In special education, facilitating meaningful communication with families is one of our top job priorities. After my 1st year teaching in elementary special education, I’ve outlined the top 5 practices I found helpful to increase authentic rapport with families, design better IEPs, and foster holistic approaches to student success.
Connect before the school year starts
- Send an email with an optional survey to help you get to know the family better. Example questions: “What languages are used at home?” “Who is a part of Eduardo’s educational progress (ie: tutor, extended family, friends, etc.?)”
- Make a call home to give families a chance to get to know you (and vice versa).Set aside plenty of time for this and have open-ended questions outlined that spark conversation and help you to get to know the caregivers for that student better. Example questions: “What are your goals for Maria this school year?” “How did the previous year go?” “What do you feel helps Johnny best learn? What has been a struggle/strength for them in the past?”
- Establish several methods of contact that will work for you and the families. I discovered that many families struggle with their own disabilities, busy schedules, language barriers, internet/phone access, etc. When talking about accessible education, we need to be cognizant of how this effort should extend to students’ caregivers. Please know that what works for one member of a family, may not work for another. It is also important to note their needs may change throughout the school year.
Give guardians a chance to have their voices heard
- Send the IEP draft home at least 3 days in advance. This gives caregivers time to review and reflect on the information, in whatever way works best for them. Without this, how are they supposed to truly be heard at the IEP table?
- Check-in with a students’ caregivers at least 3 times a year outside of formal meetings. I tend to do this before parent-teacher conferences and IEP meetings. It builds rapport and allows them to reflect on student progress before the meeting.
Involve your student
I often had to discuss a difficult topic with a students’ guardian. Sometimes, it can be triggering and isolating for students not to be in the loop for discussion. Often, students and I would draft the essential discussion points together, allowing the student to reflect on what was happening and feel empowered.
Use the knowledge of others
Playground aides, paraeducators, and lunchroom staff often see students in ways we don’t. By actively seeking out other staff members’ perspectives, I found my student, who had exceptional difficulties with classroom behaviors, was a ‘role model’ for excellent behavior on the bus. Asking your colleagues for their perspectives allows you to see the ‘whole child’.
Recognize guardians’ efforts
I think possibly one of the most heartbreaking things about working in special education was realizing the self-blame caregivers were putting on themselves for the struggles their kids faced. By genuinely communicating appreciation for their efforts, you establish a necessary rapport. By the end of the year, parents were contacting me for help breaking hard news to their kids and transitioning their kids to middle school.
One of the biggest drawbacks to committing the time to do all this is that teachers are already burning out due to high workloads. On a personal note, there were several points this year where I was extremely fatigued by the demands of being a 1st-year teacher. Building and sustaining these connections with families and their students prevented that ‘burnout’ from becoming all too real, as it reconnected me back to my purpose for joining the field. To all other special education teachers, I encourage them to do the same throughout the year, and to realize that these practices not only benefit your students and families – but yourself as well.