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Field Trip: Empowering Parents in Special Education


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In this episode of Field Trip, we dive into the crucial role of parent involvement in special education. Dr. Kristen Williams, Executive Director for Disability Services in the San Antonio Independent School District, shares her extensive experience and passionate insights into the dynamics of educational support and parent engagement. With over three decades in special education, Dr. Williams offers practical advice for schools and educators on fostering positive, proactive relationships with families.  

We’ll uncover: 

  • The Importance of Parent Involvement: No one knows and loves a child more than their parents. How can schools leverage this for better educational outcomes? 
  • Strategies for Positive Engagement: Innovative approaches and best practices for engaging parents in their children’s education, moving beyond traditional methods to create a supportive and inclusive environment. 
  • Real-Life Success Stories: How intentional actions and policies have led to significant improvements in parent participation. 

Whether you’re a parent, educator, or someone interested in the field of education, this is a must-listen for anyone looking to make a difference in the lives of children with special needs. 


00:00 – Introduction: The Importance of Parental Involvement in Special Education

00:48 – The Role of Parents in Special Education

01:59 – Strategies for Positive and Proactive Parent Involvement

02:37 – Building Parent Capacity and Encouraging Participation

04:32 – The Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC)

05:14 – Effective Communication with Parents

07:12 – Empowering Parents through Education and Advocacy

09:17 – Conclusion: The Lasting Impact of Parent Involvement

Related Resources

Full Transcript  

DR. KRISTEN WILLIAMS: When parents are supported and have what they need, they are going to take better care of their kids. We have to always begin with the idea that the parent in every and any situation is doing the very best they know how to do for their child. And we have to give that recognition even when sometimes those conversations are hard. By goodness, I would a million times rather have a parent who is involved than have a parent who is not.


RYAN ESTES: Coming up, a conversation about how school districts can positively, proactively involve parents in the special education process. From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip. 




RYAN: Well, today I’m very happy to be joined by Dr. Kristen Williams, the Executive Director for Disability Services in San Antonio Independent School District. Dr. Williams, welcome to Field Trip.


DR. WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me, Ryan. I’m excited to be here.


RYAN: I want to talk to you today about the issue of parent involvement in special education, and I know that often when parents of special education students and schools interact, it’s either around the annual IEP or ARD committee meeting, or it’s because parents have complaints or concerns. How do you think about parent involvement in special education?


DR. WILLIAMS: So, this is my 32nd year, all in special education in various forms. I’ve been a classroom teacher, I’ve been a coordinator. I don’t think that the importance of parent involvement can be understated. Honestly, no one knows their child like the parent does, and no one loves their child like the parent does. Our job is to be the expert on educating, but their job is to be the expert on their child. There are ways where we can build parent capacity, but I think one of the things that people always have to remember, whether you’re having a great interaction with a parent or you are hearing their frustration and struggle, that mom is only momming the best she knows how. That dad is only dadding the best way they know how. And by goodness, I would a million times rather have a parent who is involved than have a parent who is not.


RYAN: Sort of the bare minimum of keeping parents informed is, you know, printing out progress reports and sending them home. But beyond that, what would you say is your approach to getting parents involved more positively and proactively?


DR. WILLIAMS: So, I think there are quite a few things you can do through design. At the very beginning, you have to intentionally communicate your willingness to work with parents. Parents need to feel welcomed and involved, and then we need to always remember that no matter how much we care about what’s going on with this child, we don’t care more than the parent does. And next year or the year after, we may no longer be involved with that child, but that parent, they’ll still be there.


For parent involvement, you have to do a couple of things. You have to make sure that you are, as both an individual and as an organization, communicating the importance of, ‘You are welcome, you are our partners, we want you here.’ And that means that through your practices, things like holding annual ARD meetings or school events, that you’re making sure you’re making it work for the parent.


Yes, there is a law that says we have to do it at a mutually agreeable time, but sometimes that means that if the parent works the third shift, we really have to be flexible about when our time to meet with them is, or how we meet with them, how do we engage them now that we have technology and we’re all so good at it since the pandemic.


I think there are more opportunities and less excuses for why a parent can’t participate in something. If your objective is always to have the parent involved, you’ll find ways to have the parent involved.


I think that communication is ongoing. It’s more than, ‘Here are some data points about where your kiddo is.’ And one of the things we do in special education so many times is we talk about what the child can’t do, but what about all of the amazing ways that kid is an individual and valued and appreciated? Parents need to hear that, and they need to know that we see their child as more than just a data point.


The other thing is, you have to do some intentional things like parent training, it is my job to make sure parents know all of the jargon we’re using and why things are important. The reality is, we speak this special language that’s just special ed, and we assume everybody else speaks special ed. For the record, nobody else speaks special ed. We work under this assumption that people know what we’re talking about, and I think that can be alienating to parents, and it certainly doesn’t support the idea of, ‘You are welcome, you are valued, and we want to be contributing with you.’


I asked Dr. Williams what kinds of volunteer opportunities San Antonio ISD makes available to special education parents. And she said that in addition to volunteering in schools or at events, they have a special education parent advisory council they call SEPAC.


DR. WILLIAMS: I have a group of parents whose children are at all different grade levels, with all different types of disabilities, who come and meet with us monthly. We do some problem solving, and then we have a couple of formal meetings each year. I need to know what they’re hearing and seeing because I’m not on the campuses very often, and when I am, I’m not seeing the picture like they’re seeing it. And their perspective is so incredibly important and valuable.


RYAN: As a parent, I receive emails, and sometimes multiple emails, every day from my kids’ schools, and tipping my hand, I admit it’s sometimes hard to keep up. How do you communicate with parents in an effective manner and make sure that not only are parents seeing that and getting the information they need, but also making sure that communication goes both ways?


DR. WILLIAMS: So, we have a couple of structures built in for that. We have a monthly newsletter that is specific to parents and we provide it in both English and Spanish, because so many of our families use a language other than English. Making sure that people know they’re getting it and that they’re seeing it and that the information we include in it is valuable enough to them to bring them back each month to do that.


We also have parent education classes, so every month we have a different subject and sometimes it’s about how to connect with agencies or ‘Here are some summer programs that are coming out,’ but sometimes it’s things like how to help your child fill out the FAFSA, how to help your child pick the right college, or go to how to go to the disability services office at a college. A lot of times parents don’t know those things exist, and so it’s a matter of bringing them in. And what I find is really valuable is asking them to bring a friend.


I think that many times, parents — not many times, sometimes — parents are isolated, right? Particularly parents with a child with a low incidence disability. Their child may not be playing sports, they may not be singing in the choir. They may not be engaging in some of those other activities where parents naturally meet each other. And so we have to be intentional about how we bring them together. Because when parents are supported and have what they need, they are going to take better care of their kids. They are going to be able to love them the most that they can do. And I think that is really important.


RYAN: I love the thought behind that answer. The thinking behind that is, is incredible. Can you share any specific stories of ways that you have seen parents become really well involved in their kids’ education as a result of steps that you or your team have taken?


DR. WILLIAMS: We have had a number of parents who participated in, we did like a Special Ed 101, come and learn. A series of one hour classes, four times, where you could learn about the law. You could learn about what are the words we talk about and what are your child’s rights, how can you be actively involved with the school, what to learn about or ask about when you go to an ARD or IEP meeting. In Texas, we call it an ARD meeting because we’re special. The rest of the country calls it an IEP.


So, once you empower parents, then sometimes they are then willing to be not only involved for their child, but to draw other parents in that they connect with to say, ‘Hey, I can help you. Did you know that you can ask for this information, that you can ask for a copy of the IEP several days in advance so that you can review it? You can ask for the data.’ Because a lot of times people won’t ask because they don’t know they can.


We have had a couple of families, one family I’m thinking of in particular, the mother works is on our SEPAC, our Special Ed Parent Advisory Council, at her school. She has so advocated for her child and for other children with disabilities that she literally has a special position on their PTA now. They created a position for her to serve as a liaison between the school PTA and special education. And so she’ll pull them and say, ‘What would you like to learn about? What do you think we need to do?’ And then she’ll contact our office and say, ‘Hi, at the school we have some parents and they want to learn about this.’ That is amazing advocacy, and see how she’s not just benefiting herself and her child. She’s doing amazing things to grow the skills and opportunity for the people around her.


I’m going to go back to what I said at the very beginning. Nobody loves that kid like the parent does. And we have to always begin with the idea that the parent in every and any situation is doing the very best they know how to do for their child. And we have to give that recognition even when sometimes those conversations are hard, those interactions are hard, but aren’t we lucky? Aren’t we fortunate to get to play a role in the development of another human being’s life? To have the opportunity to grow and support their families? It affects everybody’s future. None more so than the child and their family.


RYAN: I love it. Dr. Kristen Williams is the Executive Director for Disability Services in San Antonio ISD. Dr. Williams, again, thank you for taking time to speak with me today.


DR. WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for having me.


Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, providing software for school districts, including solutions for managing special education and programs for special student populations. You can check out more at, and be sure to subscribe to this podcast so you won’t miss any episodes we release. 

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.