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Working with Parents in Special Education

Special Education

“I think I treated parents like an obstacle without realizing it.”

Working in special education can be very rewarding. It can also be extremely challenging. One of the many reasons it can be challenging is working with parents.

Parents want the best for their kids – which is how it should be. Sometimes they have specific ideas about how that should look in a school setting. And sometimes those ideas turn into requests, or even demands, and conflict with what educators believe is appropriate for student support.

So, what happens then? Stressful calls. Tense IEP meetings. Strongly worded emails. Litigation.

In a recent podcast episode, three current and former administrators — two of them, parents of a student with special needs — share what they’ve learned from years of working with parents throughout the special education process.


Help parents understand the “lingo”

“Often times I’ve realized that the lingo that we use as educators, as administrators, is not something that people understand. We’re using all these big words about what’s wrong with their child, but not actually telling them in plain, simple English what the problem is.” – Sashi Gundala, Vice Principal

Don’t sacrifice clarity for positivity in your communication

“You say, ‘Well, this is where we are in September. Let’s continue to hold hands with the family, not just the child, and really help them to understand that the child’s struggles are not a source of shame or embarrassment. The child will make some progress, just maybe not at the rate and speed that the family had hoped, and that’s okay.’ I would say that that’s one of the most important things educators can do to work with families is to have some patience and understanding that this process is going to take a very, very long time, depending on the stage that you’re able to work with the family and intervene with the family.” – Dr. Christine Capaci, Director of Data Assessment and Accountability

Admit when you don’t know the answer

“To say ‘I don’t know’ as a professional feels unprofessional. It feels like I should know everything, or I’m too new, but it’s an expression of vulnerability to get up in front of people with parents who you know might take what you say to a support group or the public, or might circle back and get to your boss. To say ‘I don’t know’ is an expression of vulnerability. And everybody has been there. So it’s a place for connection to say, ‘I don’t know. I’m sorry I don’t know. Let me get back to you.’” – Sam Hendrickson, former K-12 HR director

Keep lines of communication open

“[Consider] offering workshops and meeting places for parents. Just invite them, have your CST team talk to these parents and educate them, and tell them about the process and what is going on, and even what their rights are, what they can get from the state, how the school is helping.” – Sashi Gundala

“Honestly speaking, schools do a lot … it’s just that sometimes it doesn’t reach the parents in the right manner … They don’t see everything else that is being done [for their child].”

Address fear instead of anger

“[Special education] is a difficult emotional journey for the parents. And from the point of diagnosis until the time that the appropriate program that’s making differences is in place, there’s a lot of time that goes by.”

“Parents would come and say things like, ‘I would like my child to have an augmentative device. I want my child to have a [one-on-one] aide. I want my child to have speech therapy by themselves and not in a group. I know you do it with other kids. I want it for my child, too.’ … And what was happening, I believe, was that [the parents were] coming in angry. Underneath all of that is fear.” – Sam Hendrickson

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Danielle Simbajon

Danielle is part of the global, award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She graduated from Emerson College with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing, Literature and Publishing, and has developed content to empower the education community for over 10 years.