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

Dear Parents, Dear Teachers: 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 one should be doing!

Dear Parents,

How many of you cringe at those notes from school, maybe covered in ‘sad’ faces to underscore how your child misbehaved yet again? How many of you hit ignore when you see the school’s phone number in your call display? How many of you feel your heart race and breathing quicken when you see that school phone number in your call display, 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 parent you may need to remind yourself that you are responsible for guiding your child’s education. Much that will happen at school will be beyond your control, and may actually be beyond the control of the teacher 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 parents, too.

What you can control are your actions and your words.

If you’ve already read the Teacher article, 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 child’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 it in. I’ve made calls about kids doing a great job settling into the classroom routines, talking to peers, a great painting they did, etc… The whole point is to keep it positive and open that door to communication.

As a parent you can also do a sunshine call of your own. Do this within the first couple weeks of school. Leave a nice voicemail message, or talk to the school secretary about when a good time to reach the teacher by phone is. (Remember, the teacher is busy teaching a class of 30 kids and usually cannot come to the phone during school hours.) Find out the best way and time to contact the teacher – does the school encourage parents to email? Or will a note in a communication book do? I always prefer a phone call, at least for initial conversations. This helps prevent misunderstandings and can quickly clarify misconceptions.

What should you say when you call the teacher? 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, one positive thing your child has experienced so far, and tell the teacher your preferred way of communicating (phone, email, notes).

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

As a parent of a child with special needs, this would be a good time to gently remind teachers about any reports in your child’s student record and/or one or two key strategies for your child. For example, “I’m sure you’ve read xyz, but I just want to remind you ABC…” Keep it short and very salient – i.e. noise cancelling headphones, the need to sit close to teacher or close to door, frequent breaks (and what your child does on break), etc… The whole point is not to overwhelm the teacher, but open doors communication (and get them to read those reports).

Easy as pie, right?

I hope you remember to document that phone call in some way. In this age of all things technological I still like to document important phone calls in a notebook designated for that purpose. My notebook contains names, dates, times, phone numbers and my notes about the conversation. It lives on a shelf beside my phone. Later I can bring it out at a case conference and say, “Well, on this date, this person said this…” It helps me be organized and on track in supporting my child.

While we’re on the topic of paperwork, please ensure the school has current copies of reports from paraprofessionals (occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech & language pathologists, etc…). Quite often if the parent hands the school a photocopy of the report, an ‘official’ consent form does not need to be signed because the parent physically handing over the report means consent is implied. This is something done in my area, please check the policies specific to your school and region.

Regardless, you as the parent have a better understanding of the services and supports your child receives, and should let the school know about any reports that could help your child. The school is responsible for ensuring these documents are handled in a confidential manner and filed in your child’s student record.

As a parent, be prepared to communicate with the teacher early in the school year and keep communicating often. I find a combination of daily agenda notes (in which I find out about homework, any pressing issues such as missing library books, and overall quality of day) PLUS monthly phone calls to be effective for my child. Your child might have different needs and require a more detailed home communication book that outlines their day by hour PLUS weekly phone calls. Or, your child might be fine with a phone call at the beginning of the year and then as needed afterwards. The frequency depends on the child, teacher and parent dynamic.

What do you talk about? I tell teachers about anything that will affect my child’s school day such as family changes (new baby), upcoming appointments (and try to schedule them around school events), or medical issues such as new medication or excessive fatigue. I have also told the teacher about specific occupational therapy programs my child should be working on or other information related to my child’s needs and well-being.

Imagine the battleship I described earlier. The captain communicates with the crew regularly and always checks the course. As a parent, you will need to communicate with your ‘crew’ regularly and check in with your child 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, and review work samples and paraprofessional reports. Ask for the administrator of the school to help clarify and mediate the situation. Try to listen to the teacher and school’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 concise jot notes that summarize issues my child may be facing and/or strategies outlined in paraprofessional reports or some common accommodations specific to my child’s needs. 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 my child’s needs, and how we as a team can support my child. The bonus is everyone now has a record of my understanding of the situation, and my strategies to support it.

In such a meeting I have copies of recent paraprofessional assessments (such as an occupational therapist, physiotherapist, speech & language pathologist, psychologist, etc.) My words carry more weight if an ‘expert’ agrees with them (at least on paper) and I can provide a copy of the report as support of my argument.

If problems continue at school and 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. Perhaps a therapist involved with your child would be willing to attend a school meeting as an advisor or external observer.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, people to seek help from include your school district’s trustees, superintendents, teacher licensing body, or even local politicians may be able to help support you. You may need to meet face to face with these people and provide them with copies of your notes and reports as well.

Good luck on this journey.

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