Dear Teachers, Dear Parents: How to bridge the communication gap

Dear Teachers, Dear Parents: How to bridge the communication gap

I am a parent of two children with special needs, and a special education teacher. I have been working in the field of special needs for 15 years, and currently teach teachers about special education. One of the keystones of special education is communication, I hope this article helps you –parent or teacher – communicate effectively during the coming school year.

This article is in two parts – one for parents and one for teachers. Please be sure to read about what the other side should be doing!

Dear Teachers,

How many of you cringe at those notes from home, maybe written in red ink, to underscore how you’ve messed up again? How many of you groan aloud when you see that one parent’s phone number in your call display? How many of you feel your heart race and breathing quicken when you see that one parent’s phone number in your call display, your chest pounding as though you are going into war?

What happened?

Communication breakdown.

Once you’ve reached this point the relationship between parent and teacher/school is heavily battered and bruised. How can we turn it around? With time and effort. Imagine turning around a battleship – you move slowly, inch by inch to where you want to go. But, it also takes a whole crew to move it.

How can we prevent communication breakdown?

This part is easy – we can prevent it by communicating.

As a teacher you may need to remind yourself that you are responsible for setting the course your student’s education. Much that will happen that will be beyond your control, and may actually be beyond the control of the parent or even the school principal. I recall the advice from a wise faculty of education instructor, as he addressed a lecture hall filled with fresh-faced teachers: if ever you feel like a tiny cog in a huge machine, it’s because you are. This is true for teachers, parents, and students.

What you can control are your actions and your words.

By this point you might notice that parents and teachers experience similar things – in fact the relationship is like two sides of the same coin. The student is the coin. Flip one way, the child is at school. Flip another, the child is at home. BOTH SIDES are responsible for communicating. Hopefully everyone has the student’s interests at heart.

So how can you ensure your student’s special needs are met at school?

Open the door to communication. One of the best pieces of teaching advice I ever got was to do ‘sunshine calls’ – these are phone calls the teacher makes in the early days of school to let parents know what a great job their child is doing in whatever area they are doing. I’ve made calls about kids doing a great job settling into the classroom routines, talking to peers, great artwork, etc… The whole point is to keep it positive and open that door to communication.

As a teacher you should do sunshine calls for your WHOLE class. Trust me, it might seem like a huge amount of work, but it will pay off very quickly. Your students will realize you care about them. They also realize that you are in contact with their parents. This will help with tremendously class management. Please do this even for older grades – I do this for my high school students (grades 9-12). I cannot say enough about how well this strategy works.

Do your whole class’ sunshine calls within the first couple weeks of school. (If I’m worried about the student misbehaving, I do sunshine calls on the first day, before they have a chance to be ‘bad’. The focus of a sunshine call is about starting a relationship on a positive note.) For those students who may misbehave regularly, remember to make regular calls home to talk about the good those kids do. If you cannot find something good they have done, please re-consider your program. There should be something even a ‘behaviour’ student is good at in their day. Trust me on this one, I’ve taught students with serious behaviour exceptionalities. If they cannot do at least one ‘good’ thing a day, the program is wrong for them.

What do you say in a sunshine call? Be pleasant – this is about SUNSHINE! Keep it short. This is only about opening doors, not a full-blown case conference.

A good sunshine telephone call outline is as follows:

Introduce yourself, talk about one positive thing the student has experienced so far, and tell the parent your preferred way of communicating (phone, email, notes).

That’s it. That is the sunshine call in a nutshell.

For children with special needs, regular home-school communication is vital. As a teacher, I strongly encourage you to set up a system for on-going communication. A simple notebook labelled ‘communication book’ where school letters are stapled in (to be removed by the parent) and daily notes are recorded is very effective. This notebook is sent home daily in the child’s backpack. Please ensure this is initialled by the teacher or TA daily so parents know that their communication has been received, even though you may not have time to reply.

If your student has limited verbal ability please provide detailed information about their day so parents can communicate with their child. As a parent it is heartbreaking to have no idea what your child has done all day or if they are even happy at school. Teachers, please ensure parents have a descriptive schedule of subjects and activities to foster communication with their child. This may look like a photocopied schedule where specific activities are written in at the end of the school day. I cannot emphasise how much this can help build communication skills at home, as the parent is able to say to their child, “Oh, you had Art today. Did you like painting?”

A daily communication notebook serves two purposes: first, it is a communication tool for both parents and teachers; second, it is a way to document communication between school and parent. As a teacher, it is essential you have some record of communication with parents. Please be sure to document dates, who you spoke to, and what was said. As a special education teacher myself, I use a large 3-ringed binder to hold my notes about parent phone calls and photocopy key notes from the communication book to include as well.

My region does not encourage email between parents and teachers because it is difficult to communicate without a shared context (and information/tone/ and intent may get misinterpreted). Other regions do. Please follow your district’s guidelines regarding this matter.

As a teacher, be prepared to communicate with the parent early in the school year and keep communicating often. As a teacher myself, I am in regular and on-going communication with parents about their child. I do this through a daily communication book, and telephone calls as needed. I do sunshine calls throughout the year (perhaps a couple times a year per child). For a teacher, you may not know what accommodations are appropriate unless you have a thorough understanding of a child’s circumstances (For example, a child who is intellectually Gifted and has a physical disability may need a reduced workload or flexible timelines due to frequent medical appointments, while they may still work at a cognitively advanced level.)

Other strategies that work with the whole class include: monthly newsletters that note curriculum expectations that will be covered that month, and a set ‘agenda time’ at the end of the day where all students complete their agendas.

Regarding paperwork, accommodations, modifications, and IEPs, please ensure the school has current copies of reports from paraprofessionals (occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech & language pathologists, etc…). As the teacher, please ask parents about recent reports and services in initial interviews. Many parents assume the school is aware of the supports and services their child receives, this is not necessarily true. When the teacher asks about this early in the year, it is the first step in ensuring documentation in the student record is up to date, and appropriate supports are available. Please ensure reports are filed in accordance with your region’s confidentiality policies.

As a teacher of exceptional students, it is your responsibility to read your student’s record and any professional reports that are in it. The student record may contain psycho-educational assessments, occupational or physical therapist reports, and strategies from speech-language pathologists or other professionals involved with your student. All of this information can help you build an optimal learning environment for your student. The student record is a vital tool in creating IEPs. I strongly recommend you review the file before the student arrives in your classroom.

This article is not going into depth to discuss the IEP process as is varies from region to region. However, one of the best practices I have witnessed involve parents completing a basic questionnaire with their child and returning it to school. (The questionnaire asks about the child’s strengths, needs, goals for the year, and any accommodations/modifications that were particularly important for them in the past.) Follow-up with a phone call if needed. This is a starting point for creating the IEP. (Once the IEP is created, the parent should receive a draft and be invited to an interview to discuss it.)

At interview time please have work samples (of the student and a typical peer as comparison) so parents have an idea of how their child is doing relative to the rest of the class. While it is important for the parent to see growth in their child, it is also important for them to know their child’s ability relative to their peers. Obviously, do this in a tactful way, but parents need to have a clear understanding of their child’s strengths and needs. I have been in situations where a student is in grade 7 and working many years behind their peers and the parents had no idea. This could have been resolved with early and on-going communication. Also, as a teacher, be prepared to explain the IEP year after year in concrete terms – exactly what does reading level of grade 2 mean for a kid in grade 7?

What is the biggest piece of advice for teachers? Ask for help. A teacher’s job is incredibly complex – juggling the individual needs of 30 children while teaching a specific subject. A teacher simply cannot be an expert in all things at all times. Please consult with the personnel at your school regarding policies and procedures for exceptional students. Be prepared to admit to parents that you ‘need to check into something,’ and then will get back to them with the answer. I have a compendium of resources for accommodations and modifications for specific exceptionalities that you can use as a starting point ( I strongly recommend you find special education personnel at your school or in your district (such as an administrator or principal, school special education teacher, district consultant, etc…) who can support you in understanding and implementing policies.

Imagine the battleship I described earlier. The captain communicates with the crew regularly and always checks the course. As a teacher, you will need to communicate with your ‘crew’ regularly and check in with your student to make sure they are on course. It’s easier to steer a ship to where you have planned to go than to try to turn it around once you are seriously off-course.

What happens if the school/teacher/parent relationship goes off course? DO NOT JUMP SHIP! Keep communicating, this time you may need to meet face-to-face with the parent to review work samples and paraprofessional reports. As a teacher, invite the administrator of the school to help clarify and mediate the situation. I would brief the administration as early as possible in a conflict situation, their job is to help resolve it and provide guidance regarding policies and legal issues.

Try to listen to the parent’s point of view, and have a clear understanding of your own point of view. I usually prepare for meetings like this with my own jot notes of the student’s learning profile (strengths, needs, recent performance on assessments). In the meeting be sure to have work samples (and a typical comparison), any reports and a copy of the student’s IEP at hand.

I will offer those sitting in the meeting with me a typed copy of my notes, so we are all on the same page (literally). This strategy helps keep the meeting focused on the student’s strengths and needs, and how we as a team can support the student.

If things continue to go off course – please look into your school district’s Special Education Advisory Committee or any external special needs agencies that have mediation services. As a teacher, you will be governed by the rules, policies and procedures of your licensing body and school district. You may also have a union representative. As a professional you need to have a clear understanding of your rights and responsibilities that are unique to your district.

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