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.

Techniques for teaching complex skills to children with special needs

Have you ever written a shopping list for the upcoming weeks groceries and then forgot to bring it with you to the store? If so, you will know how difficult it is to remember everything that was on the list.  The same is true when we have to remember significant amounts of information for an exam or a test.

For children with special needs; remembering all of the steps to a skill such as washing their hands or following a daily schedule can be a similar challenge.

The good news is that there is an evidence-based tool called a “task analysis” that we can use to break any complex tasks into a sequence of smaller steps or actions to help our children learn and become more independent.

 

Task analyses can take on many forms depending on how your child learns.

The examples below show written lists for how to complete tooth brushing:

If you are working with children who can read and understand directions, you can use a task analysis that has a lot of detail, such as this example for doing laundry.

If your child is unable to read, task analyses can be made using just picture cards or actual photographs to illustrate the steps of a skill. These examples following a morning routine, riding in the car and using a stapler:

 

How do I create a Task Analysis?

Here are the steps to take to create a task analysis to help your child:

  1. Physically complete all of the steps of the skill yourself
  2. Do the skill again and write down each step as you do it
  3. Compile all the steps into a sequence using words, pictures or both that your child will be able to understand and use to help them learn

There is no set number of steps to a skill.  Some children will require the skill broken down into many small steps to be able to be successful, others may require less steps. You can decide how many steps will be needed for your child to learn.

 

How do I know if my child is learning?

You can observe your child to see if they are making progress, however having a little bit of data will show you exactly how fast your child is progressing and which steps are being mastered, as well as which steps may need more learning attention.  To take data, you would note if the child completed each step correctly (independently) or incorrectly (needed help).   Here is an example for a simple data collection sheet for getting dressed:

 

Date:

March 3rd

Describe Step Did the child complete independently?

(Yes or No)

Step 1 Take off PJ’s Yes
Step 2 Put on underwear Yes
Step 3 Put on pants Yes
Step 4 Put on shirt No
Step 5 Put on socks No
Step 6 Put on shoes No
50% Correct

 

For more resources and information about using a task analysis:

 

The tools every district needs to design, deliver and monitor evidence-based practices in special education. (2015). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from http://www.rethinkfirst.com/

Developing Life Skills: How to Teach A Skill. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from http://www.tacanow.org/family-resources/developing-lifeskills-how-to-teach-a-skill/

Printable Picture Cards. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from http://www.do2learn.com/picturecards/printcards/index.htm

Says, R., Says, C., Says, J., & Says, D. W. (2015, August 27). What You Need to Know About Task Analysis and Why You Should Use It. Retrieved March 10, 2017, from http://www.autismclassroomresources.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-task-analysis-and-why-you-should-use-it/