Parents are one of our most valuable resources as research has consistently shown that when we partner with parents the outcomes for students are greatly improved. Partnering with parents is vital when a child has a disability and this is acknowledged through legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, the Disability Standards 2005 and the individual planning process for students with disabilities that is embedded in educational policy. However legislation and policy are unable to change attitudes. Unfortunately many parents who have children with disabilities report that most of their difficulties come from a hostile and unforgiving society rather than from their child’s limitations. Parents are often compelled to act as buffers between society and their children and their advocacy on behalf of their child is misunderstood. Parents tell time and time again of stories of insensitivity toward their child. At times these acts are so extreme that they become headlines in the media such as the school in Canberra that built a cage to restrain a student with autism in 2015.
As teachers we have a responsibility to ensure that we have effective communication with the parents of children we teach, however a one- size fits all approach doesn’t work well regarding partnership. Parents are not a homogenous group and are impacted by forces of gender, disability, class and ethnicity. Researchers such as Bourdieu have shown that parents who are well educated and resourced are better positioned to communicate with teachers. These parents can negotiate the unwritten social rules, norms and expectations of school and they have the ‘know -how’ to advocate for what they need for their child. However, when these parents have a child with a disability these advantages are significantly reduced. They become a member of a minority group and are placed in the situation of competing with others for limited resources, funding and school placement options. This may be a frightening and disorientating place to be for parents who have always had control of their lives.
Parents from disadvantaged, low socio-economic or indigenous backgrounds are at a distinct disadvantage when communicating with schools. Some of these parents have experienced a troubled educational background and school may be perceived as a foreign place, a place they need to protect their child from. Consequently their involvement in school will be concentrated on keeping their child safe, soothing feelings of failure and low self -esteem and challenging perceived injustice. These feelings may be intensified when their child is vulnerable due to their disability. This intensification is even stronger if a child is non- verbal and unable to explain the typical scratches and bruises from childhood play. Often these parents have mentally toyed with terrible scenarios regarding the imagined suffering of their child. A significant number of these parents find that communicating with the school is so challenging that they completely withdraw. Withdrawal is often interpreted by schools as not caring rather than being acknowledged as a self defense mechanism. These parents care deeply about their child’s education but are lacking in the resources required to challenge structural inequalities in our education system.
Educators are busy people who are focused on differentiating the curriculum rather than differentiating communication strategies with parents. However, it is worthwhile keeping in mind that parents whose children have disabilities require extra attention and support. They require a two- way interactive dialogue rather than the usual one way giving of information. A variety of strategies are needed to cater for parents with differing resources. These strategies include:
• Inform parents on the first day of school about how and when you can be contacted. Use that first meeting to build a strong foundation and engage in conversation.
• Ensure parents that their child is valued, safe and treated with dignity and follow through with this promise.
• If a child has behavioural issues, discuss and develop a positive behaviour plan in collaboration with parents. Make sure your choice of language and strategies reflect a plan that is focused on teaching the child rather than relying on punitive methods to ‘fix’ the behaviour.
• Do handovers to other teachers when the child moves on to save the angst of the parent repeating their story each year.
• Empower parents. Ask for the strategies that they use with their child. Collaborate.
• Always gain consent before liaising with other professionals. Once consent is obtained collaborate with others as part of the team.
• Make sure that parents are equal team members during individual learning plan meetings. Check with parents regarding whom they want to be invited to these meetings.
• Ensure the school is a warm and welcoming place for parents.
• Always treat parents with respect. Children who perceive that their parents are treated with disrespect will feel personally slighted. Acknowledge parents’ authority and skills, after all they are the child’s first and continuing educator.
• Good news phone calls as opposed to only contacting parents when a serious incident has occurred. When you need to pass on negative news ensure it is softened with positives.
• Catch up with parents at school events- use this time to introduce parents to other parents.
• Include small talk in your discussion- ask parents about their interests and what they do on the weekend and be willing to share your own story.
• Invite parents to use their expertise in the classroom- acknowledge their skills. Book week is a great time to invite parents and family members into the classroom.
• Creativity in your newsletters/ communication strategies- parents love photos of their child being sent home.
• Attempt to diffuse difficult situations and be compassionate but not defensive.
• If appropriate use humour to discuss tricky situations. This strategy alleviates tense and heavy discussions.
• Obtain help from your leadership team if needed.
Keep working on relationships with parents, implementing different strategies and showing empathy and compassion- it is worth it in the long run for you, your students and their families.