challenging diagnosis.
“It can be not only very overwhelming for the student, but for the parents,” he says. “This is written by parents for parents, breaking things down into small and manageable parts with the ultimate aim of building partnerships between families and schools.
“Some parents find it very daunting to try and start to build that relationship, although schools do encourage it. Parents know their child best, and this is about getting that knowledge to the teacher that helps them improve their approach.”
Cheryl hopes and prays that parents and carers of children with diverse learning needs will find this resource supportive as they navigate the school system and are encouraged to be the best advocate they can for their child.
“Students with a learning disability have as much right to a quality education as anyone else,” she says. “I want people to have this, so they don’t make the mistakes I did, and so they don’t get disheartened.”
Supporting Diverse Learning in Catholic Schools – NSW/ACT can be found online at www.ccsp.catholic.edu.au/students-with-diverse-learning-needs.
The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle would like to extend its thanks to families who were actively involved in the development of the Supporting Diverse Learning in Catholic Schools – NSW/ACT resource.
This article originally appeared in The Catholic Weekly and has been republished with its permission.