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Build a positive partnership with parents of students with disabilities

Program specialist Alina Davis shares 4 ways to work more effectively with parents on IEPs.

6 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Alina Davis special ed positive partnerships with parents

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As we approach the end of the school year, special education teachers are reflecting on the progress of students who are receiving special education services and accommodations and sharing this information with parents. Teachers may be developing new individual education plans, preparing for an extended school year, planning for transitions or developing new goals to be measured for the next school year. Whether this is a student’s first IEP or their 10th, the process can be overwhelming to all involved, especially to the parents. Ideally, educators will build a positive partnership with parents to allow for a productive process.

Development of an IEP focuses on reviewing student progress on goals and making decisions on the best ways to provide the greatest access to the general education classroom while determining appropriate services, accommodations or modifications. This looks different for every student and requires the IEP team, which includes at a minimum, the parent or guardian, general education teacher, special education teacher, school administrator, school psychologist or educational diagnostician, and in some cases the student, to come together to make those decisions. 

Having served in various roles on many IEP teams, I have witnessed how some voices rise above others. The voice that often is not lifted up or is continually spoken over is that of the parents. 

What stops parents from interacting at IEPs? 

During an IEP meeting, parents hear reports about their child’s progress that may include reviewing various assessments, classwork or observations. Parents are provided an opportunity to comment and share oral and written input. But while we may be going through the motions of including parents in the process, many parents do not feel they have an equal seat at the table in making decisions that affect their child. What’s missing? A positive partnership with parents.

Barriers to understanding may include language, education, culture and work. They may feel intimidated by the knowledge shared with them by “the experts,” and the terminology that is used to describe their child’s disability may be incomprehensible. In their culture, it may not be accepted to question the input of educators. Many parents are not able to attend meetings due to their work schedules. During an IEP team meeting, parents are to be given an opportunity to talk about their child, but they may be afraid to share at length what they see or understand.

To overcome these barriers to truly meet the needs of each learner, educators must focus on building a relationship with the families of their students. “All parents have dreams for their children and want what is best for them,” according to Anne Henderson et al in “Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships” — even if that best looks different than what we perceive. These dreams will not be evident to us if we do not provide opportunities to listen to our students’ parents. 

Make parents feel valued in IEP process

Educators can help parents feel more comfortable about speaking up in a variety of ways — something I’ve discovered from the multiple interactions I have had with families. 

One instance involved a new student and their family. Upon learning of the various needs of the student, I called the parent to welcome them and ask if they had questions about our program. We spoke about how they envisioned success for their child. During our next interaction, I spoke to these hopes and dreams. The parent shared her surprise, saying that no one ever cared about their aspirations. 

This small connection opened the door to more difficult conversations later, allowing me to provide a safe place for the parent to share concerns and provide input on their child’s learning needs. 

4 steps to connecting with parents

  1. Provide multiple opportunities for input. A casual conversation in the car line or a weekly phone call to check in establishes a connection that lets parents know the school cares about them. Parents have a unique understanding of the needs of their children. Set up conditions for them to share their perspectives.
  2. Make the content accessible to parents. Education is full of terminology that is difficult to understand. Share information in simple terms and explain words or concepts that are complex. Keep their native language in mind when communicating terms that may not translate easily. 
  3. Allow parents to be co-creators of the IEP. When a positive relationship has been established with the parents, they are willing to share. Turn this into a positive partnership with parents by keeping them involved through the IEP development process, not just at the meeting or through the input form. What areas of growth do the parents feel are necessary for transitioning from home to school and life beyond? 
  4. Build on the assets and strengths of the family and student. Parents spend more time with their children than we do. What talents or interests are displayed outside of school that may have a productive impact on how they learn in the classroom?

We must provide opportunities where parents can be equal contributors to decisions made about their students. Parent support is vital in the lives of students served through special education, and they have an important role in the IEP process. Schools have the power to establish a partnership where parents feel welcomed to participate in their child’s learning. 

Alina Davis is a program specialist for parent and family engagement with Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla. In her 25 years in public schools, she has taught kindergarten through third grade and served as a compliance specialist for English to speakers of other languages and staffing specialist for exceptional student education. 


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