Those of us who are part of the autism community are familiar with the phrase, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” The autism spectrum is not linear. These humans have different traits and abilities and strengths, without a single defining definition or template.
I have two boys with autism. One of the very hardest things I’ve done as a parent, is to leave my children with others. Period. From a babysitter, to a Teacher to anyone in between. As mothers or caregivers, we have an innate urge to ensure safety and protection to our children. But when your child has a Disability and struggles with language and can’t report details from the day to you- that level of protectiveness you feel grows exponentially. Add to that a world that fundamentally misunderstands those with atypical neurology, and leaving your child with someone new- no matter how trustworthy- can feel like pure panic. There have been times, (so many times) that I would drop my boys off at school and then just sit quietly in my car, feeling unable to even leave. My boys are now 8 and 10, and it’s still so hard to let go.
The more time has passed and the people I’ve met, I’ve also realized if you’ve met one parent of a child with autism, you’ve met one parent of a child with autism. We all have different upbringings, ideology, needs and communication ideals.
Parents and guardians play a vital role in the education of a child. Research shows that students with one or both parents active in their education are nearly twice as likely to succeed in school. This is obvious when it comes to grades, but parental engagement also affects student confidence, involvement, and attitude. A good relationship with a student’s parent increases their chance of success. Below are five tips for Communicating with Parents of students in your classroom from a Parent’s perspective.
1. Set clear boundaries from the beginning, and share them proactively.
A Welcome Letter is worth its weight in gold, especially if you can get it out before school begins. You can share things about yourself and your background, your passions, how to contact you and what to expect. You can share best ways to reach you, so they will be less likely to attempt lengthy conversations before or after school without an appointment. It’s as important to make your parents feel as welcomed as you make students feel.
Reinforce when Parents communicate in ways that will be most productive for the student. Parents have one student on their mind, and can easily forget that you have many, many more. You may have ten different parents approach you as they bring their student in, each giving you detailed information about the child.
“I forgot to charge Susie’s ipad, and she didn’t sleep well last night. Can we reschedule her triennial? I wasn’t able to get off work.”
“I don’t think I told you that Tommy can’t have dairy right now. I will pick him up at 1:15 for a Doctor’s appointment. And next Thursday his home ABA Company wants to observe.”
“Logan has been mouthing things a lot lately. I think he might have teeth coming in. He won’t let me look in his mouth. I want to come up during lunch today and then stay afterwards because I want to see him doing math.”
Don’t be afraid to gently redirect with best ways to communicate- “Would you mind sending me an email with this information please? It’s important and I don’t want to forget it when I start our instructional day.”
2. Communicate often. According to a 2012 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics’ Institute of Education Sciences, when it comes to effective communication between school and home, consistency and frequency are key. In order for communication to be consistent, it must also be realistic and fit into a teacher’s busy schedule. I LOVE these Teacher to home, and Home to Teacher visual communication supports by The Autism Helper in the Teachers Pay Teacher store.
Get to know each parent before the IEP meeting (when possible). Each parent is so different, so ask for their preferences and needs. One size does not fit all when it comes to parent-teacher communication. While teachers are experts in teaching, let your parents know THEY are the expert on their child. They know what they’re good at and what they struggle with. They know your child’s learning style and you also know if there are any other issues going on that might be affecting their learning at school.
Now days you have so many options to choose from when communicating with parents- From back and forth communication notebooks, to apps, to emails, to texting, and phone calls. Find out what communication tools work best for parents, from the options that also work well for you. Don’t be afraid to ask directly- How do you prefer to be communicated with? In addition to sending a Welcome Letter about yourself, you can also request parents fill out paperwork, sharing their preferred methods of communication, contact information, the language spoken in the home, and any pertinent information about their child. You can also remind them of their annual IEP date, and annual school events.
I am of the belief that the more communication, the better the collaboration- the better the outcomes for students. The best outcomes occur when there is a symbiotic relationship between educator and parent.
Share what is working, don’t just share the bad news. If you communicate regularly with parents, they won’t be on high alert when they do hear from you. One teacher shared with me that she makes 3 celebratory phone calls a week so families understand that she sees the good in their students too. I love that! Specific information is always appreciated, as preferred to “S/he did great today.” Details like, “Greyson played touch tag with a General Education peer today. He followed their directions and was really enjoying himself. They were both laughing” can really make a parents whole day.
I’ve also encountered teachers who only shared problem behaviors and in a way that sounded like tattling and instantly puts you on the defensive. When presenting a concern to parents, ALWAYS be ready to explain what strategies you’ve already used to address the issue and what new strategies you are considering, which you’ll adjust based on their input.
That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to share the struggles-( heck no), but it’s preferred when you do so it’s in more clinical terms. i.e instead of.- Tommy was a hot mess today, he kept making bad choices, and even whacked a peer in the face today during snack, could instead be- Tommy really struggled on sitting in his seat and participating in the group lesson. He hit a peer. I believe he was uncomfortable with how close they were sitting, so we made a few seating changes so he has a little more room.
I seriously love when, in addition to the behavior, the teacher shares the antecedent, and the consequence. Even if a parent isn’t familiar with “The ABCs of Behavior” – this is concise and a little less subjective. Nothing builds trust faster than a teacher who shows that they not only understand best and evidence based practices, but also understands your child.
If there are significant and chronic concerns, make sure parents are made aware before an IEP meeting. I’ve known of parents who have walked away from these meetings flabbergasted saying, “Every day they say, ‘He had a great day today’, but at our IEP meeting I found out he isn’t meeting his objectives and he is struggling with following group instructions and math. I had no idea.”
Share how Parents CAN support you and the Classroom.
For some parents, their connection to their child’s schooling can be limited. Work schedules, family obligations, language barriers, lack of transportation and more can interfere with some parents’ ability to participate.
Sometimes parents want to and can be involved, but don’t know what to do. Oftentimes in Special Education, parents are not allowed to volunteer in the classroom like General Education Parents are able to do (this would be something good to put in your welcome letter- Parent volunteering or classroom observation rules). Some parents would love to help with creating materials. Some would prefer to buy a few classroom supplies. Or they might be able to assist with Field Trips, Classroom parties, or other School Activities and Events. Think of ways they can feel welcome, and be involved so they can still contribute and feel as though they are a part of the overall school community. Share the Do’s and Don’ts of Parent involvement in the classroom upfront, and set your classroom up for success.
Ways to get carry over at home.
The success of many interventions REQUIRE all hands on deck. Home needs to be on the same page as the school in order to get the greatest success. Some unwanted behaviors will be strengthened if they are allowed to occur at home, even if they aren’t allowed to happen at school (Good luck potty training at school only). I would share easy to digest materials in a message home, and offer to discuss or answer questions in person. Avoid technical jargon and acronyms. Explain why it’s important to do this at home too.
If carry over just isn’t happening, I might find out the function of the parents’ behavior! (ABA for life). Are they avoiding it because they are confused and aren’t sure how to implement? Do they agree that this is a skill worth targeting? Is there another skill that is more important to them to master in the home environment? Sometimes a few follow up questions can help you gather more insight. It can be helpful to share Visual Supports to make carry over easier to implement. For example, instead of just saying, “Model student’s communication device at all times.” You could instead say, “We are focusing on the following three words for the next two weeks: Go, Get, More. Here are some communication opportunities using these words. Hang this one by the backdoor to remind you to model.”
How to Handle Angry Parents.
Sometimes you inherit parents who haven’t had good experiences with their child’s schooling and with school transparency and communication. Some parents just need a good listening to, to start the year out right.There are often several competing emotions these parents are coping with: anger, fear, frustration and sadness. I suggest to you- Be yourself. You don’t have to hustle your worth. I have found that great teachers easily prove themselves by the way they teach, by the way they understand my child, and by the way they communicate.
Some parents will have unreasonable demands and expectations. Keep focused on the student, on District Policies, on Best Practice and Evidence Based. Attempt to speak in facts, not emotions. Don’t match their energy. If you are better on email, or need time to process and think- then communicate more with email. Speak with your principal, a Teacher mentor or other teachers to see how they handle these kinds of situations. Control what you can, and remember- YOU CAN’T CONTROL EVERYTHING. I’m fantastic at obsessing over things I can’t control and frequently have to remind myself, “This is not your load to carry, so go ahead and set it down.” And if a particular something IS your load, work through it one step at a time, and ask for help if need be. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of great strength and self awareness.
Teachers play many roles throughout the course of the school year and are pulled in a hundred different directions. You communicate with students, parents, colleagues and administrators every day. Skillfully delivered Parent communication can earn respect from the parents, can help you streamline your classroom workings, and offer support for working together toward a positive outcome. When you build meaningful partnerships with parents using the tools that work best for your community, you’ll be able to work together to help all students succeed.