School Partnerships Coach and Former SpEd Teacher Offers Six Insights for Educators Engaging Families of Special Education Students

April 4, 2017 03:01 PM
by / Topics: Improving Family Engagement
John LaRue

John LaRue, Director, School Partnerships Coach at Flamboyan Foundation

Flamboyan’s John LaRue brings a unique perspective to the School Partnerships Coach role, working alongside eight schools in the Family Engagement Partnership (FEP). When he taps into his special education expertise, John is able to stretch special education teachers who, he says, serve in an expanded role as high quality, individualized instructors, mediators, and advocates.

The key to student success, according to John, is that educators keep parent voice at the forefront. With a solid background in special education, this Autism Awareness Month he explores six effective ways special education teachers can better engage families and support students to meet Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals.

  1. Individualize your family engagement efforts
    As a special education teacher, individualized family engagement was critical to my work with students. When a parent finds out that their child has a disability, it takes a toll on an entire family. It’s a difficult experience that leaves parents wanting answers and a solution. I had to be sensitive to this part of the process. One of the ways I did this was by supporting families in navigating the special education system to ensure that their needs were met. The only way to put effective supports in place is with family consent and involvement. The special education process is full of technicalities so my job was to simplify the information so families could make empowering decisions and every child could equitably access their education.
  1. Use ongoing, proactive communications with families
    One of the main family engagement strategies that we prioritized was ongoing, proactive communication. It was important that families got the information they needed in a timely manner and in a way that was positive and actionable. Flamboyan places a big emphasis on two-way, action-oriented communication that is student-centered (academic and socio-emotional). We very much implemented this approach to meaningfully communicate with families. For example, we identified ways in which families could give input in their child’s IEP and made communication reciprocal. To that end, special education teachers could make instructional decisions based on what they heard from families during IEP meetings. While not every conversation was easy, parents and teachers alike felt more on the same page, had clear next steps, and shared in positive, authentic collaboration.
  1. Dismantle your assumptions about families
    In addition to providing high quality, individualized instruction, special education teachers are often also mediators and advocates. To excel in these roles, they must cultivate relationships and working knowledge of the many systems and structures that work together to make for an effective school culture. Family engagement is a critical strategy in supporting students’ academic outcomes, and, when done well, addresses barriers for all students whether they have special needs or not. We know that every community and family has unique needs. Therefore, family engagement is a powerful tool that helps dismantle assumptions that may hinder us from realizing how unique each family truly is.
  1. Make time to actively listen to families
    Be willing to take a step back to listen and think about what school looks like from the parent perspective. Every parent wants the absolute best for their child and every educator has a responsibility to engage families. This year, schools in the FEP are conducting family listening sessions to find out what’s working for families and what isn’t. Family listening sessions generate dialogue that digs deep to find out if the structures in place work best for students and families. Family voice is a critical component of this feedback. The schools in my cohort that have conducted formal and informal family listening sessions embrace the experience and learned, in general, that families feel more engaged and appreciate the school making intentional time for them to share input. Because every school and community is unique, family voice is invaluable and so is their role in supporting schools to innovate within their current family engagement strategies.
  1. Make space and encourage families to network with each other
    Anne Beers Elementary’s Communication and Education Support (CES) teacher Tameka Clemons has put together an academic partnering method that supports families in networking and collectively supporting each other. During their Academic Parent Teacher Team (APTT) meetings, parents have time to goal-set and collectively problem solve. The CES team does an amazing job utilizing the parent expertise in the room and creating a space focused on high expectations and possibilities. At their last APTT, the team invited an expert on autism to support parents in thinking through the daily challenges and successes they were facing.
  1. Keep parent voice at the forefront
    When supporting all my schools with effective family engagement practices, whether they serve a higher population of special needs students or not, I encourage them to keep parent voice at the forefront. Make no mistake, parents are the number one expert on their child. By starting with the mindset that families are invaluable partners in education, you’re already rewriting the narrative from a place of inclusivity.