The importance of building relationships with your parents.
Why build a relationship with parents?
Your children’s parents are quite simply one of, if not the best resource you will have as a teacher in an ASD class! They are your children’s primary caregivers and educators and will know everything there is to know about their child. We need to build good relationships with them. My aim is always to make my parents feel comfortable enough to share information with me and confident in my ability to support, care for and educate their child. Please believe me when I say that this does not happen overnight. It takes time and like any relationship, it needs work. It also needs to be a two-way relationship where honesty, transparency, respect and trust is shown in a mutual way.
Communication and understanding are key!
Going into my third year with my class, I am lucky to know all of my parents very well and feel very much supported by them. (I hope and think they would say the same about me!) However, it took time to get to this point. In my first year in particular, there were many times where we had to sit down and have tough conversations and discussions but the key here, is that we did sit down together to work things out and kept communication open. What we as teachers have to remember, is that when working within a special education setting, the children coming to us are usually even more reliant on their parents than those in a mainstream counterpart. These parents cater to their child’s every need and have most likely spent every waking hour of their child’s life with them, caring for them, teaching them and holding their hand, guiding them through every milestone. Yes, I know that all parents do this for their children, but I feel it is intensified for any parent when it involves a child with special needs. We are then expecting parents to hand their child over to a stranger for up to 6 hours a day, to relinquish control over the care and education of their child and this, I can only imagine (as I don’t have children of my own), must be an agonising and overwhelming situation to be faced with. So having the consideration and understanding of what a huge transition this will be, not only for the child but for their parents also will stand to you.
Initial meetings with parents
To start on this journey of building a relationship with parents, I always make a point of having an initial one to one meeting with any new parents, whether it is a child starting school for the first time or a child transferring to your school or classroom as the case often is in our settings. This initial meeting allows you to get to know one another on a more personal basis and gives you an opportunity to start to get to know their child as well. I use a simple template to document all meetings with parents that simply details who called the meeting, who is present, what will be discussed and any outcomes from said meeting (if you would like a copy of this for free just let me know and I will make it available). This helps me to keep track of all meetings, discussions and what both sides have agreed upon.
How can you support the transition?
With new parents, I also like to send home a booklet all about our school and class, almost like a social story so they can read through it with their children in preparation for the transition to our class. A copy of mine can be seen in the highlights sections on my Instagram page (@ASDCreationStation). This can also act as a reassuring book for those children who are already in your class but get anxious or worried at the end of the Summer, when it is time to start thinking about going back to school so it is a handy resource to make and use year on year.
With this you might also like to send home your own information collection sheets or use my transition ‘all about me’ booklet found here: https://mash.ie/product/asd-transition-all-about-me-booklet/ to gather information about the children in your class. This is a great way to get to know your child, their likes and dislikes, how they communicate best, what it means/looks like if they are feeling a certain way, etc. It is also from this information that you can start to put supports in place such as the use of reinforcers to engage and encourage children in their learning. Also remember that as with any child, these things change throughout the year so it is also something you can use with the children in your class throughout the year to update information relating to their likes/dislikes, etc. I tend to use something like this every year with all my children to keep our information updated. What worked last year most likely will have changed come September, so you need to be able to adapt and change to the specific needs of your children at any given time.
To keep parents informed, we use the Seesaw App as our home school communication journal. Brief notes are written in each day to let parents know how their child has gotten on throughout the day. Other information such as eating, toileting, etc are also sent home in this way. I have a discussion at the start of the year with all parents about these journals and make it very clear that they will be kept positive and informative and that if there are any incidents (behavioural, sensory, moments of crisis, aggressions etc.) throughout the day I will inform them via phone call, where possible, before their child goes home (as soon as the incident has been resolved, once their child is calm and happy and I am free to do so). Again, these phone calls are kept positive. Parents know their children and their behaviours. I am simply ringing to inform them of what has happened, to ask if they know of any reasons they can think of why it may have happened/been triggered (in case they didn’t get a chance to send us a message or didn’t think it was significant) and also to discuss an action plan of what we are going to do to further support them and their child. To me it is this transparency and honesty that is needed to build trusting relationships between home and school.
Informing parents about incidents
I personally don’t like to write about an incident like the above in the journals as I feel the written word can be dangerous in this situation. I know that we are only doing our duty to inform parents but the written word can seem very harsh and can easily be misinterpreted. Personally, I prefer to speak to parents about what has happened and I choose to do this on the phone (or invite them in for a meeting) rather than catching them at the door at the end of the day. I do this for two reasons. Number 1, many of our children come to school in taxis or buses so the parents are not coming to the school to collect them each day and number 2, no parent wants to feel accosted at the door to be told of an incident in front of other parents or in front of their child. Remember to be considerate of your parent’s feelings. We would never intend to make parents feel this way but it can be overwhelming and come across in this manner. Parent’s lives can be stressful enough and we don’t want to be adding to that or making them feel judged so certainly be mindful of the ways in which you decide to communicate with your parents. In the same breath if parents are reading this, please remember that we do not pass judgement, we are only trying to keep you informed and that is our duty!
Finding a home-school communication system that works for your class.
As mentioned above, home school journals are one of the best ways to keep communication open with parents. I have tried both tick lists and notebooks to encourage communication but have personally found the Seesaw App to be both the easiest and the most effective way for communicating with home. It is also a free app which is always a bonus. (Find it here: https://web.seesaw.me/ ) When I kept written notebooks, I found that I was spending most of my lunch times writing in the journals and then trying to update them in the afternoon as the kids got ready to go home. I found this very stressful, was missing breaks (which you really do need!) and felt as though the children weren’t getting my full attention as they were doing their home time routines as I was trying to do two things at once. I also found that parents weren’t communicating as much when we had these either. They signed them each night but as I was told by them, they found it hard to have the time to write in them before getting the kids out of the house and down to school which you can completely understand. (Always listen to your parents and the feedback they are giving you!) The App however allows us to communicate with parents throughout the day, even if it is only a quick picture of their child doing an activity or sending a voice message, followed by a note at the end of each day. Parents also then get the opportunity to message us (using the App on their phones) once they drop the kids off/pop them on the bus to let us know how they got on the previous night or that morning. As a result, I have seen a huge increase in the levels of home school communication over the past year while using this App. This has also led to us being better informed about children’s routines and behaviours and increases our ability to differentiate tasks and makes school life so much easier for the children. Another bonus of being able to send pictures of their child is that it can act as a story board of sorts for the child’s day. This is something I really want to work on doing and increasing over the next year as I know many children struggle to discuss how school went and parents only love to hear about and know how they got on.
Parent teacher meetings.
For parent’s meetings I have 3 face to face set meetings with parents (my own personal choice, not mandatory). I have one at the start of the year to revise previous IEP and discuss new targets for the new revision (or to meet with new parents), again at Easter for IEP review and one in the Summer as an end of year Parent’s Meeting. If parents request a sit down meeting I will always try my best to accommodate them or similarly if I need to call a meeting with them they are always very good to attend and again a discussion sheet that I mentioned earlier is filled in and signed by all parties to keep track of meetings and discussion.
IEPs and assessment
Involve your parents in the creation of their child’s IEP (Individual Education Plan). As I mentioned, I invite parents into school to discuss previous targets and we set new ones together. Before our meetings I send a simple 2 page form home for parents to write down their ideas and general thoughts and we discuss these at our meeting and in doing this parents get to play apart in the creation of their child’s targets. (Again, if you would like a free template for this let me know and I will make it available). I also send home assessments from time to time to the parents such as the AFLs home sheets as I cannot assess what the children are doing at home. These also act as targets for parents to work on at home. Do remember to give your parents support and guidance on filling these out if you are sending them home.
Parent Support Group
We also try to organise a ‘meet and greet’ afterschool coffee afternoon (very informal) for the parents to get together and have a support system of their own. Many of our children come to school by bus/taxi so parents don’t always get to meet at the school gates and we understand that this can be very isolating for them. This was the feedback given to me in the first term in my class a couple of years ago, so I started these sessions in the second term and have continued them twice a year since. Most parents attend (no obligation to of course) and feedback has been great from it. Parents bring buns and cake, we supply biscuits and tea/coffee and just sit around and chat for about an hour. Again, it allows us to get to know one another but as staff we try to take a step back and allow the parents to connect and build their own relationships too. We do try to have it as a child free meeting for parents but we also understand that parents don’t always have childcare so they can bring their children with them (they know they have responsibility for them however).
So that’s it really, not an exhaustive list but certainly a few things that I have learned and implemented over the years in my own settings to help build relationships with parents. It’s not to say that it’s the correct way but it is what has worked for me. Everybody will have their own methods and ways to develop relationships and that’s the thing, you have to do what works for you. It’s not always easy but if we all remember that our common goal is providing the best care we can, for the children we are working with, then we are on the right track and for me purposeful communication is key to this.
I hope you have found this useful. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me on my Instagram page directly. See you soon for the next in this series of blog posts where I will be discussing the importance of classroom set up and environments.