Reimagining our communities
How leaders can inspire and foster relationships during uncertain times 
By Jennifer Yales | November | December 2020
COVID-19, out of its chaos and uncertainty, has created an opportunity to reimagine the relationships between educators and parents of students with disabilities. The relationships between school districts and parents of students with disabilities can be construed as formal in its origins and developed as a matter of necessity rather than preference. For educators, working with students with disabilities not only involves compliance and meeting state standards but also caring for their students and adapting their educational practices to meet their student and family needs. Likewise, parents are caring for their child, learning who their child is as an individual and learning to navigate the legality around special education. Each one has the interest of the child in mind and each has their set of responsibilities. This article will examine the relationships between educators and parents of students with disabilities pre- and post-COVID-19. As leaders, how do we, despite this time of uncertainty, collectively reimagine ways to improve our connection and engagement with our parents and support our teaching staff in leading the way all to create improved outcomes for our students? Over the years, with the evolution of P.L. 94-142 and more recently the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, legislation has continuously increased the inclusion of parents, their rights and procedural safeguards in the educational decision-making process of their child with a disability through the Individualized Education Program. The IEP team, composed of educators and parents, are charged with coming together to make decisions on behalf of the student to ensure a Free Appropriate Public Education. The legitimization of parents as equal members of the IEP team requires school staff to provide opportunities for collaboration and to share knowledge and decision making regarding the student. Research shows that knowing the whole child and not segmenting the student (home child and school child) leads to better outcomes for students. When this partnership collaborates, trust and respect increase (Friend and Cook, 2007). The opposite is true as well, a lack of collaboration minimizes the success of trust and respect. 

I’ve seen and worked with teachers whose typical modes of communication with parents of students with disabilities are often via phone or a communication log and more often to state how the student did or to meet a specific need.
As a parent of a child with a disability and with many years of experience as an administrator, I would not be truthful if I said I’ve seen many great partnerships with great collaboration and trust between educators and parents of children with disabilities. Essentially, other than times of scheduled parent/teacher conferences or IEP meetings, some teachers of students with disabilities may not otherwise meet with a parent face-to-face. I’ve seen and worked with teachers whose typical modes of communication with parents of students with disabilities are often via phone or a communication log and more often to state how the student did or to meet a specific need (i.e., report a behavior, confirm a service was provided, etc.). As with any relationship, many factors that might limit this partnership to fully develop. Conducting professional development for special education staff over the years, I have come to hear many times over and understand the hesitation by our educators to become too involved with their students’ parents for fear of saying the wrong thing and being sued for it. I too used to live by this mantra. As a parent attending IEPs for my son with autism, I have inadvertently created fear in educators I speak of above. Stories of me and my advocacy (i.e., asking for proof of services, asking questions for clarity, checking in on 1:1, batteries for assistive technology, etc.) was not about me prepping for a lawsuit but making sure the most precious thing to me in my whole world was safe and cared for. Regardless, I became “that parent.” Stories of me were passed down through the years creating preconceptions of what it may or may not be like working with. Stories both fictional and factual not only followed me but my child as well. I know these stories. I lived with them as a parent and as an educator, I have helped in creating them about other parents. Fear and lack of trust created these stories. When COVID-19 closed our classrooms and our schools, we crossed the lines of formality and struggle of one kind and entered into the survival and struggle of a new kind. It was not that IEPs were no longer important, but that the health and safety of our students and all community members became more important. We not only worried about how we were going to meet IEP timelines and report on progress on goals, but how we were going to educate all children in a time when students could not come to the traditional school setting. We all, parents and educators, experienced the fear of a new kind — fear that our families, co-workers, children, students and so on would get sick and experience unimaginable pain and suffering and/or possibly death. This coupled with the disastrous turn of our economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have greater distance (physically) between school districts and parents, which is requiring us to reimagine how we can build these relationships in a new virtual manner.
So now what? How might this chaos in our “new normal” provide opportunities for developing the relationship between parents and educators of students with disabilities? How do we take the work we started in the past (albeit minimal in some cases) and use the current crisis to keep moving forward and build on our relationships with parents? Building on that, how can what we do show children that regardless of the circumstances before us, relationships take work? 

One thing we know for sure, the looming reality of “being sued” has not gone away in Special Education. In fact, our stress related to their looming inevitability has increased exponentially.
One thing we know for sure, the looming reality of “being sued” has not gone away in Special Education. Our stress related to this seeming inevitability has increased exponentially. At least before COVID-19, we knew the rules. The lack of answers and fear of the unknown is stressful for all of us. As an administrator, professor and parent, I am not writing this article to add to your fears. I hope to bring ways to focus on what we can control to continue building our relationships with parents. I feel the weight of the responsibility in these roles to keep the importance of the relationships alive. We need to maintain the work we have put into our relationships with our parents and/or build stronger ones. Equally important, we can take these moments of collaboration and use it to inform our work with students in the future. Just imagine if you could throw out your worries around litigation and reimagine how we can create opportunities for meaningful engagement with our parents. The following are some thoughts to consider as we move to assist our educators in connecting with our parents. 
  • Take the time to reimagine your relationship with parents. It does not have to be as it has been. In fact, when speaking to one of the teachers while writing this article, he stated that he wanted to reach out to parents more and not just wait for them to seek him out with questions or requests. Sometimes as parents we don’t know what we don’t know. 
  • Be intentional in designing your collaboration with parents. Think about this design at the classroom level, the site level and the district level. The collaboration that currently exists is a product of your design. Is it helping or harming?
  • It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to apologize and move forward. People are more apt to forgive a mistake when trust exists. Being able to apologize and being honest strengthens trust.
  • We all have boundaries, yet many of us forgo them for a variety of reasons. Both parents and educators should know that it is OK to set our own boundaries so long as we are clear and respectful while explaining them. This is especially important when we are working in the same space as we eat and sleep.
  • Check our preconceptions or our mental models often. We have drawn conclusions based on our interpretation of our experiences, which may or may not align with another. Enter the judgement-free zone. Everyone has a story. Our parents have a story. Our educators have a story. I have a story. You may not know the story, but it creates who I am. Now is the time we can hear our parent’s stories and share our own stories to create equitable practices when teaching our students and building our relationships with parents as members of the community and in turn our schools. We can use these stories to understand people’s belief systems and work through our own. As educators, we learn our children best through the lens of the family.
  • It’s OK to take time as you need it. Take time to connect, reflect, then reconnect. The operative word here is to reconnect. Keep your connections, albeit short or long. We only have one another and by nature need to maintain our connections. Now is the time to reach out and connect with parents — they need you as you need them. 
  • Use empathy. Be with our colleagues and our parents and try to take the time to understand by listening. Sometimes we try to move too fast to fix a problem or complete our tasks but miss opportunities to learn. Ask yourself, what key learnings am I taking away and how will this improve my relationship with this person or these people based on my new learnings? Listening to one another stories will not only help to build our relationships but help our lesson plans, build community engagement opportunities and so much more.
  • In this time of uncertainty, how can we help our families? Reach out to connect and ask. These moments of connections will strengthen your relationship with the parent as well as the student.
  • Dream and inspire to create a team of collaboration that is greater than can be accomplished as individuals. We all have something to share and contribute. Do we see it and, more importantly, do we honor it? Share what has worked and what hasn’t. Be inspired to dream it.
  • In relationships, even the strong ones, disagreements and conflict occur. More opportunity exists to work through them when trust has been built. Focus on the issue and not the people. We have extremely high stress during this time. Even though it can be difficult, assume goodwill and keep an open mind. A quick activity to help work through a difficult time is to start by setting up norms. These norms will help to bring order but more importantly predictability and a sense of understanding.
  • Create a forum for your staff to share their voice and experiences with their families. These experiences can be specific to distance learning, barriers they’ve encountered, family dynamics, professional development needs, etc., and all can bring value to understand what our families are experiencing and how it can contribute to the instruction of our students. For example, we have teachers who are coaching parents as they deliver their instruction virtually and see great gains with student outputs. Just by watching the instruction of their specific child virtually, parents are becoming empowered to support their child, an opportunity that until now did not exist. 
  • Show gratitude. Each one of us has gone beyond our call of duty and made sacrifices. It is important as leaders to be gracious to one another and model it for our staff and parents.
Months have gone by and, unfortunately, we are still in a space of uncertainty. Just when we think we are on the road to knowing something concrete, our path changes. What is known is our need for connections. As lonely as this time may feel, we are not alone. Our connections to one another, including our students’ parents, will support in building even stronger relationships and aid future collaborative efforts for the child. Our leadership can help to inspire these connections and find the value in their immediate and long-term benefits by creating a culture that dares to reimagine how we connect with our families just as we are having to reimagine most other aspects of education. Thank you for your brave leadership and relentless courage to show up and meet the needs of all of our students and their families. 

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Jennifer Yales has been in the field of special education for the past 20 years and as an administrator for the past 11 years.
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