A teacher in glasses sitting at a conference table smiles at a parent seen in profile.
Marisa Howard-Karp, MS
January 30, 2024

How to communicate with parents of special education students: 5 tips from an IEP veteran

Teachers know that parent communication matters. Here are our 5 tips for how to communicate with parents of your special education students.

I’m a parent of several kids with different disabilities. My oldest child qualified for Special Education services 14 years ago and I think I’ve participated in more than 40 IEP meetings for my children. I’ve learned a lot in that time about what makes for a great relationship and a smooth year with my kids’ teachers and schools. 

Most of what sets us up for success comes down to one word: communication. The teachers who have worked really well with my children are also the ones who have been great communicators and great listeners. And the difference it has made is huge.

Why it’s important to focus on how to communicate with your Special Ed Families

I am going to make a few assumptions about you and every teacher we know: You’re overloaded. You have way too many demands on your time. You feel like you’re going in 100 directions every day. It’s a lot. And “family engagement” can feel like yet another thing on your plate.

But here’s the good news: great communication with families makes your job easier, not harder. 

There’s all sorts of data on this: when the communication is clear and welcoming, parents are more likely to respond to your messages and show up at meetings and events. We can help you support our children. And, when it comes to Special Education, great communication can build the trust we all need to keep things from getting tense when students are struggling.

Here are my favorite tips for great communication with Special Ed parents.

#1: Treat me as part of your team

I don’t know how to manage a classroom full of 8-year-olds or help a student with dysgraphia organize an essay. I’m looking to you for this because it’s what you do and you’re great at it. But we have different skills and we can help each other.

I’ve got insight that can help you teach my child. I can tell you what works for us when my child is dysregulated and bouncing off the walls. I know when he hasn’t slept well the night before. I know that it’s his sister’s birthday and it will help him get his work done in class if you remind him that he wants to go out to dinner and celebrate early tonight.

You can tell me about my child’s day or what math concepts he might be struggling with. When I know ahead of time he’s coming home cranky and tired, or that homework might be a struggle, I can meet his needs better when he gets here.

You and I both do a better job when we do it together.

#2 Keep the lines of communication open.

I know how busy you are. So when I do hear from you, it means a lot. I love every silly picture and even the message about my child forgetting to turn in her homework (again). Your messages tell me you’re paying attention to her.

Don’t be afraid to be honest with me about what’s hard. I know my children. They are complicated, wonderful humans who can test my patience in all sorts of creative ways. I get it. And I appreciate it when you ask for my help.

If I reach out to you, a warm response – even if it’s a quick “thanks!” is often all I need. I just want to know you’re listening and that you know I’m here when you need me. 

#3 Keep it simple

Special Education is full of jargon and acronyms that most of us don’t know until we need to. Even though you might live and breathe this language, it helps when you remember that I don’t.

Let’s talk about IEP meetings. I’m stressed. I have a long legal document full of notes about my child’s challenges. I’m trying to understand sentences like “[Child’s name] will complete this with fading support and 75% accuracy 85% of the time.” (Is that Greek? I’m pretty sure it’s Greek). These meetings are hard. Your efforts to make sure I understand go a long way.

This is also true for notes that you send home. I’m often reading them while I’m burning dinner and helping a child search for the other dance shoe and feeding the dog and filling out someone’s reading log. There’s just not a lot of space in my brain to decode complicated messages. But if what you’ve written is clear and straightforward, I am much more likely to understand and remember what you’re trying to tell me. 

#4 Lead with curiosity, especially when it comes to behavior.

I have more than one child whose behavior at school can be challenging. I know what it looks like and believe me, I get frustrated with it too. But behavior is communication, even if the message isn’t always clear.

We know that kids respond to frustration or embarrassment or discomfort in ways that don’t always seem logical. This is especially true for students with disabilities, who may feel this frequently or express themselves differently than typical learners. It’s our job (together) to figure out what’s going on instead of leaping right to disciplinary action. 

Students with disabilities are punished for behavior at a much higher rate than typical learners. According to the US Department of Education, many students with disabilities are disciplined “because they are not receiving the support, services, interventions, strategies, and modifications to school or district policies that they need to manage their disability-based behavior.” 

So please: start with “Why?”

Maybe my kid starts arguments or talks back near the end of the day when you review the homework for tomorrow. Every day! It’s probably making you nuts. So let’s talk about why. This is a time of day when he often has a blood sugar dip. At home this tends to be the time he starts rooting around for a snack. Or maybe this is how he shows his anxiety about whether he understood your instructions. It helps to look for patterns, consider how his disability affects his emotions or how he displays them, and make sure the accommodations are all in place. Whatever the problem, we’re most likely to figure it out together.

Looking for the “why” behind my child’s behavior won’t always get you the answers you need. But punishing my child without trying to understand what’s behind their behavior definitely won’t make things better. It could actually make things worse. So please – come to me and ask why. We’ll try to figure it out together.

#5 Tell me about the good in my kid

Here’s a hard truth: when your child has a disability, there’s a lot of talk about what’s difficult for them, what they struggle with, and what they can’t do. Ouch.

So I love when you tell me about great things about my kids. Maybe they felt proud of themself for their presentation or they invited the new student to sit with them at lunch. I love hearing about it and I love knowing you noticed.

When my children are struggling, I’m looking for news about what’s great for them or what’s better, not what’s great compared to all the other students. Maybe she’s actually getting to class more often or went from a C- to a C+ in science. Maybe she worked with the gym teacher to figure out a way she could fully participate in a game she hadn’t played before. These are such wins! And when you tell me about things that are wins for my child, here’s what it tells me:

  • You know how difficult this is for them
  • You know how much effort they’re putting in 
  • You really understand them.

All that from one short message. You’ve earned my trust forever.

Focusing on how to communicate better with the parents of your Special Ed students will come back to you and then some every single time. And the great news is that you’re already doing it. We’re a team, and we’ve got this.

Learn more

Family-friendly communication check-up: a resource for schools and districts

Using plain language for effective communication with parents

The key to improving your child’s experience in school? Parent-teacher relationships.

  • Marisa Howard-Karp, MS

    Chief Operating Officer

    Marisa Howard-Karp has spent her career focused on improving access to health care and education, including 15 years providing professional development training to educators and social workers. As a parent and caregiver to four children with disabilities, she has been part of more than 40 IEP meetings (and counting) and has more experience than she wishes she needed navigating complex services and systems. She loves the work of making these systems easier for other families. She’s a non-profit lifer and a Georgia native who has made her home in the Boston area.

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