Engaging Families of Children with Autism: Here’s How One Team Allows Parent Voice to Guide Them

April 12, 2017 12:43 PM
by / Topics: Improving Family Engagement

The Communication and Education Support (CES) Team at Anne Beers Elementary School thoughtfully engages and partners with families of students with autism.

“What are your hopes and dreams for your child,” is the standard question teachers ask parents during home visits. Most families tell teachers they want to see their child graduate college and land a solid career. But Tameka Petticolas Clemons, early childhood special education teacher at Anne Beers Elementary School, says the families she visits have unique requests; many of them just want to hear their child say ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy.’

Mrs. Clemons teaches special needs children who have been diagnosed with autism. Most of them are non-verbal so when she poses the hopes and dreams question, it’s natural for families to respond in a “much more emotional” way.

Mrs. Clemons joins Curtis Turner, Cara Carter, and Demetria Clark, the full staff who make up the Communication and Education Support (CES) Team that supports autistic students in grades pre-k 3 through 5th grade. The school has been in the Family Engagement Partnership (FEP) since 2012, practicing effective family engagement strategies that provide opportunities for families and teachers to partner so special education students have positive and effective learning experiences.

Home Visits Open the Door to Partnership

Mrs. Clemons has been in the autism program with District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for 11 years. The District has made many gains, she says, to better support autistic children. With trainings that provide teachers with guidance on how to implement strategies and interventions, students are developing behavior and communication skills. When Mrs. Clemons started teaching at Beers ES, there was a greater emphasis to engage families of special needs students.

“Home visits give me the opportunity to get an understanding of where parents are in managing the fact that their child has a disability,” said Mrs. Clemons.

During home visits, Mrs. Clemons meets families that have come to terms with their child’s diagnosis and are willing to partner so that they can see gains made, specifically in behavioral modification and communication. In some cases, though, families have not gripped the reality no matter how severe the symptoms are.

“Some parents don’t want to face that their child has a disability,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t love their child. They just haven’t gotten to the acceptance phase.”

Academic Parent Teacher Team (APTT) Meetings Build Community and Trust

Dr. Abila Tazanu, Executive Director of One World Center for Autism, Inc., knows, first-hand, the impact family engagement has on the lives of students with special needs. She had to navigate the challenges associated with ensuring three of her children received a high-quality education after they were diagnosed with autism. Dr. Tazanu, who has five children, served as a guest speaker at a recent Academic Parent Teacher Team (APTT) meeting at Beers ES with families of Mrs. Clemons’ class. APTT meetings give parents the opportunity to learn what’s happening in the classroom, to set goals for their children, and to get resources to help their children at home. But beyond that, APTT meetings also provide the space for families to build a community of shared experiences.

“Some parents don’t want to come to Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings because they’re constantly told what their child cannot do. But during APTT meetings, parents access information that helps them navigate challenges and offers them hope. It’s a very safe environment for parents,” said Mrs. Clemons.

The safe space has a huge impact on families. “Autism is an isolating condition, so for parents to come together in a space where they can connect on the challenges they face is empowering and lets them know they’re not alone,” said Dr. Tazanu.

Mrs. Clemons admits that because Dr. Tazanu’s could personally identify with families, the APTT meeting was the best yet. Aside from connecting with families, Dr. Tazanu’s one takeaway was that the APTT model builds trust.

“Trust is so critical when you enter the world of special needs,” said Dr. Tazanu, who is also a pediatrician. “There are two learning curves – the level of grief and understanding the diagnosis to really navigate special education support.”

Dr. Tazanu was mostly engaged when her children, who are now 20, 18, and 14, were in early education. It was when they transitioned to elementary school that the opportunities provided by educators to partner were not as evident.

“I had to make those connections and it was an uphill battle. When we transitioned to kindergarten and first grade, the rug was pulled from underneath me. The concentration [in grade school] shifted to meeting IEP goals and very little family support,” she said.

On-going Communication Addresses Barriers

One of the biggest fears for parents of non-verbal children with autism is that their child won’t be able to communicate if something is wrong. Mrs. Clemons works to consistently address this barrier through on-going communication.

“On-going communication is a must,” she said. “I need 100% trust from parents because I’m the only voice between them and their child.”

Dr. Tazanu says there’s no “fancy equation” to consistently and meaningfully communicate with families. For students with special needs, seeing the progress is enlightening. Dr. Tazanu recommends sending families photos of their children in action. It gives families a visual perspective of the safe environment in which their child is developing.

What’s Next?

Next school year, students will transition to new grades, classrooms, and schools. Families face anxiety at the end of the school year because the partnerships they’ve developed with teachers will end or transfer to another teacher. To address these feelings of uncertainty, the CES team will facilitate a meet-and-greet style APTT meeting to introduce families to the teachers they will partner with next school year. For families of students transitioning to middle school, the team will invite teachers from feeder schools.

Dr. Tazanu, who was most impressed by how much parents trusted teachers in the room, said “special education teachers have to be more than educators,” and to do that, Mrs. Clemons says, parent voice should be the guide.