Connecting with Parents of Special Education Students
by Sally Novak
Before the marriage, couples are often reminded, “You marry and you inherit a whole new family.” This is not just true of marriages. Many a teacher has finished a parent conference and tells his/her peers, “Now I know where this child’s behavior or attitude comes from.”
That parental connection is even more pronounced if your students are classified with a special education IEP (Individual Educational Plan). These parents are more worried, more embarrassed, more defensive or guiltier than the average parent. They, like all parents, pay too much attention or too little. Unlike all parents, they do not usually have a peer group with whom they can dialogue about their child’s unique learning or social problems. Sometimes they are not even able to talk to each other or to the child’s siblings. There is a tremendous emotional drain at home. The divorce rate for parents of special needs children is much higher than the average divorce rate.
Regular Ed teachers or Special Ed teachers with limited experience often do not know how to cope with the child or the parents. Administrators, even those who head Child Study Teams, are even farther removed from the child’s reality. What we don’t always realize is that troublesome children are often extremely bright. They simply learn differently or at a different rate.
Although I had warm, personal connections with my students, it took me many years in the Special Ed classroom to realize that it wasn’t just the kids who were lonely and feeling left out. Their parents did too. The normal fifteen-minute conference several times a year was certainly not doing the job. The twenty-minute IEP conference with several intimidating professionals was filled with jargon and legalese. None of these situations were emotionally supportive to families. There seems to be a need to fight for each increment of support for their child.
I finally arranged with the parents to have a special conference that could last up to an hour. Many took advantage of this offer, and I learned from their experiences. For example, they helped me to understand problems their children were having with homework. I was then able to adjust assignments, and as a result, children felt more successful and parents less frustrated.
At the same time, I was able to suggest study techniques such as use of a time. Parents or children could set the timer for 10 or 20 minutes and then attempt to concentrate fully. When the timer went off, children could do jumping jacks, have an apple, watch a 15-minute cartoon or other relaxation technique. Coming back to the task was usually easier after such a break.
During these conferences, I explained important information about the impact of diet, sugar, chemical additives as well as the impact of medication. Since parents are usually resistant to medicating their children, I stressed to them the importance of a trial period if a doctor suggested this avenue. The parent and I would make a checklist. The items on the list depended upon what the child’s needs were. Usually it had to do with concentration, but sometimes it had to do with how other children triggered their child’s behavior. When a child began taking medicine, parents would use the checklist over the course of a month to see if they noticed a positive difference or not. In this way, they had input over whether or not the medicine was working and could discuss their child’s needs more intelligently.
Years ago, I had hoped to develop a cadre of parents who could meet and share their yearnings and struggles. When I asked to have a special evening gathering, my administrator said that was impossible because another professional would need to be present. Certainly, the Special Education office staff could not be expected to “donate” three hours in the evening. Fortunately, and much to my surprise, Barbara, a regional Special Education staff member came for a regular observation of my class. She asked if there was anything her office could do to enhance the effectiveness of my class. I explained that I wanted a parent evening and how my efforts had failed. She was willing to participate in our first gathering.
Barbara and I planned a mutually convenient evening and she obtained permission for us to be in the building. I mailed home welcoming letters and asked the parents to return an anonymous question that we would put into a hat and discuss at random. In my class of eight, seven families were able to attend and with many, it was mom and dad or a grandparent that attended. We welcomed them with refreshments as I introduced our regional specialist. This also gave them some time to greet and meet each other. We provided a circle in the middle of our class with adult size chairs. I explained that we would pull questions and comments from the hat but I started with a question of my own. “When your child returns from school, what is the most frequent and difficult problem that they/you face?” Parents spoke of the difficulties that occur in unstructured time, lunch room and playground. They spoke of the frustrations involving homework both in my class and the classes into which some of them were integrated.
The evening was joyful, serious and exciting. We were finally asked to leave by the custodian who needed to lock up the building. It was so meaningful that they wanted to meet again. Since my school’s Special Education Office had no interest in supporting such an effort, and since Barbara was not available to attend future meetings, I went to a local church and borrowed their lovely living room for four other gatherings.
Sometimes we just used the questions in the hat process that had worked well the first evening. Sometimes I brought in articles from professional magazines or work sheets with techniques for managing communication both with the child and with the Child Study Team. It was important to teach the parents how to approach the Child Study Team as a positive and eager participant in their child’s education. Nothing could be gained by approaching the team with anger and aggressiveness. It helped for the parents to provide ideas that the staff could actually try. Once again, I learned from them. They wanted me to keep a list of questions and requests so that meetings were more efficient. One parent wanted ways for the children to socialize with regular students. I spoke with other teachers to see if we could find suitable companions.
As a result of these meetings, parents were more comfortable relating to the Child Study Team and with other staff. They also developed some friendships with one another, thus enabling them to help each other when problems arose.
Meeting with parents individually for longer sessions and setting up the after school group gatherings took extra time to organize and implement. However, it was well worth it, for as communication improved, I became a better teacher, and parents learned new skills to help their children.