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!
The National Association of School Nurses (NASN) has created a great Back-to-School Checklist for families. It contains some tips that apply to parents or caregivers of all children. There is also a series of tips especially for parents/caregivers of children who have health concerns.
Even though school has started, it’s never too late for a good idea. Check it out!
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.
It’s report card time and time to see how the first half of the school year went. If your child’s report card reflects solid grades and good work habits, some sort of celebration is in order. One of my co-workers learned that her daughter earned a 96 in an advanced math class. She offered to buy ice cream, but her daughter wanted her bedroom painted instead. Fair enough!
If, on the other hand, you were disappointed in your child’s progress or performance, there is still time to turn things around. You and your child can press the reset button by looking for ways to improve on things that you have been doing. Think about changes that can be made on many possible levels.
- If your child has poor sleeping habits, try establishing a bed-time routine that gradually steps down the amount of activity and stimulation in the household. A well-rested brain functions better.
- If your child wastes time in the evening and then stays up late doing homework, set a firm cutoff time to stop working, shut down the computer and place everything in the backpack (which will “live” in a designated spot in another room). Then start winding things down toward bedtime. Provide prompts and reminders earlier in the evening to serve as fair warning. It may take a couple of incomplete assignments or disappointing test grades to get the real message across. Don’t cave in though, because it is essential that students develop good work habits, including learning how to effectively manage their time, if they are going to be able to sustain their success throughout the school and college years. Showing up for class exhausted and inattentive will eventually take its toll. Throwing together projects at the last minute and cramming for tests will also lead to poorer quality results that your child will take less pride in. I know this first-hand from my experience as person who went through school with undiagnosed ADHD.
- If your child is overwhelmed by an over-packed schedule that doesn’t leave enough time for schoolwork and “down time,” consider taking a break from one of the activities. Unless your child is talented enough that a sport or cheerleading scholarship is a real possibility, they might be better off burning the candle from only one end. Keep the activities that give them joy, and set aside those that are on the schedule just because of habit.
- If your child has an IEP or Section 504 accommodation plan, review it to see if it adequately addresses her current needs. It might be time to update the accommodations and supports to match performance expectations that tend to get higher each year. Get your child’s input so that any changes are going to be ones that they think will be helpful and will cooperate with.
- Re-establish lines of communication with teachers and other school staff. If your child will have different classes for the 2nd semester, there may be new teachers who may not be aware of his special needs or the fact that you are a concerned and involved parent who expects to be considered an equal part of your child’s educational team. Set a positive tone and let them know that you are looking for this semester to be better than the last one.
- Look for any other areas where a change for the better might be possible: diet and nutrition, general health and well-being, mental health, organization (personal and/or household), social skills, etc. Consult with trusted friends, family and professionals to see if they have any suggestions.
If things are going great, keep doing what you are doing. If not, try something different that might lead to better results. Remember, there can be no growth without change!
Answer: As a general rule, parents do not have the right to select the school staff who will be working with their child. However, there may be ways that parents can influence that decision.
This question is usually asked by parents of children in elementary school. The situation in middle and high schools are complicated by scheduling limitations (only so many sections of a particular course are offered at any given point in time), the requirement that secondary teachers are highly qualified in the content area in order to teach a core subject, and the practice of organizing middle school students and teachers into “teams”.
Elementary school principals are typically responsible for assigning students to specific teachers. It is expected that this process is not done randomly. Principals have lots of information available to them to help make that decision. They can consider student factors such as age, gender, skill levels, discipline history as well as teacher input and recommendations. Teacher characteristics, experience and training are also usually taken into consideration.
Once classroom assignment decisions have been made, most principals do not want to deal with a lot of parents who are unhappy that their child did not get assigned to the most popular teacher at that grade. They often worry that the floodgates will open if they give in to a parent’s request to add “just one more child” to Miss Suzie’s class. This is understandable. The principal is trying to make sure that all teachers are valued and seen as competent, and that there is an equitable (not necessarily equal) distribution of the student population. A parent who pushes the issue too hard can find themselves on the losing end of a power struggle.
So, what can you do to help get your child assigned to a teacher that will be a good match? Or at least avoid a worst-case scenario? Some kids can go with the flow and will be fine with almost any teacher. For that child, it will probably be safe to let things occur without any interference. However, if you have one of those children who is not going to be okay in every situation, or will not do well with every teaching style, it is best to be proactive. It is always easier to influence a decision before it’s made, than to change it after the fact.
In late spring, try to set up a face-to-face meeting with the principal to talk about your child and his educational needs. Share information about what makes your child unique. Discuss relevant personality traits, past experiences, learning style and disability-related issues that you would like the principal to think about when they are deciding who to assign as your child’s next teacher. You can talk about classroom environment and teacher traits that will allow your child to function at her best. You can also mention past situations that did not work well for your child. Be careful to not put down any past teachers! Instead, you can talk about teaching styles, amount of classroom structure, authoritarian versus nurturing approaches, physical environment requirements, health and safety needs and any special issues regarding interaction with other students.
Unless the principal is new to that school, they should know their staff well enough to know which teachers are a good match for your child and which will likely lead to disaster. Leave a written summary of the key points that you want the principal to think about. The actually classroom assignments may not be made until weeks or months after your meeting, and your document can be a much-needed reminder of the things you talked about. If you learn that the decision will not be made until the end of summer, consider sending a greeting (by phone or email) expressing that you and your child are looking forward to the new school year, and thanking the principal for taking the time to meet with you earlier to talk about your child. If you send an email, it might not be a bad idea to attach another copy of the reminder document. Play that one by ear though, and skip the attachment if you think that the principal might consider it too pushy.
Remember, the goal is to get a good situation for your child, not for the principal to feel like you are trying to tell them how to do their job. Diplomacy and effective advocacy are often about knowing when, how, and how hard to push.
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.
The Individualized Education Program (IEP) that describes special education services and supports for a qualifying student with a disability is created by an IEP Team that is defined by federal law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) lists the core membership of an IEP team as including the parent, a special education teacher, a regular education teacher (at the student’s assigned grade), and a representative of the Local Education Agency (school system). The student is a required member of the IEP team when their transition to adulthood is being discussed. In addition to this bare-bones requirement, there are others who can or must be invited under varying circumstances.
Whenever evaluation results are being discussed, the IEP team should include individuals who are qualified to interpret those evaluation results and the educational implications of them for the child. Most parents can read evaluation reports with some degree of understanding, but the IEP team needs input from individuals who are in a position to connect the dots and make sense of the various pieces of information available when an evaluation has been conducted.
When children are aging out of the Infant-Toddler Program and are being considered for eligibility for Preschool services, the Child Service Coordinator or previous service providers can be invited to the IEP meeting. If you want to have your child’s Service Coordinator or others attend an IEP meeting, invite them directly yourself because the school system may not automatically send them an invitation.
At an annual review when the IEP is being totally re-written (rather than amended), all of the people who are currently providing special education services to the child will normally be invited to the meeting. Sometimes a related service provider (e.g. speech, occupational or physical therapist) will submit written information and some proposed goals when they are unable to attend an IEP meeting. If you feel that it is important that specific school system staff members (regular education teachers, clinicians, administrators, classroom assistants, etc.) participate in the IEP team discussion, communicate that to the person who is coordinating the meeting so that they are invited and the meeting scheduled at a time when they can attend.
In addition to the required IEP team members, the school system and the parent each have the right to invite others who they feel can contribute to the IEP process. Individuals who have particular knowledge of the child or specific expertise can be involved upon request. For example, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, tutors, behavior specialists, psychologists, individuals who have disability-specific information, or private service providers can become invited members of a child’s IEP team. These individuals can either attend in person, submit written input, or participate via conference call or another technology-supported means.
When your child’s next IEP meeting is being planned, communicate with the meeting coordinator to make sure the all of the right people are at the table to create an educational program that effectively addresses your child’s unique educational needs.
Homework is a fact of life for most students from 1st grade to high school graduation. It is intended to be an opportunity to practice newly acquired skills, review what has already been learned, and apply or extend instruction beyond the classroom. If the homework is appropriate for a student, they should be able to complete their work with very limited assistance from their parents. Parents are expected to show an interest in their child’s education and monitor their homework as well as the class work and tests that are sent home. They should make sure that the child has a reasonably quiet workspace and needed school supplies. Many parents will find it necessary to either prompt their child to get started on their homework, or ask them if they have already done it. What they should not do is take over the assignment and end up doing most of the work themselves!
I will occasionally hear a parent use the word “we” in away that makes it quite clear that they are way too involved in their child’s schoolwork. “We studied for this test…”, “We do homework for __ hours every night”, “We don’t understand the assignment,” “We are taking Algebra I,” etc. I sometimes challenge the parent to think about whether their excessive involvement is actually against the child’s best interest. Here are a few things to consider:
- Helping too much may keep the child from learning how to function more independently. Ask yourself: Am I teaching my child that he must have the full attention of an adult at all times? Can my child learn to use a textbook, dictionary or computer to look something up, rather than just asking me question after question? Can my child read the directions for themselves instead of handing me the paper with the expectation that I will explain, demonstrate and/or guide them step-by-step through the entire assignment? Does my child even attempt to do work on their own, or have they completely accepted that they “can’t do it.”
- Helping too much may mask the actual challenges that the child is having. The teacher who sees correctly completed homework coming back to school everyday won’t know that you spend 3 hours each night re-teaching everything, or pretty much giving your child the answers to the questions. This keeps important information about the student’s learning from being available to guide instruction. It could also lead to educators concluding that the child is “doing fine” when you ask the school to provide extra assistance or evaluate the child for special education services.
- Helping too much may lead to unrealistic expectations. The student may end up being placed in classes that are too difficult for them when they could possibly be more independently successful in a class that moved at a slower pace or required a more manageable number of work products. The student may feel pressure to get all A’s and B’s when they are really just an average kid who would probably earn mostly C’s under normal circumstances. A student who has been “helped” all the way through school may set (or be pushed toward) unobtainable career goals, unless the parent plans to go to law or medical school with them. And then what? Instead, each child should get the message that, as long as he is doing his best, that he is good enough!
- By trying to protect your child from failure, you may also cheat her from experiencing her own success. It seems that some parents are afraid that their child will be traumatized by getting a low grade, turning in an unimpressive product, or having to tell a teacher that they had trouble with an assignment. They forget that some risk and struggle is often necessary for growth and the ability to overcome adversity. Making things appear to be okay is not the same as developing real competence.
There is much value and satisfaction gained when a person can say that their achievements, great and small, were truly the result of their own efforts!
There is a lot of useful information on school and school system websites, but sometimes it is difficult to find exactly what you are looking for. Some websites are definitely more user-friendly than others. I’ll share some basic “how to” suggestions that I personally use. In order to save space, I will use LEA (Local Education Agency) to refer to school systems.
Working with families of children with special needs, we frequently suggest that a parent share their concerns with someone in the central office of the LEA’s Special Education Department. On the Home page for the LEA’s website, there is usually a tab near the top of the page, or an option listed on the menu located on the left side of the webpage, that will allow you to select “Departments” by clicking on that word. That should give you an alphabetical listing of the various school system departments. Most North Carolina LEAs, have an “Exceptional Children” (EC) department, but some call it “Special Education.” If you don’t find one title, check under the other one.
When you click on EC, you will usually go to a page that will offer general information or an overview of the EC Department and the services provided to students. Somewhere on that webpage, there may also be a list of staff, with job titles and contact information. If you don’t see one, look for an option to click on that says something like “staff directory”, “contact information”, or “staff contacts.” Larger school systems tend to have more staff, so there may be Behavior Specialists, Program Manager/Specialist for specific disabilities, EC Zone Coordinators, or perhaps Program Managers for Preschool, Elementary, Middle or High Schools. There will always be a Director who oversees all special education services for the entire school system, although the job titles vary a bit.
The department list can lead you to other information as well. Information about the general education program and graduation requirements can usually be found under “Curriculum and Instruction.” School system policies, such as the Code of Conduct (discipline guidelines), are often found under the heading of “School Board” or “Board of Education.” Information about Schools, Transportation and Student/Pupil Assignment can be found under those headings. If you can’t find what you are looking for on a menu, tab or department list, try entering that topic in the “Search” box that can usually be found near the top of the website Home page. The Home page should also have a general telephone number for the LEA, most often located near the top or bottom of the page. Calling that number should allow someone to direct your call to the right place, based on what you tell them.
It might be a good idea to visit the website of your child’s school and the one for the LEA before there is an urgent need, so that you can get familiar with what’s available and how things are organized. If you don’t use computers very much, it may be helpful to have a student or another person assist you. Most young people who have grown up with the internet take to it like a duck to water. It’s time to start getting your feet wet!
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?