I’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.
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?