3 Ways Parents and Educators Can Work Together to Support Children With Special Needs

Ask a superintendent about parental engagement, and you will likely hear sincere optimism about the role, responsibility, and commitment to open, transparent, two-way communication. Ask a superintendent about the experiences they envision, expect and desire for each student, and you will probably hear much of the same. However, when pressed to be specific about students with special needs, the answers might seem, well, less certain or hopeful.

Please don’t misread this as disparaging towards educators; it is not meant to be. Rather, it is from personal experience as a superintendent that I felt, in many cases, inadequate and unprepared to provide a thoughtful, informed response that didn’t come across as trite or pithy.

It’s not that I didn’t care or consider each of our students as important, valued and certainly worthy of our very best — day in and day out. It was more a matter of not knowing what I didn’t know. In my 35 years of public service and less than three in the private sector, my awareness, understanding and knowledge of what our students with disabilities experience became better informed through open communication. To that end, I offer insight into the parent-teacher relationships I hope special needs families can experience while in our care.

1. Allies, not adversaries.

For parents of students with disabilities and their educators, I believe it is extremely important for advocacy to create allies, not adversaries. This mindset must be first and foremost in each interaction between educators and parents or learner guardians.

Alliances can balance strengths and weaknesses or, possibly better put, assets and deficits. Parents bring a unique and profound knowledge about their child, whereas educators possess a unique and profound knowledge about teaching and learning. In an alliance, there is an inherent need, commitment and obligation to transparency, grounded in constant and consistent communication.

A parent’s knowledge about their child is instrumental to equipping our educators with the information they need to meet the unique needs of each student.

There are two steps I believe should be taken to effectively transfer knowledge from parents to educators: 1) Educators must seek first to understand before being understood by the parent, and 2) They must hear each question from the parent as if hearing it for the very first time, regardless of how many times it may have been asked before.

2. Share experiences — ask (and answer) questions.

While each individual student is equally important, educators work with several students in a given day. As my experience validated, the most conscientious, caring and committed educator may not always have the same information or experience with your child that you would like them to have.

Questions are our friends, and questions can help us clarify our thinking. Whether educators ask or not, I believe parents should always offer an answer to this: “Tell me something about your daughter/son that will help me better meet her/his learning needs.”

3. Building dreams, together.

I want to affirm that the highest aspirations and biggest dreams parents have for their children are important to us. Educators can often see the possibilities, the potentials, and sometimes certain realities that many parents know in their heart of hearts, but that may be challenging to acknowledge. I hope parents can trust educators to bring out the best in their children while they learn and grow within the classroom environment.

The aspirations that parents have for their children with disabilities must not be discounted, discouraged, or dismissed. In my experience, educators are often optimistic and hopeful of improvement. To that end, I hope parents can share a sense of growth and improvement towards their children’s goals in the classroom, as well as the dreams their children have for their futures.

I am confident and remain steadfast that parents and educators as allies can create an enduring partnership, leading to a greater sense of trust, transparency and progress towards meeting or exceeding the expectations and needs of each student.

Image via Thinkstock.

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