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Parental involvement and special-needs students

New York Teacher

As a teacher of children with intellectual disabilities, speech and language impairments and autism, I have always been intrigued by the home-school relationship and the role it plays in the academic success of children with special needs.

When working on my doctoral degree in educational psychology, I embarked on a journey to explore the home-school connection, its challenges and the most effective ways to initiate it. I undertook a qualitative study that included 10 teachers of children with autism. I found clear evidence that parent-teacher collaboration improves learning in special-needs students.

Teachers of children with autism gain a special connection to their students and open a unique channel of communication.

Collaboration not only helps promote positive behavior, but it can also help reduce challenging behaviors. For example, I had a student who enjoyed hearing the sound he could make when he slammed a door. My colleagues and I attempted different interventions to discourage him from door-slamming. When we reached out to the child’s mother, we discovered he spent a large portion of his time at home slamming doors. With this knowledge and his mother’s involvement and support, we designed an intervention plan and implemented it both in his home and at school. With the same intervention being used in both places, we were able to drastically reduce the troublesome behavior.

The home-school connection also leads to greater academic success for special-needs children as the professionals around them gain a better understanding of factors that have an impact on their learning. If something is interfering with a child’s ability to learn — such as the seating arrangement in class, a specialized diet, hypersensitivities or even lack of sleep the night before — the teacher and other school staff ought to be made aware of it.

Collaboration gives parents an opportunity to reinforce skills taught in the classroom. Children with autism feel more secure and display less anxiety when their parents are involved in their schooling. Home-school collaboration begins when a teacher reaches out to the parent to foster a connection and establish communication. Some of the ways that teachers can try to involve parents include sending home projects; reaching out via phone, text or email; or using an online communication notebook in which teachers and parents can write notes to each other.

You will sometimes face challenges when you set out to establish a collaborative relationship with the parents of your special-needs students. Sometimes parents refuse to collaborate because they are in denial about their child’s diagnosis and abilities. Other parents find it difficult to find time in their busy schedules to get involved. In order to work through these challenges, teachers must encourage collaboration according to each parent’s individual abilities. Teachers can learn so much from every moment shared with a parent, whether it’s at drop-off, pickup, an IEP meeting or a parent-teacher conference.

If you find yourself in a situation where parents are reluctant to engage with you, there are multiple ways to encourage them. You can send home samples of the child’s work or notes about activities or make a weekly or biweekly phone call home. If you aren’t making any headway, take advantage of the parent-teacher conferences to discuss how to strengthen the connection.

I’d like to share a story about one student with autism who displayed challenging behaviors both in school and at home. His mom knew that he exhibited those behaviors but preferred to leave it to the school’s judgments and expertise to deal with it. She sometimes even forgot to let her son’s teachers know about a change in medication or routine. When the teacher tried to call or wrote notes home, the mother did not respond.

At parent-teacher conferences, the teacher was thrilled to see the student’s mom walk through the door. It was the perfect opportunity to explain the situation and the importance of the home-school collaboration. The teacher shared prompting words, checklists and behavior-modification strategies with the mother. After two weeks of follow-up conversations, the boy’s behavior improved dramatically.

It is important for teachers to seize every opportunity to ensure that parents are on board as active team players in their child’s education.