Mom and son smile at the computer in a video meeting introducing them to special education at school
Julie McKinney, MS
April 9, 2024

Introducing families to special education: Build a great relationship from the beginning

School districts: Introducing families to special ed in a welcoming way can build a good relationship and benefit everyone. Here’s how:

We all know the special education process can be hard. Families are worried about their child and are just learning how this all works. Teachers have to manage many different needs and accommodations in the classroom. District leaders have compliance requirements to meet and staffing issues to manage. The special ed process is full of negotiations. It’s no wonder that many relationships between SPED families and schools can be strained.

But a good relationship built on mutual trust can make so much of what’s difficult in this process easier. There’s strong evidence that good relationships and genuine family engagement improve both student success and school climate. When your team and the family trust each other, concerns are likely to be addressed quickly and more easily instead of becoming a full-on dispute. When families are engaged in the IEP process and collaborate well with the team, they can support teachers better and address problems before they become a compliance issue.

What does a good relationship look like?

Imagine a relationship between a family and the school that has these features:

  • There is mutual trust
  • The school and the family are both comfortable talking to each other 
  • The parent knows generally what to expect in the special ed process
  • They know who to call with questions or concerns, and they know that person will listen and help them  
  • School and parents share decision-making, and parents know their ideas will be heard
  • Everyone has an open mind and are willing to compromise
  • Everyone focuses on helping the student

Welcoming families at the beginning of the process

Think about the families at your school whose children are just beginning the special education process. How do you welcome them and tell them what to expect? Schools usually do a great job orienting students and families to a new grade. Back-to-school nights, homeroom orientation and parent-teacher conferences help families meet the teachers and learn about the work their child will do in class. You make sure families understand the expectations and know who to reach out to if they have a concern. But few schools have a specific special education welcome process. 

Intentionally introducing families to special education can go a long way to building trust and encouraging a smooth process.

We know you don’t have enough hours in the day. But if you can put some simple steps in place to connect with families, it can go a long way. Here’s how.

Acknowledge it’s the start of a process and a relationship

Most families whose kids have IEPs will be part of the special education system for a while. Along this journey there will be ups and downs, lots of decisions to make together, and more than likely some disagreements to solve. This will require a relationship with mutual trust, open minds and two-way communication. So it’s worth setting up your relationship with them in the best way possible–right from the start!

Be open about your intention for a good relationship. Find a way to formally welcome new families to the process. Make it clear that you care about listening to their needs and working together with them to support their child. 

  • Call them up and have a short conversation, or invite them in for a get-to-know you meeting (maybe with some coffee, one key to a parent’s heart?). 
  • Send a nice letter to personally welcome them. 
  • Give them a small token, maybe a binder to keep their paperwork in? 

The point is: reach out to them in a personal way and let them know you’re on the same side.

Go beyond the required messaging: be welcoming!

When you do reach out, make sure to convey friendliness and a spirit of working together. A business-like cover letter sent with the Procedural Safeguards will not stand out and feel like a welcome. But if you include a note saying welcome and that you’re excited to work together for their child, it has a very different feel. Be a little personal. Use “I” and “we” and “you”. Make them feel like they are a valued part of the school community. Tell them you want to listen to their ideas and work as a team.

When you interact with parents, ask about their family. Share something about yourself if you’re comfortable. Getting to know each other as people is a sure-fire buffer against contentious interactions down the road.

With intention, you can avoid an us vs. them attitude and start out as a “we.” Your message should be “We can support your child together!”

Let them know what to expect

Remember that a family just starting the special ed process doesn’t know it like you do. The next steps, deadlines, consents and meetings are not yet burned into their brains. If you help them understand what’s ahead and what they need to do, it will help build trust and prevent frustration.

For example, when my friend had her son evaluated for special ed in the spring, she didn’t know that the summer days aren’t counted in the 45-day timeline to get the results. She waited and waited…and got frustrated because she thought the results were supposed to come sooner. Right at the beginning, this set up an us vs. them dynamic in her family’s relationship with the school. That made her family think the school wasn’t following the legal timeline, and the school thought the family’s expectations were unrealistic. By the time they got to the meeting, the family and the school already mistrusted each other. 

You can avoid situations like this by giving families clear information about the process ahead that’s easy to understand. Have some resources that describe the process in simple terms. Sure, you’ll give them the Procedural Safeguards, but that will probably not explain the process in a way they can understand. Consider adding something with your personal touch that helps them know the basics of how the process works. 

Tell them about the timelines. Explain that they can ask for the evaluation reports before the IEP meeting, and they can ask for a meeting time that works for them. Make it clear they can contact the IEP team in between meetings. 

Here are some resources to help families learn the basics of special ed, understand the evaluation process, and prepare for the IEP meeting.

Make things as easy as possible for them

I’ll say it again: parents of students with disabilities are stressed (not to mention way behind on their sleep!) This makes it harder to navigate complicated websites and written notices.

But if you go out of your way to offer information that’s easy-to-find and easy-to-read, this sends a message to them: “We care about your time and effort! We care that you understand how this process works!”

Here are some ways to make things easier for families:

Check in along the way

Building a good relationship is not “one and done”. Relationships need to be nurtured, and there may be a long road ahead. Your efforts to convey a sense of welcome, and a listening ear, should keep going well after the IEP meeting.

And it doesn’t have to be a huge effort! A little check-in now and then goes a long way. Send a follow-up note to see how they’re doing a month or two into the IEP. Share information about monitoring their child’s progress, or how they may want to help their child prepare for tests


Introducing families to special education in a thoughtful intentional way may take a little extra time. But that investment can pay off in a big way if it begins your relationship with mutual trust and understanding. You can look forward to fewer complaints, happy families, teachers who feel more supported, and successful students. Isn’t that worth it?

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