A principal warmly welcomes a student and her mom to school.
Pamela White, Ed.S.
February 13, 2024

Working with parents of students with disabilities: 4 ways for schools to earn families’ trust

Effective family engagement can be hard when working with families of students with disabilities. Here are 4 ways to build trust…

Establishing relationships between school and home that are supportive, collaborative, and trusting can be challenging. The challenge can be even greater when working with parents of students with disabilities. But it is necessary for schools to build good relationships with families to collaboratively encourage and support student success–especially for students in special ed. Unfortunately, many schools have a hard time establishing positive relationships with families. One reason for this is the lack of trust many families have in the schools and educators that serve their children. 

To make it easier to build  relationships between school and home, schools must find ways to earn families’ trust.  When families and schools create supportive relationships, work together, and trust each other, it can lead to a significant increase in student achievement

A trusting relationship with the school can help students achieve more because: 

  • They can feel more supported
  • They can have better motivation 
  • Their work ethic can improve
  • They can develop a better attitude towards school 
  • Their respect for teachers can improve, and 
  • All of those improvements can lead to better grades. 

By understanding the importance of trusting relationships with families, schools can proactively work towards establishing those relationships from the start of the school year. The positive impacts of those relationships can improve overall student achievement and the school climate. Schools must be intentional when implementing strategies to build trusting relationships.  

These 4 tips can help schools earn families’ trust:

1. Maintain regular communication with parents of students with disabilities

A major complaint that many parents have about schools is a lack of communication. Parents often feel they are not kept informed of important events, activities, and other key information about their children’s experience. It’s important for schools to maintain regular communication so parents can always be aware of what’s happening at school, and especially what’s happening with their children. 

When schools set up communication methods, they must remember that parents do not all prefer to communicate the same way. Some parents prefer a phone call while others would rather read a note. In the age of technology, many parents may prefer to read a social media post, but not all parents have the technical skills required to follow a school’s post on social media. The days of just sending home a note are over. In order to reach all parents, it is essential for schools to use a variety of methods when communicating information.  

In addition to schools using different methods to communicate with parents, teachers should also find out how individual parents prefer to get information. By doing so, teachers will clearly know how to reach parents to make a positive report, make them aware of an incident, or pass on important information. 

Some of the communication methods that can be used by teachers and schools include:   

  • Phone calls
  • Email
  • Text messages 
  • Weekly or monthly newsletters
  • Regular notes from school to home and back
  • School websites
  • Social media pages
  • Local media announcements

Regardless of the method used, it’s important that parents get regular, clear, and accurate communication from the school. The communication should be easy to understand and make it easy for parents to respond. Parents are busy and often inundated with paperwork. When you make the messages clear and easy to read, it shows parents that the school cares about them enough to make things easier. This helps build trust. 

2. Always be responsive to parents

Schools must be responsive to families to earn their trust. This is especially true when working with parents of students with disabilities. Many times parents complain of leaving messages for school administration or teachers about a problem, situation, or even to make a suggestion, but no one calls them back. Parents complain of sending emails, but never getting a reply. Don’t forget the parent who sends a note to the school to inform the teacher that her child is experiencing a situation that needs to be addressed, only to have the teacher disregard the note and never reply or reach out to discuss the situation. When parents have experiences like this, it decreases their level of trust in the school.

Parents feel unvalued and unheard when schools are not responsive. Being responsive to parents requires more than just regular school-wide communication. To be truly responsive, schools must be quick to respond, address concerns in a timely manner, and be willing to listen to suggestions.

Schools must engage with parents in a way that makes the parent feel like they are important, valued, and their suggestions and opinions matter. When schools are responsive to families in this way, it helps build trust. 

 3. Treat families with respect

Respect is a very important factor in establishing relationships between school and home. When families have a bad experience that causes them to feel disrespected by the school, it can make them lose trust and damage the relationship between home and school. When families do not trust schools, it can negatively impact student success. 

Families may feel disrespected by schools for various reasons. Some of those reasons may be caused by intentional harm or disrespect by school staff, and other reasons may be caused by unintentional harm or disrespect caused by the schools. An example of intentional harm or disrespect caused by school staff could be a teacher losing control of their emotions during a meeting and using insulting words towards parents. Unintentional harm or disrespect could occur when school personnel unknowingly disrespect or insult a family’s culture or customs because of a lack of knowledge. 

Schools have to recognize the damage these actions can cause to family members and to the family’s relationship with the school. 

In order to treat families with respect, schools should do the following:

  • Always talk to families in a respectful way
  • Show compassion and immediately address their concerns 
  • Return phone calls and respond to messages
  • Acknowledge and respect cultural differences
  • Involve parents in the education process and really listen to their suggestions
  • Treat all children with respect, despite their behavior. Look for the reason behind the behavior, and try to address that. (Hint: work with the parents–they can probably help!)

It’s important for schools to understand that most families want to build supportive, collaborative, and trusting relationships because they want their children to succeed. When families display signs of distrust such as hiring an advocate instead of first addressing concerns with the school, withholding information, or questioning what they are being told by the school, it may be the result of a previous bad experience. 

Respectful relationships are built on trust. When schools treat families with respect they can earn the families’ trust. (Learn from a graduate how teachers can respect students with disabilities in school.)    

4. Provide regular opportunities for family engagement

Family engagement is a critical component in establishing trusting relationships between school and families. Families want to be involved and look for multiple opportunities for engagement during the school year. The number of strategies you can use to engage families is endless. 

School leaders, counselors, grade level teams, and individual teachers can work together to use some of the following strategies to offer families opportunities to get involved:

  • Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO)
  • Open Houses
  • Volunteer Opportunities at the School
  • Family Math Nights
  • Family Literacy Nights
  • Room Parents
  • MultiCultural Events
  • Family breakfasts
  • Holiday Luncheons
  • Special School Programs

Schools can successfully make family engagement fun and effective by implementing strategies that attract and engage families while promoting the mission of the school. Make sure there is two-way communication during these events, and that you listen to parents’ input.

You may need to adjust the types of engagement opportunities you offer as the needs of the school change. But you should always offer them regularly to engage families, thus building trusting relationships. By offering regular ways for families to engage and get involved, schools can work together with families to share lessons learned and effective strategies to improve student performance. 

Earning families’ trust may not always be easy, but it’s necessary if schools want to ensure positive home-school relationships. When schools prioritize families and earn their trust, students can achieve more. By using these tips, schools can begin the process of earning families’ trust.

Written by Pamela White, Ed.S

  • Pamela White, Ed.S.

    Special Education Program Facilitator

    Pamela White is an Education Specialist who has worked with individuals with disabilities for almost 15 years. She facilitates special education programs for a Louisiana school district and serves as an Educator in Residence for the PROGRESS Center at The American Institute for Research. She is passionate about establishing high expectations for students with disabilities, developing reading skills, teaching with intention, and educators implementing high-leverage practices.

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