While giving special education to the students with special needs, it is important to be in communication with parents. Here is a guide for teachers: how to be in contact with parents and which ways to follow.
Working with parents has long been precarious territory for teachers of all subjects and age groups. Finding that delicate communication balance between under- or over-involved parents is paramount to better student progress, parental satisfaction, and everyone’s peace-of-mind. Teachers with special education students in particular will have more contact with parents via the IEP meeting and process. We have put together a quick guide to help you have stress-free and productive interactions with your students’ parents.
Teachers, Parents, and the IEP
The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) promotes collaboration between schools and parents. Teachers with students who qualify for Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) spend more time in contact with parents; parents are part of the IEP team and will likely require supplemental progress reports and behavioral updates throughout the school year. The IEP team consists of individuals who have important roles in the creation and implementation of an IEP. Parents and teachers are integral members of this team who will shape much of the plan’s content and pace.
Helping Parents Help Teachers
The first rule to keep in mind is that everyone is on the same side and has the same goal: to act as advocates for the student and to make sure the student receives a quality education and develops skills that pave the way for success. Parents are handy resources for teachers; parents are able to fill in information and context gaps about the student. For example, parents offer insight into how students act at home, how they study, their favorite subjects or activities, social interactions, and personal interests and goals. This input allows the IEP team—and teachers especially—to craft an effective plan that caters to the student on not only the educational but also social and behavioral levels.
Schools are also helpful to parents. Students often act differently in a classroom setting, which means that parents usually are not witness to how their child navigates a structured educational curriculum. Routines, peer interactions, diverse activities, and new rules frequently elicit new behaviors in children that are otherwise absent at home. Regarding learning disabilities in particular, teachers are often the first ones to notice if a student is struggling. Teachers are also frequent recommenders for students to undergo evaluations for disabilities.
Healthy communication is the principal factor for better understanding and progress. It is an unfortunate fact that teachers and parents sometimes fail to establish collaborative relationships, particularly for families with different cultural backgrounds or who are among the low-economic strata. If a student’s background is not acknowledged, the parents’ ability to contribute to their child’s educational experience is diminished.
School districts usually provide communication-specific training for teachers who are working closely with parents. Another option that has shown positive results is joint parent-teacher training sessions. According to Bright Hub Education, training parents and teachers together fosters “more positive attitudes and higher expectations of students, which is strongly correlated with student success. Training sessions offer the potential for a reciprocated increase in awareness and compassion between school professionals and parents.”
Training helps both parents and teachers to develop skills for dealing with conflict and disagreement. Building and honing positive communication tactics minimize misunderstandings, increase empathy and sensitivity, and lead to greater efficiency in drafting plans and agreements. Teachers and parents should feel that they are being supported not only by the school district itself but by each other as well.
Modes of Communication
Students with parents who are actively involved in their child’s education have overall better academic results, consistent attendance, improved social interactions, fewer incidents of risky behavior, and higher goals for post-secondary education or training. Teachers can encourage more frequent and meaningful parental involvement by taking the initiative—either through the IEP or on their own—to establish regular communication. While some parents may have clear ideas on when and how they prefer to communicate with teachers, there may be a trial-and-error period during which the frequency and the most effective platform are established.
Email. In this day and age, the preferable form of communication between teachers and parents is email. Email is not only convenient, but it also provides an automatic paper trail that can easily be accessed in the event of documentation, conflict, or progress reporting. The pitfall of email messages is that they can be misunderstood since they do not specify your tone of voice or body language. For this reason, it is best to use a consistent template when writing email messages; employing lists or sections, for example. One benefit of email is that teachers can copy other individuals, particularly school administrators or other educators, which keeps the lines of communication open.
Phone. Some parents may not have access to email, only use email for work, or may simply prefer not to receive messages this way. In these cases, the next option is communication by telephone. Phone conversations can be scheduled either at regular intervals or on special occasions. For the latter, it is tactical for teachers to begin the conversations with some good news about the student; this can be related to the student’s overall progress or a simple comment on something positive. Since phone calls from schools are, more-often-than-not, associated with bad news (the student is in trouble, for example), it is important for teachers to try and dispel this negative correlation. Regular phone calls help parents and teachers plan for the expected, either by gathering notes or preparing questions. Teachers should follow-up each phone call with a written record, which can be a brief summary of the phone call for your records and/or an email or note to the parents.
Traveling Materials. Traveling folders, take-home binders, or communication notebooks are all tools that “travel” between the school and home via the student. The general gist is that there is a physical method of communication between teachers and parents that can be supplemented with materials. A teacher might designate one side of a traveling folder for completed assignments, classroom work, or homework as evidence of the student’s progress or parental input. The other side can be used for comments or a daily “Home Note” that includes the teacher’s input and space for the parents to respond. Using traveling materials is a great option for motivating parents to keep tabs on their child’s education. It is also an opportunity to build trust with the student and to bring them into the conversation between you and their parents.
Home Visits. Home visits are another option for establishing positive contact with parents. For teachers who are determined, home visits have the benefit of putting the parents at ease since the conversation is held in a place in which they feel comfortable. It also gives teachers insight into a student’s home environment. Going to a student’s home requires many levels of consideration, including increased flexibility around work schedules and awareness of any language or cultural differences. Visits should center around building a positive relationship with parents, offering support, and listening to their questions and concerns. As with phone calls, teachers should take notes during the visits and keep a written record.
Apps. Tech-savvy teachers and parents may prefer to stay in contact via one of the many teacher-parent communication support apps currently available. The Remind app is one such platform that caters to schools, teachers, and parents. This well-known and highly regarded app boasts convenient ways to message, send updates, set reminders, and receive notifications. Bloomz, another app, offers photo and video sharing, class calendars, behavior tracking, and a slew of other benefits. Two additional apps, Sesame and Seesaw: The Learning Journal, are portfolio apps that track and analyze a student’s progress. While these apps focus more on student assessment rather than communication, they do offer messaging options, allowing you to connect with parents and offer them insight into their child’s academic successes and weaknesses by sharing data directly.
Greater Understanding Strategies
For many teachers, working with parents evokes a sense of unease. Some parents do not take criticism well; some may be nervous or have difficulty understanding, while others may appear aloof and uninvolved. The following strategies can help improve the parent-teacher relationship and foster productive communication.
Do your research. Make appointments to talk with the student’s current or former teachers and counselors. This way you can get an idea of the student-teacher and parent-teacher dynamic beforehand. If you have an idea of what to expect, you can better craft questions or concerns to bring up at the IEP meeting or with the parents directly on your own.
Be mindful of restrictions. Parents may work odd hours or have limited access to transport, making it difficult for them to maintain consistent communication, particularly in-person communication like parent-teacher conferences. Come up with a plan for how to stay in touch via phone, email, or with an app.
Sometimes report cards are just not enough. A table of final grades can leave parents confused. Without context, they may not understand why their child received a certain grade, or they may automatically feel that the grades are unfair. Whether or not a student falls under the IEP umbrella, it is always a good idea to get a measure of the parents’ understanding of the curriculum, grading rubric, and academic progress.
Use translation services when needed. When parents are non-native English speakers or struggle with the English language, there is a greater chance of miscommunication and frustration. Schools should provide adequate translation services to both parties—teacher and parents—to help with interval communication and deciphering report cards. If you have regular contact with parents who require translation services, try employing a third-party app like TalkingPoints, which advertises easy-to-use multilingual texting tools.
Criticism is hard to swallow, especially for a parent whose child is struggling. Edutopia suggests following a strict framework when presenting not-so-great feedback: context, observations, emotions, value, and input. “First, name the context—the time and place—where the problem occurs, like during small-group interactions. Next, share specific and objective observations about what happened. Then describe how the student’s actions impact others … and why that matters. Lastly, ask parents of input on how the issue can be resolved productively.” This process encourages parents to see themselves as proactive members of their child’s educational team.
There are always outliers in any situation, and the teacher-parent relationship is no different. Some parents may be consistently upset, inconsolable, or difficult. If you receive especially harsh feedback from a parent, it may be helpful to draft any responses with a colleague so they can check your diction and tone. Parents can be angry, aggressive, or inaccurate when communicating with you. Keep your answers mild and professional, but do not be afraid to stand your ground and make it clear that you will not tolerate verbal abuse from parents, either in the form of profanity or name-calling. For these extreme scenarios, you may need to escalate to a school administer. Refer the parent to the administrator, and notify the administrator immediately that the parent will be getting in touch.