Organization for Autism Research

Guest Blogger: Dr. Feder on Parent/Teacher Communication

Dr. Joshua Feder is a child and family psychiatrist in California. He is the former Chief of Child and Family Psychiatry at National Naval Medical Center and a father of a son with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In today’s post, Dr. Feder discusses parent/teacher communication.

There is probably no one more important at school to most of our kids than the teacher. We hope for an engaging teacher who understands the need to provide support as well as an expectant attitude. One who can facilitate interactions with other kids in a natural way and help develop an environment that feels like a functioning class, at whatever level of challenge our kids face. The teacher sets the tone for the rest of the team, including how paraprofessionals (e.g. one on one aides) do their work, helping find a balance of helping vs. stepping back that supports development both socially and academically.

But parents are in charge, right? We (I’m one too) must sign our agreement to the IEPs, we need to know what is happening at school, we to coordinate our efforts at home. When people consult me about almost any problem, some of the main difficulties in the system are the coordination and communication between home and school. Everyone is busy and overburdened. regular team meetings are often rare, or hastily set up in response to problems that crop up. We sometimes try to start off well by doing such things as bring gifts to the teacher or providing lots of information about our kids. But these things can easily backfire.

Bringing treats or gifts to the teacher (some families bake cookies, some families fund a new wing or gym for the school). This is a very nice thing to do. But beware that if it is much more than usual it may become problematic. We want the teacher to think well of us, and to have a good and cooperative attitude with us. But it is important to remember that while we expect teachers (and doctors, and other professionals) to like the work they do, and to like our kids, the work is, well, their job. They do it for a living. That is a very important thing. It means that it is a professional relationship, and the professional is obligated to to do his or her best aside from personal relationships that can get in the way of doing their best job for our kids. Too many or too big gifts create expectations of a special relationship or special treatment that put undue pressure on a teacher. So while we want a special relationship, that teacher who was so great for our child, the specialness we are looking for is, I think, something that transmits to all the kids in the class, not just ours. Think of it this way: would you rather the teacher single your family out as the THE family to help, and quite likely creating ill will among the other families? Be nice, be helpful, bring the occasional cookies or something. But do not overdo it.

Providing books that might help the teacher understand and work with our kids. Often these are great books, but will the teacher have time to read them? As a doctor I hear of some of my best resources from parents but I can’t always promise to read a book. Neither can a teacher. So when you provide and expect a teacher to read an excellent book that will make the school year so much better, you and the teacher may be frustrated. Good advice cannot always be delivered successfully. Now, we expect a teacher to have read an IEP, and some of them are pretty long. Not all teachers read them, and when they do not read them and something is not working well we are legitimately upset. Yet this should ideally make us step back and, instead of merely blaming a teacher for not reading it, ask ourselves as a team how come the teacher did not read it? Is it just too, long, or too complex, or too poorly written, or another boilerplate re-write of last year’s or of ‘every other kid’s’ IEP? Even if the teacher does read the IEP or, additionally, even if the teacher reads the books we supply, we know that the IEP is often a far less than perfect picture of our child, and teachers, bless them, have their own important mentors from early in their own training, are developing their skills for a about a decade into the job, need to have pretty set ways of working to be able to survive their chosen work, and the IEP, someone else’s book, or our comments as parents (or doctors), while potentially important, may just not make that much of a difference in how the teacher manages the enterprise of helping our child.

So what’s the answer to better, more effective parent-teacher communication? Home-school notes can be helpful, regular team meetings if possible. I am also a big advocate of developing a ‘quick sheet’, much like the opening instructions to a computer, that has about three main bullet points on it specific to the child, things like: “1. Wait a bit for him to respond – it is worth the wait and if you do not wait he will be lost and you will both be frustrated; 2. Facilitate a plan before recess with a plan B in case ‘running on the field’ doesn’t work out.’; 3. He’s vulnerable, so make sure the other kids know that someone is watching them so they do not tease him or exclude him. A little watchfulness and nudging goes a long way.”

Most important, I’d like to make a pitch for regular support to the teacher from a neutral outside person who can help the teacher reflect on what is going well and what might go better. Follow me a bit on this: if a teacher has – an most do – someone to help him or her think things through and problem solve, it is a liberating experience that makes the job much more interesting and survivable, this is true in most professions. When we work alone we tend to become frustrated and often enough become stuck in our thinking, fall away from time-tested principles of the profession and even from important boundaries with students, families, and colleagues. Professionals find their outlets – some after hours for better or for worse – but I am advocating for specific and regular opportunities to talk about how things are going with a trusted mentoring person or in a trusting group, not to ‘get the answers’ of what to do, but to take apart situations (whether academic challenges of students or behavioral difficulties, family circumstances of students, etc.) and think of ways to address them. This is not therapy, it is reflective problem solving. And it helps a teacher steer a better course as we go forward through the year.

This process of reflective problem solving is well described in many books, but – since now I am recommending reading! – some of the more concise pamphlets on this come from the people at Zero to Three. And here’s the thing: when teachers have this kind of support, they are much more open to hearing parents, and much more likely to want to have some regular time with parents to reflect with us about how things are going and problem solve collaboratively with us. This kind of process can grow through a system, unfolding at several levels, and especially at the most crucial one: the teacher-child relationship, where the teacher is more able to help our kids think for themselves and learn to problem solve both academically and socially. This is our goal.

So how do we as parents promote a system in which teachers get the support that makes all this happen? By approaching teachers with that same attitude, asking for brief, but regularly scheduled time (every few weeks for 15 to 30 minutes is often about right) to work talk about how things are going and problem solving. If a teacher has a caseload of kids with IEPs that is 10 kids, that might be 15-30 min/ day talking with a different family, and getting through the entire caseload every 2 weeks or so. We do not want to add too much of a burden to our teacher – remember she do not have much time. But this kind of process results in a well-oiled mechanism that results in far more mutual satisfaction on the part of families, teachers, administrators, and, of course, the kids!

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