The importance of good communication between parents and educators

While picking up my grandson from his after-school social skills program the other day, I struck up a conversation with a mom of a young boy I know from another program he attended. I asked her how he was doing, and if he liked his new program. That little question was the only encouragement she needed to start sharing what was on her heart…

She said that he was doing well, but that she felt discouraged that she received reports daily that he’d done something wrong. She also felt the staff was not as friendly as in the program he attended previously. I listened and wanted to share something encouraging with her, but the window of time to do so closed when my grandson entered the lobby.

When thinking about our brief interaction afterwards, I wished I could have had more time to talk with her and tell her from experience as a caregiver of a child with autism, that I have learned that…

1. Transitions are rough. Starting a new program with a new focus is difficult for all children, but especially for children on the autism spectrum. The new staff has to get to know them, target the areas to work on with each individual child, and learn what approaches work and don’t work with new children that enter the program. The child also has to adjust to different staff and new expectations, which can take some time. Expect things to be a little rough at first, and be patient. Things will get better.

2. Reports are meant as helpful input. When starting a new program, the focus will be on learning new things. It will take time to learn new skills. When entering a social skills program, for example, the focus will be on acquiring acceptable social behaviors. If a teacher or program manager shares the details of inappropriate behaviors that occurred that day, they are not picking on the child. It is meant as helpful input so parents or caregivers can help reinforce appropriate responses at home.

3. It takes time to learn new skills. Most social skills and interactions come natural to most children, but for children on the autism spectrum these are harder to learn. It takes time for them to act and react appropriately in different social situations—but they will learn with consistent input and reinforcement across all settings.

4. Teachers need our support. Teaching social skills to a group of children with autism is not an easy task, especially because each child is unique and may need different supports to do well. Most people that choose this type of job do it because they love the kids, and are trying their very best to help and make a difference. Encourage and thank them when they try to communicate with you about your child. Ask questions, and ask how you can help reinforce the areas they are working on at school or in your child’s after-school program. They will have some wonderful suggestions that may help your child make progress a lot faster. As a team we do it better!

That said, there are also some important things that are good for educators to remember when communicating with parents about their children. From my experience as a one-on-one instructor of children with autism, I have learned that it is very important to…

1. SMILE, and always start with the positive. No matter how difficult a child’s behavior has been on any given day, always emphasize the positive. Did he pull out of the tantrum and then had a great rest of the day or afternoon? Say so! Did she apologize after speaking rudely to staff? Speak about that first. There are always good things that happen. Actively look for and emphasize those with the child, and also when talking with parents and caregivers about their children. Celebrate small victories together!

2. Word your report wisely. You do not want to tone down or minimize the difficult behavior that occurred, but you can share it in a way that makes it easier for parents to accept. Instead of, “Johnny had a bad day today,” say something like, “Johnny had a bit of a different day today. He was more sensitive than usual, which resulted in him….” Parents and caregivers are well-aware of difficult behaviors and most likely have dealt with them for an extended period of time. It can be very discouraging for them when their child’s behavior is detailed to them in a negative way on a regular basis. Always assure parents that their child is going to improve, and emphasize the progress made.

3. Communicate strategies and resources. Tell parents what you did to try and help their child get past a difficult behavior. Did you distract him? Tell them what you used that helped him. Did you provide a sensory break to help calm her? Tell her what sensory activity she enjoyed and needed to calm her down. Did you use visuals to communicate what was expected? Show them the visual you used. Nothing succeeds like success, so freely share the strategies and resources you use, and if possible make strategies and resources available to parents so they can use them at home and in other settings, too.

4. Ask questions. By asking parents and caregivers what they do at home when difficult behaviors occur, you show respect and a genuine desire to involve them in teaching and helping their child. It can provide valuable insight and a shortcut to improved behavior, because after all is said and done, the parents and caregivers know their children best.

These are just a few things that came to mind after my communication with this amazing mother. I am sure there are many more thoughts and ideas that can be shared on the topic, but I hope this helps a little toward promoting teamwork and good communication between parents and educators of children with special needs. As a team we do it better!

Comment from Lilian Honkanen, Significant Support Needs Teacher in Colorado who previewed this article:

I cannot stress enough that educators have to be positive in their communication, and they have to be specific (use observations!). This year I started to use my iPhone to communicate with parents, and it is the best decision I ever took. I’m very busy, and most of the time it is difficult to write anything more than short sentences in the communication logs. A picture says more than a thousand words, and I send on a regular basis pictures home of students interacting, involved in an activity, and the best one: a student on the spectrum dancing with a typical peer.

I also make little clips and use texting for some quick communication. I took pictures of rashes, broken g-tube buttons, and filmed a student acting differently. I had direct parent input, which helped me to determine which steps to take. One of my parents didn’t want to text, but I could give her the same “service” by sending her emails. Like you said, teachers have to listen to parents. I made a big breakthrough with a student with facilitated communication (started by the parents). Even though this is not an evidence-based practice, it was huge in my relationship with this student.

I also like to stress that parents have to be honest. I had several situations that a student arrived at school dis-regulated, without any explanation. When I texted the parents they said he had an “off” morning. The parents want details, I want them too! I said this before, and I will say it again, I know that a tantrum is not the result of bad parenting. If I have details about what happened prior to coming to school, I might be better able to help a student.

Last, but not least, as an educator it is also nice to hear something positive. We are only human and underpaid. I cherish notes, cards, and emails from the parents about making a difference in their (child’s) life. I recently got the most touching letter from the father of one of my most challenging students (ever). He is a physician and an Autism expert himself, and he knows how much hard work goes into teaching students on the spectrum.

Thank you for sharing this article with me 🙂

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