Effective communication is important to good working relationships between parents and schools. This is especially true when it comes to communication about special education. Parents are often the first to express concerns about their child’s development or learning. Parents are also required members of any group that makes decisions about special education evaluation, eligibility or development of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for an eligible student with disability. Whether you are at the beginning of the special education process or an IEP team veteran, it is important to use words that express your thoughts accurately.
Remember that communication is a 2-way street. There is a message that is sent and a message that is received. Unfortunately, they are not always the same thing. The chart below gives examples of words or expressions that may seem similar, but could mean something very different when used in special education-related conversations. Using the wrong term can lead to confusion, frustration and/or an unintended result.
|Asking for extra help or tutoring for a struggling student.
This could lead to adjustments by the general education teacher, a referral to the school’s intervention team, or the parent might be told about tutoring available through the school or how they can find a private tutor.
|Request for a special education evaluation or special education services.
This will trigger a formal process to gather information and determine if the student is eligible for special education services.
The student is enrolled in a public school that typically provides limited educational services either in the home or another community setting.
In N.C., home schools are considered private schools. Public school systems are not required to provide instruction except under certain circumstances.
|Revoke consent for special education services.
All special education services will stop. Parents cannot hold school system responsible for providing FAPE.
|Refuse a specific special education service while keeping other services and supports.
IEP Team must consider options and decide how to ensure that the student receives FAPE. There should not be an automatic “all-or-nothing” threat.
Student is improving their academic or functional skills.
Student is improving at an accelerated rate that will close the skill gap with typical peers over time.
If you are communicating with others and the response is not what you expect, check to make sure that they understood you correctly. It may be necessary to clarify what you mean. Consider using different words or giving an example. Words do matter!
One of the most basic advocacy tips for parents is to make contact with your child’s teachers at the beginning of the school year, or anytime new teachers or service providers become involved. One purpose for this initial contact is to introduce yourself, exchange information about how each of you prefers to be contacted, and to establish a good working relationship long before there are problems to tackle. Another important purpose for this first contact is to share some vital information about your child, such as the fact that the child has a disability and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Accommodation Plan. Sometimes classroom teachers are not made aware of these things right away.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of diagnoses, accommodations, modifications, special education services and such, it is important to make sure that the people who will be working with your child have a sense of who that child is as an individual, unique human being. Some parents simply write a letter, others have created brochures and PowerPoint presentations. ECAC has developed a couple of tools that make it easy for parents to share important information about their child with others.
Painting the Big Picture This is a worksheet that offers a way to quickly share information about things such as your child’s likes, dislikes, strengths, successes, challenges, as well as your dreams and visions for your child’s future. In each section there is also a place to share tips and successful strategies (what works) that help your child overcome difficulties and build relationships with others. There is even a place to capture Other Helpful Information that doesn’t fit anywhere else. This could include information about special healthcare needs, dietary restrictions, fears, unusual responses and things that can be done to calm your child when he/she becomes upset. Having a written document to refer back to will give teachers and others a big head start as they get to know your child!
ECAC’s Student Snapshot serves the same basic purpose as Painting the Big Picture, but it mainly focuses on the most important information that will make the biggest difference for your child. Areas of concern could include things like emotions, communication, sensory issues, medical conditions, academic needs, etc. In addition to teachers and other school staff, ECAC’s Student Snapshot can be shared with childcare providers, summer camp staff, Sunday School teachers, Scout leaders, etc. It provides a description of something that the adult may notice, an explanation of what that probably means, along a suggestion or two. Statements could go something like this:
When you see that I’m not raising my hand to answer questions, I’m probably not confident that my answer would be correct and I don’t want to embarrass myself. You can help by only calling on me when I do raise my hand.
If I ask to use the bathroom in the middle of an activity, it means that I cannot wait until the next break. You can help by letting me go immediately so that I do not have an accident.
If I’ve been having problems with asthma lately and I seem unusually hyperactive, it may be a reaction to the medicine that helps me breathe better. Please try to be patient and find ways to keep me occupied so that I don’t drive you crazy.
Teachers can also share these tools with parents so that they can get to know their students more quickly. It would also send a clear message to parents that you care about their child. Regardless of who reaches out first, sharing important information will help the people in a child’s life work together as a team. This will give the child a much better chance to have a successful experience.
We are just about at the halfway point in the school year. Report cards will be coming home. If your child receives special education services you should also get a report on his/her progress on their IEP goals. This is a great opportunity to think about how things are going and whether or not some changes need to be made. Ideally, we would all like to have a happy, socially-successful child who is learning and developing at or above the expected rate in all areas. If that describes your child, you should give a word of thanks to all who have helped make this happen!
If your child’s grades are lower than you think they should be, try to get to the root of the problem. Is your child having difficulty learning the material being taught? Is he doing poorly on tests even though he seems to understand the work? Is she doing fine on tests, but has a low grade average because of zeros for several school assignments that were never completed or turned in? Has your child missed a lot of instruction because of disciplinary actions that have taken him out of the classroom too many times?
Even if the grades are okay, there may be other reasons to be concerned. The grades may seem to be inconsistent with what you see when your child is doing home work. The progress on IEP goals may be moving much slower than expected. Instructional assessments may show that the gap between your child’s skills and the achievement standard for his grade is getting wider instead of more narrow. Is your child saying, or showing, that she does not want to go to school? Are you getting more reports about problem behavior at school?
If you do see any red flags, the first action to take is to try to understand what is working and exactly where there may be some problems. Talk to your child and your child’s teacher(s). Ask what you can do at home to help your child be more successful. Work with the teacher(s), other school staff, and the IEP team as appropriate to come up with solutions to any problems that are identified. Make adjustments in terms of instruction, materials, strategies, accommodations, services, supports, environment…whatever makes sense for your child at this time. Keep an eye on things to see if there is improvement or a need to try something else.
Parents generally contact ECAC when things are not going well with their child’s education. Ineffective communication is often a part of their frustration. Today we will look at the use of questions versus statements. The distinction between the two is usually taught in first grade, but as an advocate for your child, it is important to know when it is better to choose one over the other. This is especially important during parent-teacher conferences or IEP meetings.
Don’t ask a question when you are trying to tell someone something. I often share the story about a meeting that I had with my son’s 3rd grade teacher after weeks of spending entire evenings struggling with him over homework. My son has ADHD and a learning disability in writing, and it took him three times as long to get work completed. Evenings had become miserable for both of us. After meeting with the teacher and learning that she expected the average child in her class to spend 45 minutes to an hour completing homework, I told her that we were going to spend no more than two hours on homework from that date on. The madness had to stop, so I did not give her an option.
Sometimes parents really want something to happen for their child and they ask ” can we…”, “how do you feel about…” and other questions, when they could more effectively make statements such as, “Michael needs…” or “I think it would work better if…”. There is a place for the other approach, but if you have already made up your mind about something, it’s okay to be more assertive with your communication. Asking questions in a certain way gives people the opportunity to say “no”, and you don’t want to do that if “no” is not acceptable.
On the flip side, there are times when parents are seeking information, but they make statements that don’t require a useful response. A statement that, “I don’t see why…” might sound like a request for an explanation, but it leaves enough room for other participants in the conversation to treat it like it was a personal observation that could be acknowledged without further comment. Asking the question, “why…?” has a much better chance of producing more information or greater insight. It’s hard for people to ignore a direct question without appearing to be rude. Don’t forget to ask follow-up questions if more detail is needed.
The bottom line is to not expect other people to read your mind, or to know what you “mean”. Say what you mean and ask for the information that you want to get. Re-word and try again if necessary. That’s a whole lot better than being ineffective and feeling frustrated.
Did you get that?
Parents of children with disabilities who have an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, should receive reports on their child’s progress toward meeting their IEP goals at least as often as report cards are issued. The IEP team can require more frequent progress reports if appropriate, and document that decision on the IEP itself. Many parents, however, are not quite sure what to do with the progress reports when they get them.
Some school systems, or good teachers operating on their own, do a great job of providing details about the child’s developing skills, continuing struggles and even some insight as to the strategies that they are using. Other progress reports are perfect examples of minimalism. There will be a single letter such as a “P” to indicate that “the student is making progress at a sufficient rate to reach the IEP goal” or a “T” to indicate that “progress is limited due to more time needed.” When the progress reports are adequately detailed, there may not be a lot of clarification needed. When the report contains only letter codes, there will almost always be a need for some sort of follow up in order for the parent to get the information that they need to effectively participate in their child’s education.
Additional information can be obtained in a variety of ways. Parents can request a conference with the teacher, during which they can view work samples and materials used for instruction. Seeing the classroom setting may also be helpful to understanding why their child is responding or behaving in a certain way (good or bad). For example, after noticing that the place where my son’s 1st grade class did “circle time” was right next to the classroom computers, it was quite clear to me why the teacher was having difficulty keeping his mind focused on the lesson and hands off the computers.
Parents can also request a telephone conference to get more information from the teacher and ask any questions that they might have, or perhaps exchange email messages to accomplish the same thing. Most teachers will understand that requesting more information is simply a way for you to better understand what’s going on with your child’s education and how you can best support your child’s learning.
After gathering information, parents should ask themselves (and maybe the teacher) whether the child’s progress is satisfactory.
If the IEP goals truly reflected what the team thought the child could reasonably be expected to do by the target date, there should be evidence/data that they are on pace to achieve those goals. If progress is slower than expected, there should be some discussion about why that may be, and whether changes should be made in terms of instructional strategies, supports or services (type, amount, frequency, location, delivery, etc). Those changes could require the involvement of the whole IEP team, or sometimes a change can be implemented for a trial period before determining that it should be documented on the IEP.
In any event, IEP progress reports, and any supplemental information, are intended to serve as a guide for parents and the rest of the IEP team. They are an important tool to help insure that the child is receiving adequate benefit from his or her educational program. Tools have no value if they are left unused.