By Lindsay Kapsa, originally published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Equity & Access
Families and schools are dealing with a lot right now: uncertainty, misinformation, daycare options (or lack thereof), and worry over the school year. Educators and families alike want to make this year as successful as possible for students.
Impact and Challenges from COVID on Children with Special Needs and their Families
When it was safe to attend school, students with disabilities had individual education plans (IEPs). A team of school representatives guided families in getting their child the services they need to succeed.
Distance learning began, throwing a wrench in the planned IEPs for the school year. Schools were scrambling to provide some kind of plan for all students when schools shut down in March and April, but students with special needs have to be individually addressed, which is logistically time-consuming.
“Largely lost in the rapid response to establish something – anything – that would allow students to continue learning, where students with disabilities, the very students who research shows are most negatively impacted by lost learning time.” – Lauren Camera, U.S. News and World Report
Unfortunately, the previous plans being thrown out and other certain limitations make it harder to ensure accommodations are being met. Services for children with special needs are not always transferrable to distance learning or even in-person learning with social distancing.
Still, the special education coordinator, the special education teacher, the general education teachers, and the school administration have a duty to get in touch with these children and their families. These students cannot afford to fall farther and farther behind their classmates.
Importance of Establishing Two-Way Communication with Families of Children with Special Needs
Having positive family rapport has always been foundational to student success, but even more so for students with special needs. Having family rapport assures everyone is on the same page about the child’s IEP, and parents can sign-off on necessary testing and services.
These relationships are much harder to establish between all parties when working and learning from home. In a digital environment, quality, two-way communication between families and the school is best for building trusting relationships.
Here are some basic principles to follow that will help guarantee two-way communication:
• Set up consistent meetings with a frequency that works for the family
• Be flexible with families, as many parents are either working from home or having others watch their children during their work hours
• Provide multiple channels of communication, including SMS, phone calls, emails, or video conferencing
• Lead with positive communication and establish a regular cadence of communication
Of course, different stakeholders within the school have different touchpoints with families and need additional tips.
Establishing Digital Rapport for Families with Special Needs as a Teacher
As a teacher, you have a critical role in making sure families are well connected to the school. Following the principles outlined above will help get you to start creating a digital rapport with families. Still, some other best practices will help build these valuable relationships with families.
The Power of a Story
Just like in the classroom, teachers spend time working on routines and procedures. Take time to set up the same expectations in a digital environment. A good tip is to create a digital social story that family members can reference and use to support classroom expectations within the home.
Provide supporting digital materials
In the classroom, teachers often have alternative supporting materials to meet students’ needs and fulfill accommodations. Open communication channels with parents, so supporting materials can be provided if they do not understand the content.
Parents, and teachers of students with special needs need a streamlined way to communicate. Navigating too many platforms is confusing, especially on top of the challenges of online learning. Choosing platforms like ClassTag can help ensure parents are receiving communications and essential information.
Support parents through Digital Enrichment
With alternative ways of learning found online, it can be essential to direct parents to quality, teacher-approved content for their child. Parents of children with special needs may need something specific and may not know how to find online enrichment suitable for their child’s needs.
Note that parents should not be viewed as co-teachers. Having two-way communication in a digital environment supports children with special needs learning at home and keeping everyone on the same page.
Supporting and Encouraging Digital Rapport for Families with Special Needs as an Administrator
While administrators and coordinators have a more removed role in building rapport, their participation is just as meaningful. Administrators can cultivate an environment of support, understanding, and inclusivity for children with special needs and their families with these best practices:
Provide Quality Training for Staff
Facilitating professional development (PD) sessions focused on practical ways to reach and communicate with families will set the tone for parent engagement throughout the year. PD sessions can be invaluable in helping teachers understand how to approach and build rapport with families with special needs while also setting expectations and goals for the year.
Give Additional Support and Coverage to Special Education Teachers
Administrators may need to provide additional support for special education teachers to have the ability to communicate with parents effectively. Providing teacher coverage can be especially helpful during remote learning, whereas some families may need one on one assistance.
Gain Trust with Staff and Parents to Ease Difficult Conversations
Teachers and families of special needs children can feel overwhelmed by the current situation and sometimes have to have difficult conversations. As an administrator, gaining trust and building relationships through open communication in advance of these difficult conversations.
Whether you’re a teacher, administrator, or parent of a special needs child, the challenges from COVID can feel overwhelming. Coming together as a community and leading with compassion, patience, and trust is how we’ll make it happen!
Lindsay Kapsa is the VP of Strategy and Success for parent-teacher communication platform, ClassTag. As a former elementary school educator, Lindsay knows the power of parents, teachers and administrators coming together as a community to help special needs students.
The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.