Modeling the Parent-Teacher Strategies of Special Education
By Laurie McLaughlin
Special education teacher Elaine Mulligan has spent many hours on the phone, in parents’ living rooms and one-on-one with students outside of school to achieve the right level of family integration into the students’ day-to-day education.
Teachers in all subjects and all levels have long grappled with how best to incorporate parents — both the over-eager and the under-involved — into a student’s education. The example set by special education teachers like Mulligan who routinely interact with parents through the federally mandated Individualized Education Program (IEP), is one that general education teachers may emulate in order to balance mom and dad’s contributions.
Within an effective IEP, the student’s various teachers (special education and general education), other school staff, parents and the student (as appropriate) come together to examine the child’s unique capabilities and needs. A program plan is established and consistent parental communication is required and managed. “The IEP helps parents of special education children maintain proper engagement, but it’s a process that can be used with any child,” says Patti Ralabate, a National Education Association special education senior policy analyst and author of Meeting the Challenge: Special Education Tools that Work for All Kids.
“Special education teachers understand this model and are accustomed to engaging parents from the beginning, but general education teachers may not be as familiar with it and can be surprised when parents want to be highly involved,” adds Ralabate. “Especially in middle and high school, kids are starting to pull away from under their parents’ watchful eyes, but kids with disabilities may still be very dependent on their parents.”
The outreach from teacher to parents in the IEP’s detailed plan provides the reassurance and scheduled communication needed by an exceptionally involved parent. At the other end of the spectrum, teachers creating IEPs also explore the particular needs of less-engaged parents and tailor interaction to make them feel more comfortable with their child’s program. “Just as we must understand the different needs of the student, we need to understand the different needs of the parent and where they are coming from,” says Ralabate.
“It’s easy for teachers to get into the habit of thinking of parents as nuisances or even the ‘the enemy,’” says Mulligan, currently the project coordinator for the National Institute for Urban Schools Improvement's LeadScape program at Arizona State University.
She has taught special education for most of her classroom career, which began in 1994. “When teachers work with up to 150 students, it’s difficult to consider each family’s needs. However, we need to keep in mind the parents have invested much more time and emotion in the student’s growth and learning than we have.
“The inclusion of parents in the [IEP] creates a forum for parent participation as a member of the decision-making team; there is an understanding that the parents of an exceptional child have expertise in their child’s specific learning needs. The acceptance of parents’ knowledge can be a tool for general educators as well.”
With the use of the structured program, Mulligan spent time listening to parents, considered their ideas and utilized applicable feedback, which creates mutual respect and trust, she says. “When that happens, the power dynamic is broken, and the ‘us and them’ mindset moves to a ‘we’ mindset.”
Time is a sensitive issue, says Julie Moore, a seventh-grade teacher at Central Kitsap Junior High School in Silverdale, Wash., who has taught special education in the past. While implementing full IEPs is not practical for the number of students she has, she does draw on aspects of the IEP model. “When parents don’t understand, it can take a lot of time. The three Cs — communication, collaboration and common understanding — are essential to teacher-parent relationships,” she says. “This is where districts need to recognize that educators may need designated time on a daily or weekly basis to deal with the requirements of the IEP.”
Mulligan says the process is labor intensive; however, “the result is not only a more effective working relationship with that parent, but also a word-of-mouth reputation as a good, trustworthy teacher.”