Tips for Collaborating & Increasing Parent/Guardian Engagement in the Special Education Classroom
As a special education teacher, one of the biggest ways we can support student growth and success is to collaborate with their parents/guardians. It can be easy for parents to feel like they're not a part of a student's educational programming and planning, but there are lots of ways for the school team to include them! At the end of the day, parents/guardians are valuable members of a student's IEP team. However, there may be lots of barriers for them to get past to play a meaningful role. When collaborating with parents, keep in mind any cultural/linguistic differences, lack of knowledge of special education, previous negative experiences, lack of time, etc. I've worked with parents who are fierce advocates for their student. I have also worked with parents who want to advocate, but don't know how, feel intimidated, or are so burnt out from a number of unpleasant experiences. One of the best things a parent has ever said to me was, "Thank you for loving my son" as she gave me a big hug. At the very least, parents/guardians should be at peace knowing that their student is safe and cared for. Having a meaningful partnership leads to endless possibilities beyond even that! Let's empower parents/guardians to be strong advocates for their students!
1. Start off the year with a willingness to collaborate and work together. Value each other’s knowledge of the student. Make it clear that this will be the best way for students to have consistency and make progress. Send a survey or questionnaire to parents/guardians inquiring about their student from their perspective. I send one home with all of my students on the first day of school (or sooner, if possible!) and it helps establish a partnership between the home and school. I do this regardless of age! I did it with my elementary students, as well as my high schoolers! Not only does it help establish that partnership we talked about earlier, but it gives you a better idea of the student’s life outside of school, as well an insight through the eyes of the parent/guardian. Some things I include in my survey are:
- Who lives with the student (i.e., siblings, pets, etc.)
- Likes/dislikes (i.e., food, activities, etc.)
- Favorite things to do in free time
- How do you respond to unexpected behaviors at home?
- Best way to contact parents/guardians
When I send this survey, I also send some information about myself, including a photo so that parents get to know a little bit about who will be teaching their student.
2. Consistent communication; freely and respectfully. Establish how you will maintain consistent communication with parents/guardians. This could be a daily school/home communication journal, emails, check-ins, etc. I like to have some form of daily communication so that families always have insight to what students are doing throughout the day and to provide ample opportunity for them to communicate back to the school team. I keep it simple because, let’s be real, we don’t have time to write paragraphs about each individual student’s day! I may include a highlight from the day, something the student did an exceptionally great job with that day, or something the student enjoyed that day. I will also make sure to share what the student may have struggled with that day. Trust me, I’ve had to send my fair share of awkward messages. Just remember, free and respectful. It’s important that we are honest with parents/guardians about what we see during the school day and this comes with ease as you build that partnership.
3. Focus on the positives. It’s easy to remember sharing the negatives with parents/guardians. When a student has a hard time being safe, we know it’s important to share this with parents/guardians. I’ve also worked with parents/guardians who struggle with this and benefit from reminders about their student’s strengths. It’s important that we continue to remember and remind others of the positives. As a good rule of thumb, I like to use the “compliment sandwich.” State a compliment, what they struggled with, then another compliment. This is going to help maintain a growth mindset and space for collaboration for both the parent/guardian and the teacher.
4. Share what works. If there’s a visual that has been a life saver at school, share it! Teach parents how to use AAC devices and what kind of prompting works best. Remember that parents/guardians don't necessarily go to school to be a special education teacher, speech and language pathologist, or social worker. Our ultimate goal is the prepare the student to be as successful and independent as possible for when you, the teacher, will no longer be around. Support them in generalizing skills they learn in a structured school setting to the home by sharing resources, visuals, tips, and whatever else you think will help them!
5. Set boundaries. In the first few years of my career, I was responding to parent messages, emails, etc. at all hours of the day/night. I wanted to be available to support families as much as possible, regardless of the time. However, I found that I was responding to messages on the weekends and late at night, thus not prioritizing time for myself. I encourage you to set “office hours” for yourself. If you use an app to communicate with parents (i.e., Remind), even better, since you can adjust the settings for parents to be notified when they message you outside of office hours. Share what times you are available with parents at the beginning of the school year. Trust me, you can be supportive while still prioritizing yourself.