Before becoming the mother of three children with very different disabilities, I was a special educator. In many ways, my experience informed my decision making and parenting. Occasionally, however, I admit that it makes me wince. One of these wince-worthy areas is in parent communication. In my defense, I had close relationships with my students’ parents, and many of them are still close friends today. I was not against any conversation, observation, or sharing my data. What I did struggle with was when some parents wanted daily correspondence about what was going on with their child.
I like to say that I would happily have provided a detailed summary of each child’s day but didn’t have the time. Truthfully, I didn’t have the time to do that, but I also didn’t really get why parents could ever expect that. No other students at the school got daily reports home; why would they think that a teacher managing general education content and specialized skills could possibly also write 10-12 personalized notes a day? Now that I am a parent, I understand that I was missing the point. What the parents really wanted was a way to connect with their child about their day and an ongoing sense of how he or she was progressing.
All parents want to talk to their children about their school days. I have a teenager who is neurotypical; I can testify that the success of this venture fluctuates greatly throughout any child’s life span. Still, being able to reference specific activities, talk ask about assemblies, things in the routine that we know that they do daily provides parents a place to start to connect. Even if a child can’t answer questions verbally, we look for signs of recognition, smiles, frowns of disgust. Parents talk to their children regardless of their ability or willingness to answer and it is important for educators to provide them a steady supply of information upon which to make these connections. Some simple ways to do this include sending occasional pictures, (if the school and parents have agreed to this), newsletters, student checklists for predictable activities, and programming augmentative speech devices to allow students to share great stories with their families. One of my son’s teachers does a fantastic job of sending a short note every few days that say, “Be sure to ask about the new words he read today,” or “The second grade class had a guest reader from the fire department and got to see the truck; be sure to have him tell you all about it.” Since my son has limited verbal ability, this is a true gift that also allows me to stretch his language skills at home.
Another time school to home communication is vital is with behavior issues. My older son has executive functioning deficits as well as anxiety and attention issues that occasionally result in challenging behaviors. His IEPs and all of my beginning of the year interactions all stress the importance of contacting me immediately if his behavior starts to veer off track. Honestly, my addressing inappropriate school behaviors from home immediately will stop 90% of his problems quickly and with very little upheaval. However, if people try to ignore the behavior first, he will escalate until he finds the boundary. He will; he must; it is how he is made. Furthermore, if teachers wait to contact me until they are at their wit’s end, teacher and child are frustrated which does no one any good. Teachers have known my child a year or less, I have known him since I brought him home at 15 months. I know his triggers, I know what motivates him, and I know what escalates him. It’s information that I am more than willing to share.
When I was teaching, I was guilty of not telling parents every time there was an issue because I felt like we had dealt with it sufficiently at school. Now, I’m forced to wonder if those parents, like me, were rewarding days of great behavior and confusing their children utterly. I wonder if I accidentally escalated a child by thinking that I had something handled that lead to a larger problem later without parent reinforcement at home.
Finally, parents need a sense of how their children are progressing more frequently than at midterm and the end of the semester. Parents of children who are typically developing get to see their children starting to write, playing school, picking out words. As they grow older, their kids bring up current events or ask if we remember things they are learning about in school. Students who are struggling may learn much slower and may not generalize newly acquired skills to home so parents have no idea if they are making any gains at all. Students who are struggling may not feel confident enough to strike up conversations or show off new skills for them that are still behind their peers. Sharing incremental successes gives parents hope and helps them shape new and appropriate expectations. Being aware of areas of need may encourage them to practice at home or share an idea that is the key to breaking through a barrier and initiating progress.
Not every parent will read all of the correspondence or work on things at home. Not every parent will celebrate successes or discuss challenges with their child. However, every parent deserves the opportunity to be a part of the team. We as educators have very little control of what parents do, but we can certainly give them the opportunity to help us by providing them the tools with information and accepting their input. Most parents aren’t looking for a novel about their child’s day; they want a point of connection, a sense of progress, and to help their child grow in any way they can.