Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Parents are Critical Members of their Child’s Support Team

How much time do you spend on email and phone calls in a typical week? If your days are anything like mine then the answer is, “a lot!” In addition to working with school staff and students, communication with parents takes a great deal of time but is so important.

            Parents are critical members of the team and, as itinerant TOD/HOH, our role in communicating with families can sometimes be unclear to school staff and to parents themselves. In the worst-case scenario, school teams may feel threatened, wondering what it is we are reporting to the parents, and parents may view us as being in allegiance with the school at the expense of their child’s needs. However, in the best-case scenarios, parents and school staff welcome open communication and see it as a benefit to all. As TOD/HOH, we can take steps to regularly communicate in meaningful ways with parents and school teams in order to create trust among all team members.

            School teams must understand why we need to communicate with families and we must take steps to alleviate any fears or misunderstandings they may have about what it is we are reporting. One school I worked with expressed concern that the parents may view their child’s teacher as incompetent if I talked with them before and after my classroom observations. A staff member at another school informed me that my regular communication with families may make the teachers in the building look “lazy” as this type of communication was not standard at their school. I have also heard concerns related to being seen as a “spy” more than once! In each situation, in addition to building trust within the school in other ways, offering to CC (copy) relevant team members on emails to parents and summarizing phone conversations to relevant staff members, have both, over time, lessened these worries. Below are tips for keeping parents in the loop!

Start a phone or email routine: Find out how parents like to be contacted and let them know when you will be in touch. Some parents are worriers. These are the ones we hear from constantly. Others, for various reasons, are extremely difficult to get ahold of - even when we really need them! Set expectations at the beginning of the year that allow you to create boundaries while still meeting the needs of the families that you work with. For students who I see monthly or only a few times a year, I call or email parents before and after each visit. For students who I see more regularly, I contact families bi-weekly, either by email or phone with an update and to hear their concerns. Knowing that I will be in touch is reassuring for the parents.  

Video Share: Consider videotaping your work with a student on occasion and sharing it with the family. This is really helpful especially for families moving from early intervention to a school setting since the initial transition can be shocking! Parents go from being key players in their child’s learning to having very limited interaction, if any, during therapies! In some cases, I’ve videotaped my sessions (with permission) to share with families so that they can still feel connected. One parent reported playing the videos at home, giving her son extra “sessions” at home!

Communication Books: Use a communication book that goes home on a regular basis with the student where you and the parent share information. This is not a new idea but can be a very effective way of communicating for all students. It’s also helpful for me when students have multiple service providers who use the book so that I know what my student is working on in other settings and can stay up to date as well!

Online Documentation: Make use of today’s technology! A colleague of mine works in a school where each staff member and the parents contribute to an online document. This process is similar to a communication notebook but rather than the student bringing the book between home and school, all notes are done online.

Translations: Be aware and sensitive to parents who may not be English language users and find ways to communicate with them. I don’t speak Spanish but one of my families does! I am fortunate to have a colleague who can translate my letters home to this family. When they respond, my colleague translates for me once again. Bi-lingual parents may already feel left out of school information and I want to be sure my families know exactly what I’m doing with their children!

Hand Written Notes: Handwritten letters are always an option. Not all the families that I work with have consistent access to phones or computers but that shouldn’t limit communication!

The parents with whom I work have varying levels of participation in their children’s school programs. Some parents contact me almost daily, others I hear from more irregularly. Regardless, meeting parents where they are and helping them to stay involved is a critical component of this job. It is our job to reach out to all parents!

How do you work with parents?