Category Voices
Author Linda Carling, Ed.D.

Linda Carling is an Associate Research Scientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education Center for Technology in Education. She specializes in learning engagement and design and is a parent of a child with a disability.

Families play a vital role in special education. As a teacher, maintaining a positive partnership with open lines of communication can be challenging in a traditional school setting. In a virtual setting, it is even harder.

Teachers and families of students with disabilities have worked hard to help them learn at home. Families have had challenges and successes, but have ultimately become more involved in their child’s schooling than ever before.

As teachers, connecting with and supporting families in a virtual learning environment requires creativity, planning, and an investment in working together to maximize students’ success. Families see and experience firsthand the challenges that both teachers and their children face. They can also see — and appreciate — the efforts teachers have made to educate students with disabilities during this monumental change in schooling.

These five tips are designed to help teachers improve relationships and communications with families of students with disabilities during virtual and hybrid learning without adding more to an already heavy workload.

1. Focus on what learning matters most.

During the pandemic, family priorities matter more than ever. Some skills are extremely challenging to tackle during virtual learning. When determining what to focus on as an educational team, consider which skills will make the most impact for the student. Input from families can help you determine areas of need and supports that may have arisen during virtual learning or hybrid learning.

2. Understand the family situation.

While you may have had a good understanding of the family and its dynamic during in-person learning, virtual learning adds another layer of complexity. It is helpful to understand the environment the child is learning in, and level of support the student has in that environment.

Try not to make assumptions, including about how well the family is managing virtual or hybrid learning. For any family, regardless of circumstance, it may be very difficult to support their child during virtual learning while working or managing other children at home.

If you establish trust with a family, they may be more open to share their struggles, particularly if an issue or change in the family occurs that may impact the student’s ability to fully engage in school.

3. Consider what has worked in the past.

It may be helpful to convene your student’s educational team and the family in order to problem-solve what previously successful strategies would look like now, at a distance, as well as what new needs or barriers have arisen. Families can benefit from learning to implement these strategies at home and can be asked to share how — and if — they are working.

It is also helpful if students can share the challenges they are facing from their perspective. If it is evident that a strategy is no longer working, the student is becoming disengaged, or an issue has surfaced, it is recommended to discuss this with the family, as they may have to implement any changes in supports.

4. Encourage families to communicate with you.

Family communications provide a window into family issues and priorities, teaching and learning wins, and potential challenges. Encourage families to communicate with you even more so than in a traditional school year. Below are some ways to promote communication:

  • What do you think has gone well in a recent lesson/class session?
  • This is a quick note to tell you that I was excited to see [Student] do …
  • Can you please something that is your child is really excited about/interested in right now so that I can incorporate it into an upcoming lesson?
  • On [this day of the week] we can touch base briefly after the class session to check in about …?
  • Feel free to contact me by [email, phone, etc.] if you have any questions or issues about …

5. Shift the language.

How you speak about students and with their families can make all the difference, especially during these times. Keep in mind that your genuine care and passion for your students may not always be as apparent in virtual learning. Shifting the language — or, making thoughtful changes to how you communicate — can help build trust, accomplish goals more quickly, and maintain a positive mindset as you find ways to support your students during this pandemic.

Consider these language changes:

  • Work with families instead of for. You, having expertise in your field, along with your colleagues can effectively seek solutions in discussions with families as experts on their children.
  • Change your language from have to to get to. Consider how changing just these words will transform how you approach your work and communications with families. For example: I get to observe this student. I get to share this information with this family.
  • Focus on the positives and strengths. When communicating with families, it is helpful to focus on what the student is able to do and what the student does well. The strengths and abilities are followed by next steps and areas to focus. Intentionally shifting to a strengths-based perspective (rather than a deficit perspective) will help families to believe that you see the best in their child.

Here are some positive sentence starters to consider when communicating with families:

  • She is really good at …
  • What I really love about him is …
  • I have observed good progress in …
  • In class, he really seems to enjoy …
  • I was so proud of her when she …
  • I am starting to see him develop the skill of …
  • I would really like to focus on …
  • What we should start to see next is …
  • You have shared that [this skill/behavior] is important to you and here’s how we will work on that …
  • At home, are you seeing improvements in … ?
  • I appreciate you sharing about [something at home] because that will help to guide …

Teachers make a critical and lasting impact on their students and families. Incorporating just a few of these things can help you strengthen your relationship with families during virtual and hybrid learning, and even after returning full time to the classroom.

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