5 strategies for helping families overcome the stigmas of special education

Nashima HarveyI’ve invited Nashima Harvey to share some tips for helping teachers remove the stigma from special education through building positive relationships with students and families. Nashima is a New Jersey certified educator with over 20 years experience working with kids and families. She’s the founder of the Little Green House LLC, global awareness learning collective that helps build a bridge of 21st Century learning for families within the community. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us, Nashima!

While getting your degree, you may have learned in your classes about the importance of family involvement in education. I know for me, we had a brief class on it and it was fairly interesting, however compliance, data and test taking strategies were always considered more important. Now that you’ve probably been teaching for some time in the trenches, you may have realized something. Parental involvement is key in the success of your students, especially your special needs students and  compliance, data, and test taking strategies may be enlisted as the supporting cast.

According to A New Wave of Evidence, a report from Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (2002),“When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.” Are you surprised? Probably not! It takes a village to educate all children.

overcoming special education stigmas

The problem in special education is  that it is notorious for having stigmas and damaging labels. Here are just a few you may have experienced:

  • Students believing they cannot learn and will be singled out
  • Parents feeling uninformed and becoming stressed and unresponsive
  • Parents/students believing that their teachers do not understand their situation

Although there are many more stigmas and labels regarding special education, I will say that things have changed within the past decade. Special needs classrooms in many schools are now being integrated with the general student body and inclusion classrooms are being utilized.

Many teachers are embracing the role of “family liaison” and creating fun and exciting ways to encourage positivity within an inclusion classroom.

 Here are top 5 strategies that I have used within my learning environment to help bridge the parental involvement gap while releasing at least some of the stigmas associated with special education.

1. Host events and activities that bring families into the school.

Who doesn’t love a potluck event? I know I do! Your classroom is your intimate domain and a great place to host a “Discovery Day” event where parents bring food and you provide hands-on ice-breaker activities to help all members of your classroom community get to know each other better.

2. Communicate with parents frequently using a variety of methods.

Make contact with all parents and families prior to the beginning of the school year and keep the conversation going all year. Remember, communication may be about a resource for a parent and anything that you may think would be of interest in regard to keeping a parent informed. Communication may come in the form of the old fashioned handwritten letter, emails, phone calls, texts, or an in person conversation. Do one or all, and keep it fresh and interesting!

3. Create a warm, welcoming, respectful, and culturally/socially aware environment.

An open door policy is a great idea to build relationships and trust. A great way to do this is by creating an environment that encourages parents, students and the local community members to add to the culture of your room. This helps to build a rapport and families/community members will feel more encouraged to get more involved in supporting all your students. I like to put up flyers, posters and other items showcasing the exciting things happening in the community.

4. Provide a variety of resources for parents.

Learning your child may need special services may be very stressful for the parent and student alike. In order to help lessen the stress, create a classroom website where you offer tips on how parents may assist their special needs child at home. There is no magical manual that tells parents how to handle dealing with a child  with special needs. Often they are just as stressed as you are if not more and may look toward you for the answers. Your class website can be a place where you keep parents up to date about the latest research and resources for special and general educational support. You can also try to have a member of the child study team or a special education teacher available during Open House to help explain how special services work and how parents and students may effectively utilize their resources and understand their rights in the beginning of the year.

5. Be flexible when accommodating families and parents.

Parents and families in special education are often asked to come to meetings about their child in school. I found that many parents worked and often could not come into school for a meeting. So, accommodations are needed for not only your students with special needs but also their parents. Offer accommodations such as phone or Skype conferences, or supervision of their younger children while in a mandatory meeting.

Special education services may feel intimidating to parents and educators alike. Nevertheless, building a classroom community that supports parents in being involved and informed will allow for the stigma of special education to become less threatening. Remember, every child is “special” and it takes a village to raise and educate them. Happy engaging!

Thanks again, Nashima, for sharing your experiences with us. Nashima and I would love to hear from you in the comments–any questions? How do you build relationships with kids and parents and help them overcome the stigmas associated with special education? 

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Douglas W. Green, EdD May 29, 2015 at 6:50 am

I think the best way to overcome this stigma is to provide special education services to more students. In Finland, half of the students get some special ed services at some time during their public education. They also give the service before the students get too far behind or struggle too much. In the U.S. we are more likely to wait until the student is way behind and then we slap a not so nice label on them. Just give the students what they need when they need it and stop wasting time and money sitting around in committees agonizing about assigning or avoiding classification. We also see that kids with parent advocates get everything while poor kids often do not due to lack of funds.


2 Angela Watson May 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm

This is an excellent point and very well said. At one Title I school I taught at, there was so much funding for gifted, ESL, ESE (special education), and skill-based pull-outs that only a handful of students in my class didn’t qualify for SOME sort of special program. It was interesting to see their reaction: on more than one occasion, they asked me, “Why does everyone else get to go to small groups but we stay here? When do I get to go to a group?” It was so normal to see kids constantly going in and out (and the provided pull outs were so high quality and enjoyable for the kids) that the stigma had almost completely disappeared, at least from the students’ perspective.


3 Veronica L. June 1, 2015 at 6:48 am

I agree with this article. As educators although we have a lot on our plates, our entire system needs to be revamped so that it is more inclusive with all types families especially those with special needs children. Families and our relationships with them are key to the understanding a child. My experience as a classroom educator for over 10 years has taught me that it takes a collective of dedicated individuals to create a welcoming environment for all types of learners and their families. Embrace diversity and then our children and their families will learn that it is ok to learn, look, and be an individual in a collective space.


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