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Home-School Partnerships Key to Supporting Students With Disabilities

COVID blog series: Home-School Partnerships Key to Supporting Students With Disabilities

This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

When her son’s school first cancelled in-person instruction last spring due to COVID-19, Samantha Pellitteri didn’t panic. “In the beginning, when all of our local schools closed, it was for a 2-week period.… I can handle anything for 2 weeks,” shared Pellitteri during a California Department of Education webinar on family engagement. But when her son’s district announced that the closure would continue for the remainder of the school year, she felt an uptick in anxiety. Her son, a 17-year-old high school sophomore who “brings joy to our house and pretty much anybody that meets him,” has multiple disabilities that require special education services delivered by a team of teachers and service providers. Recalled Pellitteri, “I thought, ‘OK, now I could use some help. I feel like I’m sort of on my own and trying to figure this out.… I really need to reach out to his team.’”

After Pellitteri reached out, her son’s team engaged her as a partner in his distance learning plan. They set up weekly Zoom meetings to review progress and challenges from the prior week, and they created a shared online spreadsheet that helped them coordinate services.

Like Pellitteri, families of students with disabilities throughout the country have expressed anxiety about receiving special education in a distance-learning environment. With schools closed, parents and caregivers have had to assume multiple roles, including assistant teacher, occupational and speech therapist, and mental health provider, all while many are still trying to work and meet their families’ basic needs. For both parents and educators, concerns about learning loss and skill regression during distance learning can be difficult to balance against health and safety concerns associated with reopening. This is particularly challenging in cases in which students with disabilities may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications due to other health conditions.

While states have issued guidance on reopening schools and delivering special education in the era of COVID-19, educators and families of students with disabilities continue to wrestle with the logistical challenges of implementing special education during a pandemic. In the midst of this uncertainty, educators in the field are leveraging the essential role that engaged families play in special education and the success of students with disabilities.

Research shows that partnerships between families and school staff are essential to supporting all students, with benefits manifesting in multiple ways, including improved attendance and increased student achievement. Strong, trusting relationships between families and school staff are also key to ensuring that programs and services are aligned to needs and are accessed by families.

The following lessons on family engagement have emerged from conversations with special educators across the country:

  • Distance learning presents opportunities to forge stronger connections with families.
  • Insight gained through strong connections with families can support innovations that better meet student and family needs.
  • With training and support, families can reinforce learning and skill development in the home.
Research shows that students and families benefit when these partnerships include supports that help families learn how to implement teaching strategies at home.

Identify Opportunities to Strengthen Connections

Uncertainty and lack of communication can undermine partnerships between families and school staff. Even before the pandemic, families of students with disabilities often described feeling unwelcome, unheard, or excluded from meaningful involvement in the development and implementation of their students’ special education plans. Recognizing these challenges, some educators and districts have embraced distance learning as an opportunity to strengthen collaboration with the families of the students they serve.

Educators emphasize the need for strong communication systems that deliver culturally and linguistically accessible information and updates to families and that allow families to engage in two-way communication about their students’ educational plans and overall district plans. Kristin Brooks, Executive Director of California’s Supporting Inclusive Practices Project, said, “It’s about intentional communication. Not just sending quick emails, but … getting a real structure in place for collaboration.”

Strategies to Promote Partnerships Between Educators and Families

  • Create opportunities for families to provide input and help shape their students’ educational plans and overall district plans through regular, two-way communication.
  • Include families in learning how to support their children, so that teachers, service providers, and parents/caregivers can engage in complementary efforts to work on the same skills and supports.
  • Deliver culturally and linguistically accessible information and updates to families, including providing translators, as needed, for all meetings.
  • Identify and use families’ preferred mode of communication. For example, some families may be able to use video conferencing platforms, while others may need or prefer to communicate over the phone.
  • Create opportunities for whole-team collaboration with families. Rather than requiring families to meet and coordinate with each of their child’s service providers, schools and districts can schedule whole-team meetings that include families or can assign a staff member who represents the team and functions as a family’s primary contact.

In Missouri, the Special School District of St. Louis County, which provides special education services to all St. Louis County students with disabilities, was able to launch quickly into a family-centered COVID-19 response. Adrienne Eaglin, the district’s Family and Community Outreach Manager, credits the rapid response to the preexisting districtwide focus on family engagement, grounded in the evidence-based Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships.

“Many of our staff found that their intentional efforts to build positive relationships with families were essential to the shared responsibility of virtual learning,” shared Eaglin. “It proved beneficial that our staff had an increased awareness of barriers that existed in many of our communities and amongst our families.” Following school closures, district staff also implemented virtual home visits that leveraged their pre-COVID training through Parent Teacher Home Visits, and they performed wellness checks based on guidance from the Flamboyan Foundation. The practice includes prompts to increase two-way communication with families.

Leverage Stronger Connections With Families to Gain Insight and Innovate

With frequent communication and strong connections with families, educators can gain insight into their students’ lives, which, in turn, can help them innovate new strategies for working with students, as well as with parents and caregivers. Eric Hoppstock, Superintendent of the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency in Michigan, described one example in which his agency had to overcome a technology barrier to deliver occupational therapy to a preschooler who has difficulty with both fine and gross motor skills. Knowing that the student’s family could not access video conferencing, an occupational therapist went to the student’s home, where she stood outside a window and showed the mother how to perform specific manipulations using a stuffed toy for demonstration. Later, the therapist spoke with the mother over the phone to provide additional support and follow-up. The result: improved communication and increased capacity for the family to support the student at home.

Similarly, Benjamin Tillotson, a board member for the Council for Exceptional Children and a special education teacher in the Salt Lake City School District, works closely with families to understand what they are able to do and what they need. In one instance, he learned that a parent was struggling to support her student’s practicing of critical life skills at home. Tillotson worked with the family by observing the student practice a skill during a video call. He then shared strategies for structuring the task to minimize the student’s frustration. “Communication has been so important,” said Tillotson, noting that strategies and routines are not helpful if families are not supported on implementation.

The Importance of a Stable and Well-Prepared Workforce

Strong relationships and information sharing between families and educators depend on having a stable special educator workforce that is prepared to work closely with students with disabilities and their families. Prior to COVID-19, many districts struggled to fill open positions with qualified educators, a challenge that is likely to worsen as a result of the pandemic. Increasing federal and state investments in preparing and supporting educators to work effectively with students with disabilities and their families is key to advancing the partnerships that are essential to students’ success.

Support Families as Key Contributors to Learning and Skill Development

With strong communication and relationships built on mutual understanding and trust, educators and families can develop effective home–school partnerships that lessen families’ stress, increase satisfaction with education and related services, and improve achievement for students with disabilities. Research shows that students and families benefit when these partnerships include supports that help families learn how to implement teaching strategies at home.

Although such practices were already in place at the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency prior to COVID-19, the pandemic brought their importance to the surface. “We underestimated the shared learning that parents can help us with,” said Eric Hoppstock, the agency’s superintendent. “It was through occupational and physical therapy adaptations that we really started saying that parents are our partners and students’ teachers.”

Hoppstock’s agency now dedicates weekly blocks of time to family education. These sessions help parents and caregivers learn how to access the agency’s technology platform and familiarize them with the work their students will be doing. The agency has also worked with families to address challenging student behaviors by including parenting strategies in students’ behavior plans. Hoppstock noted that informed parents are better able to support their children and are also more likely to provide feedback to educators. He said, “From time to time, they’ll push back on us. Sometimes we need that.” Such collaborations allow both parties to learn how to better meet students’ needs.

In the Special School District of St. Louis County, staff have adapted the district’s Family Academies initiative to be responsive to a distance-learning setting. The initiative, which was being developed prior to COVID-19, provides families and educators with shared learning spaces and opportunities for partnership. Eaglin noted, “Although the modality has changed, we see the need and relevance of sharing this information and helping families reinforce the learning of their students across settings.” To support families during distance learning, the district is currently planning “ASK the EPS” sections, which will allow families to connect with an Effective Practice Specialist (a staff member with specialized expertise, such as occupational or speech therapy). These staff members will answer questions, model strategies, and provide feedback as families rehearse these strategies. According to Eaglin, this work will “give families direct access to strategies and supports that will help with coaching and student engagement.”

Family Engagement: Critical Before, During, and After COVID-19

While calls for family engagement in special education are not new (requirements for collaborating with families are embedded in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), challenges brought on by the pandemic underscore the importance of strong partnerships between families and educators. As Eric Hoppstock noted about his agency’s renewed focus on family engagement, “What we’re learning now will forever influence education.... I do know that at the end of the day, it’s about continuing to stay connected in relationship to our parents.”