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Marjunique Louis
May 1, 2024

Building a school climate that welcomes families of children with disabilities

How do you build a school climate that is truly welcoming of families of children in Special Education? Here are 3 steps to build trust.

Every day, families entrust the school community with their children. It’s a scary move, particularly when their children have disabilities, and they are putting their trust in you. They need schools and teachers to support them, meet them where they are, and provide guidance, especially in big moments like learning about a new diagnosis or setting up a first IEP. So how do you build a school climate that welcomes families of children in Special Education?

Here are three steps to creating a family-centered approach that will build trust with your families and keep them engaged.

Step 1: Communication, communication, communication

Where do you start creating that anchor of support? Effective lines of communication. Think about some of the things that may be obvious to you but not to families. Do families know the current protocols and expectations? 

Find common ground — it’s where mutual understanding begins. For example, you could discuss the role of student support coordinator. Do families already know? Do they need to know more? School districts and educators might assume that parents are familiar with IEPs, but the process can be overwhelming for families and so it helps to keep talking about the process and what kind of support they need. 

Beyond that, maintaining open dialogue and expectations helps to create that anchor of support that is needed to support parents, caregivers, and family members. 

And don’t forget about effective communication. When sharing resources and communicating with families, do this in a family-friendly way so families can easily understand and access information, regardless of their circumstances. For example: families are busy, so sharing concise, to-the-point resources will help them quickly access the information they need. However, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. It’s also important to understand the specific needs and preferences of your audience. 

Step 2: Make time to get to know the families you serve. 

Get to know who they are, how they think, and what they may need. This could involve initiating informal conversations in person, virtually, or over the phone to foster relationships and build familiarity between educators and parents. For example, you can extend an invitation to speak with a parent or caregiver to discuss the child’s performance and well-being in class. This is especially important because you can hear concerns from parents that you might not otherwise be aware of. It gives you insights and enables you to adjust your approach or seek assistance for parents who may not feel comfortable seeking help for themselves.

You might be thinking, ‘Isn’t that what parent-teacher conferences are for?’ However, parents might want to schedule additional time outside of these conferences to identify any patterns in their child’s behavior. For example, if the child has been experiencing challenges at home, the parent may want to ensure that these issues do not impact the child’s performance at school. These are just a few reasons why parents may seek meetings outside of regular conferences.

Another great opportunity you can continue building rapport with parents is during drop-offs and pick-ups. Taking a moment to share a few words with parents demonstrates care and emphasizes that children are the priority. And it gives you, the educator, insight into how the family operates and how to support the child.

Step 3: Try walking in their shoes

Through relationship building and communication, you begin to develop understanding. But what if that’s not enough? Reflect on the experiences shared by families you’ve worked with, as well as personal conversations. 

You may also have had your own experience as a parent of a school-aged child. These experiences enable you to empathize with families and better understand their needs. By putting yourself in their shoes and considering the unique challenges they face, you can tailor the support and guidance you provide. Imagine navigating the school system under the same circumstances—this can help you identify how to assist families when they need help the most. 

If a parent comes to you for support, consider the intersections of the family’s identities and how these may impact their approach to seeking help and support. These factors can influence how or whether families seek support, whether in-person or online. In both instances, school districts and educators should approach families with empathy and understanding.

Here’s an example: 

Imagine a family with a child facing speech and language challenges, and their first language is not English. What’s the first step you take to support and help with family communication? 

Start by addressing the language barrier with an interpreter or providing translated materials related to the challenges the child is experiencing. This approach helps you prioritize and tailor assistance to meet the family’s specific needs.

Before offering support, consider these questions:

  • What challenges has this family mentioned before? For instance, they may have discussed struggles with engaging their child in at-home learning. Reference their previous concerns to guide your approach.
  • What cultural practices or beliefs may influence how this family seeks support? For example, they may seek guidance through their faith. Approach them with cultural sensitivity, emphasizing that their child’s well-being is your priority.
  • How will the parent feel about the situation? For example, they may feel that it’s their fault their child is experiencing a speech delay. Assure the parent that you’re on their side and want what’s best for their child.

School districts can adopt a family-centered approach when supporting and guiding families to better understand their circumstances and decide on strategies that suit them and their children.  By prioritizing the family’s perspective, working closely with them, and understanding how various factors impact the academic progress of the child, educators can better address the unique needs and challenges within special education. 

How Exceptional Lives Can Help You

At Exceptional Lives, we prioritize trust-building when creating and tailoring the support we provide for the families, parents, and caregivers we serve. Whether you’re a family within the disability community, a provider, a school district, an educator, or anyone navigating the complex landscape of disability information and practices, we’re here to guide you with clear, family-friendly information and support.

Learn more:

  • Marjunique Louis

    UX Apprentice

    Marjunique Louis is a driven and passionate UX apprentice with a background in social media and marketing. Originally from New Orleans, she pursued her B.A. in mass communication at Loyola University and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Information at the University of Michigan.

    Marjunique has developed her skills as a UX researcher through collaborative projects and while working with her university library to create equitable spaces and ensure accessibility of library resources. She has applied the same principles to her work as a UX apprentice for Exceptional Lives, where she focuses on making our disability resources accessible and understandable for parents. Marjunique brings a user-centered approach to her work, using her skills to create a meaningful experience for BIPOC communities.

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