By Alyson M. Martin, Ed.D. and Emily R. Shamash, Ed.D.
Effective communication is the foundation for promoting an enduring trust between families and educational professionals, including arts educators. It is trust that is imperative for successful long-term partnerships between families and educators to enhance the teaching, learning, and progress of students with disabilities (Cox, 2005; Dunst, 2002; Turnbull et al, 2011; Wellner, 2012).
The tips below include guidelines for communicating effectively with families of children with disabilities in order to initiate and maintain positive and collaborative working relationships in and out of the arts classroom.
- Initiate contact before it is a necessity. It is crucial that we build a trend of positive contact with families prior to contacting them about a problem with their child. Ensure families have information about what is happening with their student; some parents/caregivers may not be aware an in-school arts residency is happening in their child’s classroom. You can set a positive tone on the first day of a program by sending a brief personal email or note introducing yourself to parents/caregivers and letting them know how their child’s first day went.
- Always begin with the positive. All students have positive attributes and have skills that are worthy of praise. Be careful not to define your students by their weaknesses, but rather what they do well. Always share something positive with families prior to sharing negative reports or feedback. This is important when writing reports, reporting progress/updates at a meeting, and when sending emails or notes home. This will set the stage for establishing a positive and trusting relationship with each family.
- Keep parents in the know. Providing parents with information about their child’s progress can empower them to be true team members and can help eliminate mistrust. Doing this does not need to be extremely time consuming; you can simply send parents a brief email or a note weekly or bi-weekly reporting something positive and providing suggestions for a skill that can be worked on at home. If your program happens at your own arts venue, be sure to alert parents of important events or changes to their child’s day such as a schedule change, staff change, new behavior plan, field trips, special classroom events, and/or significant behavioral occurrences (this can be positive behavior too).
- Invite carryover, but do not expect it. It is wonderful when families can carryover skills worked on in the arts classroom at home. However, we need to remember that families often have more than one child, busy schedules, and outside stressors. It can be helpful to ask parents what types of activities are easiest for them to do at home. Then you can offer ideas and strategies tailored to each family’s needs.
- Our students are not the only ones who benefit from positive reinforcement. Parents need positive reinforcement too! Praise parents and primary caregivers for how they are supporting their child and point out successes big or small. We all need encouragement, motivation, and support, including families of students with disabilities.
Emily Shamash, Ed.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Co-director of the Special Education Program in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professionals at Fairfield University. She is a certified special educator who specializes in working with children with autism spectrum disorders and their families. Alyson Martin, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor and Co-director of the Special Education Program in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professionals at Fairfield University. She is also a certified special education teacher. Together, Dr. Martin and Dr. Shamash have over 25 years of experiences working with children and families of children with disabilities in school, home and community settings.