5 Things Every Parent Needs to Hear

In my region we have all of our IEP meetings in the spring and we call it Annual Review season. This varies from district to district, as some districts schedule Annual Reviews on the child's anniversary date as listed on their IEP.

Any special education teacher can tell you, it takes about 6-8 weeks to gather data, meet with parents and draft the IEP. By the time the Committee on Special Education (CSE) meets, most of the child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) has already been discussed and agreed upon between the parents and the teacher. This can be a really stressful time of year for special education teachers but also a very rewarding time. The work load of writing IEPs is overwhelming and there is little time compensation offered in comparison to how much time one IEP actually takes to draft. However, it can be rewarding to meet with parents and discuss their child's strengths and weaknesses.

If you're just starting out in the world of special education (or any education), you will quickly learn that special education can sometimes feel like 80% working with parents and 20% working with students. I remember one day talking to a general education teacher friend of mine and discovering that it wasn't normal for her to communicate with parents daily. I don't know life any other way. Parents of students with disabilities are unique because their family is facing challenges that some of us will never experience. And they know that. They know that you may say you understand but you really don't because you've never walked in their shoes. Many of them have faced these challenges since the day their child was born.

I've worked with families who have been treated poorly by former schools, who have worried about their child's well-being and gone to great lengths to ensure that their child is where she belongs. I've worked with parents of non-verbal children who are terrified that their child will be voiceless in the world. I have worked with parents with advocates and parents who speak other languages. I've worked with foster parents, adoptive parents and grandparents. Regardless of the makeup of the family, all of these families have one thing in common: their babies are their whole world. I have a sign on my classroom door that reads Every child in this room is somebody's whole world. It's an important thing to remember when you're feeling burdened by teaching and working with parents. You may see a class, they only see their baby.

A seasoned social worker and dear friend of mine once told me that having a child with a disability can sometimes cause parents to go through many of the same stages as the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. This wisdom has helped me weather the storm with many parents who are experiencing different stages. I often ask myself "What stage is this parent going through and how can I meet them there and make it better?" We can't always break through that barrier, but sometimes you're the closest person to understanding the child. If you've ever helped a parent reach acceptance, you know how powerful and rewarding it can be. It's like the skies open up and you can see the child's future unfold together.

Working with parents has been associated with the high amount of turnover in special education, but it also is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. As I reflect on my relationships with parents over the years, these are the five things that I believe it is our duty as special educators to communicate when working with parents.

Everyone makes progress. Not in the same way or in the same day, but everyone makes progress. It can be frustrating in a culture of standardized tests and accountability that you may not be able to show academic leaps and bounds that the rest of the country expects. Special education teachers often look for the little victories. The daily wins. Progress is progress and it doesn't have to be academic. Parents need to hear that their child is improving in some way. They just want to know that you see the good in their child. Find a positive and make it matter, because it does. It does matter that the child used to need 4 reminders to start working and now he only needs 2. That's progress!

Parents need to hear about their child's strengths. What are they good at? What do you love about their child? Are they a good helper? Do they love music? Do they follow directions well? Are they organized? Keep a list of strengths in the child's folder so you can refer to it before you meet with parents. As the school year goes on, add to the list as you notice those strengths and progress. Parents will be grateful to hear that you notice all of the things they are good at.
This can be the toughest part of communicating with parents, but it is crucial. You have to be straightforward and honest with parents about what their child is working on and how they can develop. You might get push back, you might get blamed or you might open up a great conversation about how the child struggles with the same thing at home. If you are truly doing what's best for the child, you are discussing weaknesses and developing a plan to improve together.
This is so important! If parents know you love their child, they will work with you to no end. They will trust you and support you because they know you support them. If you love their child, most likely their child loves you too and the parents know that as well. Be clear with the parent that you care about their child and want to do what's best for him.  I try to make it clear to parents that we are on the same team.
This is the most important of all. Parents have to know you LIKE their child. You may love your students, but you have to make it known that you like your students.
It's not uncommon for me to start a parent phone call by telling a cute story about the child and ending with "I just love her, thank you for sharing her with me." Who doesn't love hearing a cute story about their child?

How do you communicate with parents? What have been your successes and failures when working parents?

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