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Webinar alert! Strategies for Communicating with Special Education Families

Texas, On-DemandCalifornia, 2/29
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Julie McKinney, MS
on
January 4, 2024

Using Plain Language for Effective Communication with Parents

Learn how simple, friendly language leads to effective communication with parents. Get your messages across clearly AND build trust!

Every school wants to communicate well with parents and have good family engagement. But you may notice that you get few responses to the letters or invitations you send out. Or you may find that parents don’t seem to understand how to prepare for an IEP meeting, even though you sent them an explanation. Effective communication is especially important for special ed families. They have more interactions with the school, and they have more on their plate than most families of typical students.

What is Plain Language and how can it affect family engagement?

“Plain Language” is what we call simple, clear language that people can easily understand the first time they hear or read it. This is an important tool for effective communication with parents. But it’s not easy. It takes intention, effort and skill.

When families read information that’s easy to understand, they get what you’re trying to say and are more likely to respond. This can also put them in a better mindset: they sense you care that they understand, and are more likely to work collaboratively with you. This leads to more trust and better family engagement. 

Better family engagement is a win-win. It improves academic outcomes and teacher morale, and leads to fewer disputes. 

Why is complex information a burden for families?

Has your doctor, electrician or mechanic ever explained something to you that sounded like Greek? (Don’t even get me started on health insurance!) Did they assume you knew all the acronyms and jargon? How did you react?

Consider this instruction to a SPED parent: 

If it is denimreted that the student is elbigile for an dezilaudividni noitacude margorp, the next step is to prepare for the meeting gnirud hcihw the noitaulave results will be dessucsid and the IEP will be depoleved.

How did it feel to read that? Sure, you could probably figure it out, but was it easy? (Hint: some words are backwards.) What if everything you read was like that? For many adults, reading instructions often feels like this. It can be a slog that quickly becomes frustrating and demoralizing. 

The goal of plain language is to reduce the reader’s burden of effort on the brain (“cognitive load”)

Complex writing requires a high cognitive load. Reading it is tiring, frustrating and stressful. Many people will not understand what you’re saying or what they need to do. Parents are stressed enough already, especially when they have a child with a disability. And special ed communication often includes lots of technical terms and acronyms. 

If you use plain language, you don’t make them suffer through the slog of deciphering a complicated letter. They will appreciate it and have more positive feelings toward the school.

Americans’ literacy skills: Why you may be missing the mark for many families

It was a big wake-up call when, in the early 2000’s, research found that American adults have serious challenges with literacy. (Newer studies have shown no clear progress since then.) 

  • Only 12% of adults have a “proficient” level of literacy
  • About 1 in 5 adults has a very hard time managing daily tasks due to literacy challenges 
  • The average reading level is what a 7th-8th grader can read and understand, yet most information for the public is written at college-level or above 

And it’s also been shown that even people with high literacy levels have lower comprehension skills in moments of stress. This is a real concern when you’re sharing important information with families. If your information is too hard to understand, many parents will not even read it. 

Effective communication with parents requires plain language

The concept and practice of plain language writing was first developed in response to the adult literacy studies. But it helps all of us, no matter our reading level or experience with a topic. 

Even highly educated professionals prefer plain language. It’s easier, faster and kinder for busy people. (Not to mention people who are stressed, sleep deprived and talking about an emotional topic—like their child!) 

Imagine you’re a parent on a typical evening. Home from work, and tired already, you’re in the midst of making dinner, helping with homework and a million other “urgent” tasks. Your child has a school notice to read and sign. After the first 2 sentences, it’s clear that the burden of deciphering the notice is beyond your capacity at that moment. You may be frustrated with the school for imposing that burden on you. The notice goes in a pile of papers…or in the trash. 

George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote could have been about effective communication with parents: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

How can plain language build trust with busy families?

Every communication with a parent is an opportunity to build trust or lose trust.

Todd Rogers, Behavioral Scientist at Harvard Kennedy School of Gov., working to improve student attendance and communication

We see what can happen when the school imposes on parents the burden of reading a dense, confusing letter. “Doesn’t the school know how much I have going on? How can they expect me to understand this?” The lingering feeling may be: “They haven’t made an effort to make things a little easier for us.”

If you use plain language, you don’t make people suffer through this. Instead:

  • They read what you wrote instead of avoiding it or throwing it out
  • They get what you’re saying
  • They’re more likely to come to that event or be prepared for that IEP meeting
  • They know you care about their experience, and have a better feeling about the school

Plain language can also help build relationships

One element of plain language writing is to use a friendly, conversational tone. Small things can make a difference. If you say “the student” instead of “your child”, it creates distance rather than engagement. It can make families feel like a cog in a big system, rather than a person and real partner in their child’s education. If they don’t feel “seen” or welcomed, this can erode trust.

Say “we” and “you” instead of abstract business-like language. Make it feel like a conversation between equals. This makes people feel included and valued. It eases the sense of a power dynamic between the school and the family. 

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This is one of our main goals at Exceptional Lives: to make information easier for families. And we have a practice to remind us to use plain language. Some families have a Curse Jar where family members have to put in a quarter each time they say a curse word. 

Our team has to feed the jar if we use the word “utilize” instead of “use”. There’s no reason at all to use a 3-syllable complex word when a simple one will do! It may seem silly, but it helps us to always think carefully how our words land. 

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How to make your information easier for families to understand

Here are some basic practices for plain language writing:

  • Use short sentences with familiar words (short words when possible)
  • Keep the grammar construction simple and use active voice
  • Use a friendly, conversational style: “we”, “you”, “your child”, etc.
  • Chunk the information into small bits.Short paragraphs and bullets are helpful

Let’s look again at that sentence from above:

If it is determined that the student is eligible for an Individualized Education Program, the next step is to prepare for the meeting during which the evaluation results will be discussed and the IEP will be developed.

Here’s a plain language version:

If the school decides your child qualifies for special education, the next steps are:

  • To meet and discuss the evaluation results
  • To develop an IEP: an Individualized Education Program

Here’s what you can do to prepare…


Writing in plain language is not easy. But it’s worth it! Your communication with students’ families will be more effective, and the families will feel that you care enough to make things easier for them. This goes a long way to building trust and better family engagement.

Need some help improving your communication with your Special Education Families? Check out our Family-Friendly Communication Check-up.

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