How can educators engage these families?
Page 5: Build Positive Relationships
Recall that to successfully achieve family engagement, educators must get to know, build positive relationships with, and meaningfully involve families. Establishing positive relationships creates an atmosphere conducive to family involvement. This is vital in improving outcomes for students, families, and the school, as well as in the greater community. Let’s look at a number of actions educators can take to accomplish this.
Creating an accepting and supportive environment is the first step in welcoming families. When families enter a school building, they should feel valued and included. This is especially true for the families of children with disabilities, who may already be grappling with a number of stressors. But a welcoming school environment is more than just a friendly front office staff. The interactions of everyone in the school—administrators, teachers, support staff, students, and visitors—should be caring and supportive. Educators can welcome families by creating opportunities for parents to make positive connections within the school. They can do this by:
- Scheduling events at times convenient for parents
- Hosting special events that foster connections (e.g., Meet the Teacher Night, Coffee and Conversations with the Principal, School Tours, Family Fun Night)
- Hosting parent nights that address parent concerns (e.g., Internet Safety for Children, Free Adult English Classes, Your Rights as a Parent of a Child with a Disability)
- Offering volunteer opportunities for parents (e.g., read to a class, guest speaker, car rider line volunteer)
- Holding a multicultural night to celebrate the different cultures represented in the school
- Providing a translator when necessary and making information available in families’ home language
Listen to Anne Henderson emphasize the importance of welcoming and involving families in an effort to help all children to learn and succeed (time: 2:44).
Often parents of children with disabilities are struck by how differently their children are described during conversations and conferences with educators. When educators talk about a child who doesn’t have a disability or an identified need, they often focus on that child’s abilities, talents, and progress. Conversely, when they speak of a child with a disability, educators tend to focus on deficits, challenges, or areas that need to be addressed. It is important for educators to recognize that the child has strengths and to communicate that to the families.
In addition to emphasizing the child’s strengths, educators should acknowledge the strengths that families possess (e.g., knowledge about the child’s disability, experience using successful strategies with the child at home). Doing so will establish the basis for a more meaningful partnership between schools and families.
Listen as Aubri Girardeau discusses some of the ways educators have acknowledged the strengths of her child and her family (time: 1:12).
Mother of a child with autism
and specific learning disabilities
No meaningful family engagement can be established until relationships of trust and respect are established between home and school.
Some families might feel hesitant to visit the school because they do not trust educators. This is often the result of families not feeling respected by educators or of past experiences with schools. To begin building respectful and trusting relationships, educators should:
- Be available and responsive — This can be accomplished by simple acts, such as sharing contact information and actively listening to parental concerns. Additionally, educators returning phone or email messages in a timely manner, and following through with what they say they will do also helps to build trust.
- Maintain confidentiality — Educators must be mindful to not share any personal or sensitive information about the family with others except on a need-to-know basis and even then only with the family’s express permission.
- Recognize that families may have different perspectives — These perspectives may be influenced by such factors as background experiences, culture, and educational levels. For example, some people view disability negatively as a condition to “fix,” while others adopt a more positive perspective and think of disability as a characteristic of a person and a natural part of life. Parents will also have different perspectives on school involvement. Some parents will wish to take on the role of active partners with the school, whereas other parents might tend to view educators or schools as experts and assume a more hands-off approach.
For Your Information
Students with disabilities represent different races, ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They also speak many different languages. Educators should not make generalizations about these families. Rather, they should develop an awareness of the desires of each family. The best source of information about the family is the family members themselves. To develop this awareness, educators can:
- Understand how people of different ethnicities and cultures view disability itself (e.g., as a stigma, particularly as pertains to mental illnesses or developmental disabilities; as a gift or blessing). Even if they do not agree, it is essential that educators respect those views to build effective working relationships.
- Learn about the individual family’s values and their expectations and priorities for their child’s educational needs.
- Recognize where there are differences in perspectives regarding the educational system and services.
- Discuss with the family how best to work together.
- Find ways to accommodate family involvement (e.g., transportation, translators).
- Communicate with the family in ways that are respectful of their preferences.
For more information on working with these families view the following information briefs.
Listen to Anne Henderson talk about some other factors that help build trust and foster improved relationships between schools and families (time: 1:13).
Generally speaking, parents are the one constant influence and presence in their child’s life. For many children with disabilities, parents are actively involved in their lives well into adulthood, whereas teachers influence their lives for only one or two school years. When educators recognize parents as the ultimate decision-makers on behalf of their child and view learning as a shared responsibility with families, the child’s educational needs are more likely to be met.
To respect parents as ultimate-decision makers, educators need to recognize them as advocates for their child (at least until the child reaches the age of majority). For example, when parents are equal and valued members of the individualized education program (IEP) team, they can:
- Offer valuable insight about their children’s skills and abilities, information that educators can use to identify students’ strengths and areas of need and provide them with quality services
- Promote the continuity of services, interventions, and practices
- Between home and school — Parents often serve as the bridge between the school and the community because students with disabilities often require assistance in areas other than academics (e.g., healthcare needs, behavioral therapy, or transitioning from secondary school to employment).
- From year to year — Parents are often the only people (other than the students themselves) who remain part of their child’s IEP team throughout the school years.
Educators can forge increasingly positive relationships by remembering to focus on what they and the parents have in common—a desire to see the child succeed in school. Each encounter with a parent is an opportunity to build the relationship. On occasion, a teacher may not understand or agree with a parent’s decision about how to best address the needs of the child. It might be that the parent’s decision is based on factors, such as past experiences, of which the teacher is unaware. Or it might be that the family doesn’t understand the processes related to the provision of special education services and supports. In such instances, communication is key.
Let’s listen to Aubri Girardeau talk about her experience as a decision-maker and the need for better communication. Then listen to Anne Henderson talk about parents as decision makers.
Mother of a child with autism
and specific learning disabilities
Anne T. Henderson
Senior Consultant, Community Involvement Program
Annenberg Institute for School Reform