“When I was a Special Education teacher, I sometimes became frustrated with parents who could not come to meetings or follow up with homework. But when I took off my Special Education teacher glasses and put on my parent point of view, I had a better understanding of their challenges and struggles.”
—a parent in Todd, Beamer, and Goodreau (2014, p. 288)
After reading this chapter, the learner should be able to do the following:
Explain several reasons why parent–teacher collaboration might be difficult to achieve.
List ways that educators can gain an understanding of different cultures.
Define communication, assess one’s communication style, and explain how differences in communication styles and preferences can hinder school–family collaboration.
Describe how individual parent and family factors can influence a family’s motivation to collaborate with schools.
Henry is a fifth-grade student at Mountain View Academy in Mr. Acosta’s special education class. Henry has a diagnosis of ASD and has attended Mountain View for all five years of his elementary school life. Henry typically exhibits many challenging behaviors associated with ASD, including throwing pencils at staff, attempted running from the classroom, loud noises during instructional time, hitting others during transitions, and refusing to do his math classwork. Recently, Henry’s behaviors have begun to escalate. He ran from the classroom screaming after assaulting a classmate who attempted to cut in front of Henry in line, and staff had to physically restrain him. When school staff tried to contact Nina about the incident, she did not answer her telephone.
Mr. Acosta tries very hard to create a community of parent involvement in his class. He sends regular newsletters to the families of his students to keep them informed. He has had specialized training to work with children who have ASD, and he likes to provide regular information to families to share his knowledge. His favorite way of communicating with parents is to hold monthly information sessions that parents can attend, which he calls “Acosta University.” At these information sessions, Mr. Acosta likes to act as if he’s the “professor,” providing lectures to any parent or staff member who attends. Few parents attend “Acosta University,” and he is not sure why.
Nina spends hours each week searching the Internet for the latest way to deal with Henry’s behavior at home. She works the night shift at the hospital, and sometimes during the late night hours while patients are sleeping, she has the opportunity to read and find answers to her questions about ASD. While she reads, she takes copious notes in a journal she calls “Helping Henry.” Nina has learned a lot about ASD and ways to teach new behaviors that are more appropriate. Recently she’s learned something very interesting that she would like to share with Mr. Acosta and that she would love for him to implement to improve Henry’s behavior. She would love to share what she’s learned with Henry’s teacher, Mr. Acosta, but in her opinion, he seems uninterested. Since she works all night and tries to find opportunities to sleep during the day, she has limited availability to meet with Mr. Acosta when he asks for a conference during school hours. A face-to-face conference seems impossible given their opposing schedules.
The staff at Mountain View would love for Nina, Henry’s mother, to be more involved in Henry’s education by coming to school conferences, helping with homework, or participating in other school activities, but she is rarely able to come. Just after a recent staff development day titled, “Creative Strategies for Facilitating Parent Involvement,” outside, two teachers had a discussion about Nina. “She just doesn’t seem interested in being involved,” one teacher lamented. “If she truly cared about Henry’s education, she’d find a way to get here.” The other teacher responded with, “I have lots of parents who come to school to help. I don’t see why anyone should have to find creative ways to get her interested in coming.”
Other school staff have complained about how rarely Nina comes to the school, and they imagine that something must be going on at home to cause Henry’s challenging behaviors. Several staff members have contacted Nina through telephone messages and notes sent home to explain Henry’s poor behavior, but they have received no response. Nina rarely returns the phone calls. Nina said recently to a friend, “Can’t the school ever give me good news? Why do I feel like staff thinks Henry is defective in some way? It’s always, ‘Henry did this or that bad thing.’ Is there anything good to say?”
Nina told her friend, who works in the cafeteria at the school, that she feels unwelcome at the school. She said, “I don’t want the royal treatment or anything, but I wish Henry’s teacher would show a little respect. He’s just not very welcoming. Why would I want to collaborate with him? Besides, it’s his job to educate my child . . . not mine! How am I supposed to get to the school, anyway? That junker car of mine would never make it all the way there.”
This is a book about collaborating with parents for the benefit of our students with ASD, and therefore, we highlight strategies for working with parents in every chapter of this text. No book about school–family collaboration would be complete without addressing how collaborators can respond to challenges to the interactive relationship. What are the barriers to parental involvement, and how can we respond in ways that facilitate parental engagement and strengthen relationships? What do we do when collaboration doesn’t come so easily? Learning to work effectively with family members is critical for effective collaboration, and that is why this chapter addresses potential challenges to school–family partnerships and how we can respond to them in ways that facilitate positive interactions. Viewing parents as partners who have much to offer professionals is foundational for developing meaningful collaboration.
Other chapters in this text have devoted significant attention to discussing our responsibility as educators to collaborate with families (IDEA 2004; Friend & Cook, 2010) and the benefits of collaboration to students’ academic and social progress (Bacon & Causton-Theoharis, 2013; Dabkowski, 2004; Friend & Borsuck, 2009). We’ve established that our role as special educators is to partner with families, and what deserves our attention in this chapter is an examination of potential barriers to collaboration and what to do when collaborative efforts have been challenged.
We’ve set the stage for establishing meaningful collaboration, and now we turn to a discussion of the challenges to collaboration and how we can work to overcome those challenges so that our students with autism benefit to the greatest extent possible. It makes sense to devote our efforts toward developing school–family collaboration so that student achievement is maximized. We believe it is important for educators to possess the skills that support successful collaboration, which includes an understanding of the factors that can impede collaborative efforts, as well as strategies for overcoming some of those challenges and building trust in the special education setting. This chapter provides a tool for dealing with common struggles in our relationships with parents of students with special needs.
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