Although school personnel recognize that children with Learning Disabilities (LD) have difficulty with a variety of academic skills, frequently the relationship between LD and social-emotional skills go unacknowledged in the school setting. Teachers are often viewed as the experts in the child’s academic concerns and the parents the experts of the child’s social-emotional life. As a result, teachers and parents may develop stereotypical ideas of the role that the other plays in the life of the child and choose not to communicate with the other. However, the separation of the two environments that dominate a child’s world is an artificial one at best. As children move between these two contexts the difficulties experienced in one area are carried into the next. Academic skills are strengthened in the home through activities such as home work and study skills, while social-emotional skills are developed in school settings through the interpersonal interactions in structured and unstructured school time. Thus, establishing a solid connection between the school and the home will result in benefits to the students, the teachers and the parents. The home environment and the school environment can share the responsibility by facilitating a consistent message to the child that he or she is supported and cared for in both settings. In order to do this, teachers must build a working alliance with parents.
Encouraging Parent Participation
The first step in encouraging parent participation is to structure school environments in which parents know that they are welcome and valued. This goes far beyond simply telling a parent at the start of the school year that they are welcome in the school or in their child’s classroom. The subtle messages that are transmitted to parents through the actions of the school personnel or the teacher convey the real message of welcome. For example, is it typical in your school that:
a parent’s message that has been left with a member of the office staff goes unanswered because it was lost or forgotten.
teachers or school personnel only contact a parent when there has been some sort of difficulty in school.
parental concerns about a child's experience or learning are minimized or ignored.
communication difficulties stemming from language barriers due to cultural or educational differences are not worked through and overcome.
A parent’s repeated experience with these types of situations let them know that they are not a welcome participant in their child’s school and classroom. As a result, parents may withdraw from their child’s school life, deciding to relinquish authority to the school. Although a teacher’s day is hectic, a teacher who devises strategies to overcome these barriers will be rewarded with support from the child’s home.
Collaborating with Parents
The concept of collaboration is not foreign to teachers. Teachers are expected to collaborate in school settings with the various other professionals with whom they interact. The educators and researchers, Friend and Cook (2000) have defined collaboration as "a style for direct interaction between at least two coequal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work toward a common goal" (p. 6). From this definition, it is apparent that the individuals specified in the collaborative relationship can be anyone who wants to participate in the decision making process and who volunteers to work toward a shared goal. Thus, parents are the perfect collaborative partners for teachers in the school setting. Both parties have the child’s best interest in mind as they work on academic and social goals. One key element in the relationship is the respect of the other person’s knowledge and understanding of the child. When this occurs, teachers and parents are equal partners in the collaborative effort. Effective communication is a key aspect of building partnerships with parents. Seligman (2000) identified three communication techniques that teachers can employ to help parents feel heard during a collaborative meeting.
Sit in a relaxed posture, leaning forward slightly. This indicates to parents that they are being listened to.
Vary eye contact. Starring can be uncomfortable for both parties but varying eye contact conveys interest.
Use comments and questions directly related to what the parent has said. This indicates that the teacher has understood what the parent is telling them and is willing to engage in an open discussion.
Specific Strategies for Increasing Parental Involvement
Although there is no recipe for improving home–school relationships, teachers can incorporate a variety of strategies into their daily practice that will increase the likelihood of developing a positive collaborative relationship with parents. As with all collaborative relationships, the message of respect for the family with the ability to be flexible with meeting time and format will help to establish rapport. Specific strategies to involve parents are limited only by the teacher’s own creative problem solving, but can include:
written communication—personal notes, progress reports, emails, text messages, daily/weekly report cards and classroom newsletters.
oral communication—use of commonly understood language when making good news phone calls to students and/or parents, follow-up phone calls to indicate progress, telephone conferencing, informal exchanges at arrival or dismissal time, formal face to face meetings.
invitations into the school/classroom—participate on committees, go on school trips, attend school or class events, engage in social activities with students and other parents, make presentations, and volunteer to help in the class.
Effective partnerships between home and school can result in the optimal development of the child. Some schools have a designated resource room and parent collaborator to formalize the process of home-school collaboration. In these settings, parents have a specific individual to turn to when they have questions or concerns about their child’s schooling. These parent resource rooms are stocked with books and videos that can serve as tools for parents when they are looking to improve their own skills. Additionally, workshops can be provided to parents to enhance their own understanding and involvement in their child’s academic and social-emotional development.
Other school districts have taken the concept of collaboration a step further by developing full service schools. A full service school is one that includes an array of services for children and families such as day care, health and mental health care and enrichment opportunities all in the school setting. In this way, school personnel and families are served in the neighborhoods they work and live in.
As always, if there are concerns about the academic or social-emotional development of children with whom you work, consult the professionals within your school setting for advice on how to proceed.
Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2000). Interactions. Collaboration skills for school professionals (3rd ed.). New York: Longman. p.6.
Seligman, M. (2000). Conducting effective conferences with parents of children with disabilities. New York: Guilford Press.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. Dr. Malow teaches courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies, presents at professional conferences, has published articles and a book on friendship, risk taking behavior, and students with disabilities. In addition, she is the director of the Weinberg Learning Center at Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS).