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Special Ed Strategies: Be Clear, Be Proactive, Be Inventive

Communicating with special ed parents can decrease tension and lawsuits while improving student performance.

Administrators in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin don’t mind when parents of students with disabilities are vocal. In fact, they offer training for parents to be effective advocates for their children.

There are parent workshops—complete with free food and child care—to demystify individual education plans (IEPs), navigate federal disability benefits, and understand vocational rehabilitation, says John Harper, executive director of the district’s department of educational services.“Parents are an essential component to hold teachers accountable,” he says. “An informed citizenry is another way to get a higher performance level from staff.”Armed with training, a special education parent-advisory council, and involvement in a local inclusive education network, parents in Madison have put constant, positive pressure on the schools, says Harper.

And it’s something that administrators say has paid off. Of the Madison students with disabilities, 79 percent are considered “full inclusion.” Upon graduation, 85 percent with developmental disabilities have paid employment. There has been a dramatic reduction in legal action against the district and no due process or state-level complaints in three years.
“It’s common sense. The more you put out there proactively, the more questions you answer, the more comfortable parents are to pick up the phone and call you,” says Harper. “We’ve solved so many potential conflicts by being visible and available to parents.”

Districts that reach out with understanding at the beginning of the year, encourage exchange of information between school and home, and train teachers to communicate effectively can build strong family-school partnerships. Experts say it shouldn’t be something neglected in lean economic times. And research shows that cooperation can improve learning outcomes for students.

While special education has been mandated since 1975, inclusion has only been around for about a decade. For many veteran teachers and principals, this is a new population to understand, and training is needed, says George Guiliani, executive director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) and associate professor of education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

“We are in a country of inclusion. The days of exclusion are gone,” says Guiliani. “You have to be open to the idea of change—and it has to come from upward administration.”

Communicating effectively with any parent is vital, but particularly with parents of students with disabilities. Since families know their child best, they can provide insights to teachers. And, if a good rapport is developed, parents can support learning at home.

Students with disabilities can’t always advocate for themselves, so they rely on their parents to ensure that their individual needs are being met, says Beth Swedeen, a parent of a child with a disability in Madison who serves on the school’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council. “When our kids do get the right support, it can be a night-and-day difference from when they get the wrong type,” she says.

The IEP can’t happen without the parent, says Laura Hamby, program specialist in curriculum and instruction for the visually and hearing impaired with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools in North Carolina. “It is truly a team process. No one person makes a decision. It takes all of us to figure out what’s best for the child.”

Reducing Parent Frustration
So if everyone is looking out for a child with a disability, why is there often conflict?

“There is a tug-of-war between the parent wanting it all and schools looking at resources,” says Lisa Dieker, professor of exceptional education at the University of Central Florida, who has a child with a disability. “When I get in those meetings, my mother heart leads me."

Parents get frustrated when schools discount their expertise and say they are unrealistic, says Barbara Trader, executive director of TASH , a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for inclusion of people with disabilities. “Parents want schools to be champions for their kids and appreciate their kids as kids first, not just a diagnosis label,” she says. Many of these parents are single, live in poverty, and, if their child is not placed in a neighborhood school, have transportation challenges. “School districts need to understand the life situation that a lot of our people face,” says Trader. “Compassion is critically important.”

At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, students in the department of specialized education services are required to take a course in working with families that is co-taught by a parent of a child with a disability.

“It adds real life,” says department chair Marilyn Friend, who is also president of the Council for Exceptional Children . “The parents talk about what the medical side of their life is like, the complexity of the family dynamic, the personal stress, and also the joys they experience.” The hope is that these new teachers will be more tolerant and open as a result of the exposure.Many teachers today did not grow up sitting in class next to students with disabilities, says Dieker. “We now need teachers who are disability natives. We fear things we don’t understand.” Schools need to help teachers feel more comfortable accepting whatever kind of student comes through their door and see it as a learning experience, not a challenge, says Dieker.

How Administrators Can Help
Administrators can’t assume that parents will come to meetings or be kept in the loop by teachers. Experts suggest establishing a communication policy that outlines, for instance, how quickly phone calls and e-mails should be returned.“Parents don’t get upset if their children aren’t doing well,” says Guiliani. “It’s when nothing was done by the teacher to notify them early on that [their child wasn’t] doing well.” The Houston Independent School District recently began routing all calls from parents of children with special needs to Gregory Finora, special education parent liaison with the district.

“It allows one person to keep track of everything, so nothing gets misplaced,” Finora says. He then follows up with the appropriate campus to help resolve complaints about unanswered evaluation requests, transportation issues or behavior concerns.

When a parent calls, Finora puts the student’s name into a database, and background information pops up while he is talking to the parent. He then types notes into the file that will be shared with all parties.

Houston has also trained its teachers to listen closely to the words and body language when talking to parents about their child’s needs during the IEP process. It’s complicated, and teachers should not assume parents understand everything, says Finora. Teachers are also coached to probe by asking, “What would you like me to do?” or “Is there anything else on your mind?”

There has to be genuine caring on the part of the teacher and the school to connect with parents, says Debbie Schuler, administrator of instructional services at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind . “There is always this big push to be a family-friendly school. But you have to train your school culture. Do you only want parents to bring in cupcakes, or do you really want them there?”

In addition to training, Friend suggests asking parents of students with disabilities to be part of the overall efforts of the school, such as serving on the improvement planning or curriculum committee. When their voices are at the table as critical decisions are made, it helps builds understanding, she says.

Start Communication Early
“We want to hear positive things about progress, not just when there’s a problem,” says Swedeen, whose child with a disability is now 18. Before the school year starts, invite parents of students with disabilities to visit the school. Seeing the environment is safe and orderly can put parents and students at ease and be the foundation for good teacher-parent rapport. Or start even earlier. At the end of the school year, students at Ritzman Community Learning Center , a K–5 school in Akron, Ohio, visit their next year’s classroom, while parents attend a health fair in the gym and meet other parents. To keep in touch, the school hosts a “Summer Surprise” in July featuring books, math games, community resources, and a disc jockey playing music for families.

These ideas were the result of a survey of parents that revealed the school was weak in communications, says Principal Larry Bender. Other new practices include a weekly recorded phone call from the principal about upcoming events, a daily communication sheet from teachers that requires a parent signature, and parent-involvement nights.

The 345-student school has 50 students with disabilities, including about 30 who are deaf or hard of hearing, so all of these activities include sign-language interpreters. “The parents of the hearing-impaired students are woven right in. We don’t separate them,” says Bender. “Many parents expressed that they love being part of it just like everyone else.”
The result of the school’s ramped-up outreach: Attendance at school events is up by about 30 percent and more parents are volunteering. The improvement in the follow-up survey this year was met with cheers at the staff meeting, says Bender.

Adapting Tactics for Older Students
By middle school, communication can be trickier with parents, as students are expected to be more independent, says Lindsey Engels, a special education teacher at Liberty Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia. At the beginning of the year, Engels phones parents of every student in her class to introduce herself and see if they have questions. “It lets them know I am forward-thinking,” she says.

At back-to-school night, Engels has parents fill out forms about their children, and she follows up with those who do not attend. For her families that speak Korean and Spanish, she gets an interpreter. She communicates throughout the year by e-mail and appreciates when parents let her know when there are issues that might affect the kids at school. “We try to form a plan that is proactive, rather than reactive,” says Engels. “It’s about trust and honesty.”

While parents may have been very involved in earlier grades, by high school many of them feel defeated and aren’t as tuned in to their child’s education, says Dawn Bosuzek, special education facilitator at Metro High School, an alternative high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where 30 percent of students have a disability. It’s much harder to restart communications with parents at this stage, she says, but it’s not impossible.

To foster communication, teachers at Metro make home visits to see the student’s environment and to talk with parents in a more familiar place. “We try to focus on what the kid is doing well in school, even if it’s just showing up,” says Bosuzek. Teachers also connect learning with real life and jobs to motivate students to work hard.

In an IEP meeting, Metro students participate and are first asked about their strengths and interests, with parents then adding their input. When the team can see where the gaps are in experience or learning, a plan can be crafted, says Bosuzek.

Leverage Today’s Technology
Not all parents can make every school event, especially at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, which draws students from across the state. So the school uses live streaming video of the deaf dance group’s performances, the drama production by the blind students, and choral concerts.

“It’s one of the best things we’ve done,” says Schuler. “We get calls from grandparents and third cousins in Arkansas. It helps the family see what they are doing.” The four parent meetings that the schools hosts each year are interactive and broadcast online, as well.

Taking away excuses, or overcoming them through technology, also helps to boost parental input. Every teacher is required to have a Web page to post homework assignments, photos, and videos of what’s happening in class, Schuler adds. Parent newsletters are handed directly from the bus chaperones to the parents when students come home so they don’t get lost in a backpack, adds the administrator.

In addition, Schuler says that 97 percent of parents participate in the IEP conference, which sometimes is done by videoconference.

Harper says the schools in Madison recognize that IEP meetings can be intimidating for parents when they are surrounded by professionals. In their training for parents, they break down the parts of the process and explain the terms.
“For many, the IEP process is a big annual meeting that they get nervous about,” says Swedeen. “You hear a lot of technical jargon.” It’s better viewed merely as a plan for a child to be successful and something that is an ongoing process, she says.

Guiliani of NASET agrees that not all IEP planning sessions go smoothly. When a parent is upset, he says, it’s important for educators to listen and not be defensive. “Then you say, ‘Here’s what we need to do. Let’s collaborate and work together to solve the problem.’ Then the school has to follow through. Let the parent feel they’ve been heard.”
Parents want teachers to believe in their kids, no matter how severe their disability, says Trader of TASH. It’s important for schools to look at young students as potential adults who need to develop the same skills as other students to be independent and productive as adults.

“Kids who succeed have bulldogs as parents. They won’t take no for an answer,” says Trader. They expect a lot from their kids, have a vision, and can communicate that effectively and fairly, she says. “Those kids end up employed and on their own."

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