3 Tips for Increasing Parental Engagement This School Year

It’s September and schools are back in session!  For educators, it is that magical time of year when anything seems possible.  You’re refreshed and ready to make this year the best ever.  You want all your students to have a successful year!  And you know that a key component to any educational program is parental engagement, especially for children with special needs.  But with the demands of today’s parents, getting appropriate parental engagement can be a challenge, and this is compounded for the parents of children with special needs.

Before we discuss ways to encourage parental engagement, let’s first look at what we mean by parental engagement. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines parental engagement in schools as parents and school staff working together to support and improve the learning, development, and health of children and adolescents. Schools and parents have the responsibility for educating our children (retrieved from CDC)

There are many benefits to parental engagement across the board, but particularly for students with special needs including:

  • Increased parental involvement and collaboration in the development of their child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP)
  • Greater confidence and ability on the part of the parent to educate their own child
  • Better understanding on the part of the educator as to the special needs of each student
  • Higher student success due to the generalization of skills and consistency between home and school

Unfortunately, barriers to parental engagement do exist.  Some of these barriers are due to: cultural or language differences, special education law that can be difficult to understand, lack of time, past negative experiences, and lack of training on the part of the educator to effectively facilitate engagement.

What can you do to eliminate the barriers and make it easier for parents to engage? Here are three keys to increasing parental engagement.

Treat Parents as Partners.

Do you respect the role the parent has in the education of their child with special needs?  Do you actively invite parents to meet ahead of the IEP to set goals together?  Do you accommodate their schedules and consider their cultural contributions or differences?  Do you think about how to improve parent participation in the decision-making process?  These are just a few questions that can help you think about parents as partners in their child’s education.

Here are a few ways to help your parents’ partner with you:

  • Consider your message before the IEP happens. Did you invite them to listen to you and others tell them about their child or did you invite them to participatein the meeting and share their knowledge of their child?
  • Wait for the parents outside the meeting room prior to the IEP and walk in together as a team. That will be much less intimidating for the parents than walking into a room full of “experts” sitting and staring.
  • Understand that some cultures interact with educators and other school professionals differently. A parent may be agreeing with the proposed goals because they want to be polite and respectful.
  • Invite parents to ask questions and give them a platform to suggest goals they have for their child.
  • Take time toeducate the parents. Explain any special education jargon, provide them with resources, and connect them with other support programs such as translation services, if needed.
  • Let the parents know you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.
  • Create tool kits that provide parents with activities and resources to extend the learning into the home. The tool kits may also include tips and strategies for teaching their child or websites they can go to for additional activities or information.
  • Work with the parents to set realistic parent participation goals. They are the parent, not the teacher. Remember, the goal is quality, not quantity of involvement.

Create an Effective Communication System.

The goal of an effective communication system is to bridge the gap between home and school by providing a way to share concerns, successes, behavioral challenges, stressors, and changes.

There are many ways to implement such a system.  Choose the method that is simple and works best for you and the parent. The easier the system, the more it will be used.  And again, remember, quality of communication is more important than the quantity of communication.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Connect at the beginning of the year and ask parents what information they want. Perhaps you can come up with a checklist together, that’s easy to use and sends home meaningful information. The same goes the other way too. For example, create a checklist for things you want to know from home such as changes in sleep patterns, nutrition, or family relations.
  • Use a notebook that goes back and forth from home to school in the child’s backpack. You can report IEP progress or write anecdotes about the child’s day, etc. and the parent can write back questions or concerns. This can happen on a daily basis.
  • Many teachers use texts or email to communicate (check with the parents first for the most preferred method). They may find this less intrusive and intimidating than a phone call and allows the parents to think and respond on their schedule. If a phone call is necessary, perhaps send a text to say, “Can we set up a time to chat on the phone?”  This allows the parent to choose a time that works for them.
  • Schedule home visits, if appropriate.  This may help parents who lack transportation or have other circumstances that keep them from coming to school.

Create a Welcoming Climate.

Welcome your parents into your classroom in many ways and for many purposes.  The more you know your parents, the easier it is to work with them as partners.  Inviting parents into your classroom also provides an opportunity for family networking, bringing families together with other parents to share resources, empathy, and support.

Some ways to help parents to feel welcome in the classroom include:

  • Volunteering for special events and holiday parties, field trips, family and friends’ breakfasts, guest speakers, photo shares, parent presentations, etc.
  • Providing ways for parents to volunteer without having to come into the classroom, such as organizing and preparing materials that require cutting, collating, or stapling.
  • Volunteering to read to or with students or provide one-on-one assistance to students in the library or media center.
  • Inviting parents to attend presentations or view displays by the students or to school assemblies when appropriate.

So, as you set up for another successful school year, I encourage you to think about your parents as partners. You are the educator! You’re good at it! But reaching out to your students’ parents as partners will help you help your students and make your job a little bit easier!

United We Stand, Divided We Fall: Tips for Increasing Parental Engagement

Parental engagement in special education is crucial for student success both inside and outside of the classroom. However, barriers sometimes hinder parents from exercising their right to engage. The educational policy and laws surrounding special education can often be difficult for parents to understand and when not explained thoroughly, the assessment and Individualized Education Program process can be intimidating.

Some parents may also have to overcome negative experiences they’ve faced in their own academic career. In these cases, it is important for educators to provide parents with the right resources and support to become active participants in their child’s education. But like parents, educators too face engagement challenges. This is sometimes due to a lack of time for parent meetings or a lack of training on how to integrate parents into the school culture.

Parent engagement is an ongoing process and initial low levels of involvement may not necessarily mean that parents lack the will to be more engaged. Barriers to increased parent engagement often present an “Us vs. Them” mentality and result in an increase in stress and a decrease in student outcomes. In order for parents and educators to ensure that students are getting the most out of the special education process, they must find a common ground. So how do parents and educators overcome these barriers and work together?

The 3 Pillars of Success

1. Knowledge is power!

When parents go through the special education process with their child, it can sometimes feel like they are entering a new country or world. The culture and language is entirely new. This can be intimidating initially  and cause parents to shy away from engaging with the school. The more parents know about special education, the more likely they are to be involved in their child’s education.

2. Communication is key.

An open line of communication can help establish rapport between parents and educators. Just as educators share in student successes and challenges in the classroom, parents should be encouraged to share in their child’s successes and challenges at home. This will allow both parents and educators to see the full picture and help students strengthen weaknesses and enhance their skills. Educators can encourage an open line of communication by developing and maintaining a communication system. This can be accomplished by sending simple notes home to parents and encouraging parents to send their comments in as well. Parents and educators can also establish regular phone calls, or scheduling time to chat during parent-teacher meetings.

3. Consistency is crucial.

Students sometimes perform or behave differently at home than they do at school. For example, a student may be able to set the table at home, but not at school. Or a student may independently zip his coat at school, but fail to do so without assistance at home. In these instances, students struggle with the ability to generalize skills, which means they may not perform in the same way when our actions change.

Here are some examples of things that might change:

Following instructions: A student responds correctly to the question “What’s your address?” but not to the question “Where do you live?”

Identifying materials: A student is able to identify a plastic penny, but not an actual penny.

Responding to instructors: A student who learns to respond to a single person initially may not always comprehend how to respond to another instructor or approach that varies slightly. This is because different instructors may use different materials or phrase questions in different ways.

Applying skills in different locations: Initially, a student might learn to respond to instructions or a request in a single location. For example, the student may learn to line up in the classroom, but is unable to stand in line at a store. Different locations may also have different materials, expectations and instructors.

Following prompts: Parents and educators may prompt or assist students in different ways. For example, when teaching a student to complete a puzzle, a teacher might use hand-over-hand guidance to assist the student in placing a puzzle piece in a specific location, while mom might simply point to the puzzle piece.

Adjusting to expectations: Parents and educators may expect different results from students. For example, an educator may expect their child to zip his coat all the way with no assistance while a teacher expect a student to zip their coat part of the way with no assistance or all the way with some assistance.

Adhering to demands: The number of demands we place on a student might be different in different settings. For example, the student might be expected to complete multiple tasks in a row at school, but minimal tasks at home (or vice versa).

All of these differences may result in the student performing differently at home than he does at school. It is therefore crucial to keep things as consistent as possible. An open line of communication is a great way to ensure consistency across settings. Remember, parental engagement in special education is crucial to student success. When parents and educators work together, there is no limit to how much students can achieve.