Technology Made Special Education Parents Better Advocates During the Pandemic

With schools clearing for the summer, there are undoubtedly aspects of the past year that teachers and parents alike are ready to leave behind.

But then there are the benefits that some hope will last. Including: better communication strategies and tools that facilitate interaction between special needs parents and teachers.

These are lessons that should last long after our current era of distance learning, says research analyst Lane McKittrick, who focuses on special education and families at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She recently co-wrote a report on how charter schools effectively supported students with disabilities during the pandemic and to blog on the subject.

“If you don’t have good communication, that partnership really breaks down,” she says, referring specifically to parents and educators. “Many families are under a lot of stress, grieving or whatever. So what can we learn from this particular ED community about communication and relationships and what they mean at this time? “

McKittrick says that for much of the pandemic, families felt that special education was an afterthought. They showed empathy towards the schools in the spring of 2020 when the educators tried to make distance learning possible, she adds. However, McKittrick’s analysis of plans to reopen schools in the fall of 2020 found that special education programs were barely mentioned.

McKittrick’s disappointment didn’t just stem from her role as a researcher. She is also the mother of four children, three of whom are deafblind.

“I was expecting more communication from our IEP teams about what this will mean specifically for my children,” she says, referring to the acronym for individualized education programs. “Do I have to go in person earlier than others because my children have this need? What if you have a medical problem and cannot wear a mask? There just weren’t those answers. “

A May 2021 report from the American Foundation for the Blind examined the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students Visual impairments. Communication was also listed as an important component in his recommendations, concluding that “Communication between students, family members, visual experts, other educators and administrators must be continuous, clear and tailored to the needs of the students and family members.”

The schools that served their special needs groups most successfully were the ones that prioritized communication and learning about families’ needs, McKittrick found in her own analysis. In particular, she points out those who asked questions like: Do you have access to technology? Do you take care of someone who is sick? Do you have a secure job?

“That was very positive in the spring. My own kid said, ‘It’s really cool that my teachers don’t say,’ Did you do the job? ‘ but ‘How are you today?’ ”she says. “Schools that took so long were great.”

Level the (virtual) playing field

Traditionally, when parents attend school meetings for student IEPs that set learning goals and support for their children, their experiences have not been entirely pleasant.

“Often there is a power imbalance where everyone is sitting on the other side of the table and the parents feel like they are alone in this group of people,” says McKittrick. “Zoom removes that physical barrier. Everyone is kind of the same. “

IEP virtual meetings solved scheduling problems for working parents and even made it easier for students to participate in their learning plans when their parents log into the meetings from home.

“Maybe they don’t want to come to an entire IEP meeting and sit there in person for a variety of reasons,” she says. “It’s easy for students to stop by [to a virtual meeting], spend 20 minutes talking about how their year is going. If the adults want to keep talking, they can. “

Just a text away

Parents got an immediate firsthand experience of their children’s learning when the classrooms were switched from face-to-face to virtual at home. And that closeness has given a whole new dynamic to the way parents can interact with educators.

“What we’re seeing this year is that there are no barriers. We study at home. One of the cool things about it is that parents feel more empowered, ”says McKittrick.

She belongs to that. One example she cited before the pandemic was how to address a problem when her seventh grade son comes home from school crying. McKittrick was able to call the teacher to find out the problem, but “I didn’t see him in the classroom. When I saw him at home, I was able to be more active in problem-solving. “

Communication between parents and teachers also changed dramatically and for the better as both groups became familiar with messaging apps or text messages. With a tap of the send button and a ping on the other end, either side can start a conversation in seconds instead of days.

“Yesterday I spoke to a teacher who said, ‘Normally I would never text a parent in the middle of the day. I would see if something is a problem and think about it and if I really want to get in touch with the parents. But now I’m just texting, ”says McKittrick. “Parents really like this because you don’t have to think, ‘That was three days ago. I don’t know what was wrong with them. ‘”

Become better lawyers

The sum of these new dynamics is that parents and students alike are empowered to advocate for their needs, says McKittrick. That’s good for kids.

“I think ultimately they see that every part of the team is on the same page, so it’s more consistent for the kid. They feel more supported and I think that helps them build self-advocacy and independence, ”she says. “They feel good when they say that something is not accessible to me or that I need a little more time for something.”

As the parents are involved more often and earlier through faster communication, she finds that they are also more involved. A school in McKittrick’s research reported that attendance at parent-teacher conferences rose from 80 percent to 95 percent after the online meetings were rescheduled.

“I think parents don’t value what they know, but they are the ones who know the most about their child. So that they can see it [classroom learning] I’ve spoken to so many parents myself who had an aha moment, ”says McKittrick. “I’m no longer going to sit in an IEP meeting and take a backseat role because I’ve seen it firsthand.”

Schools should ensure that when they return to face-to-face classes, special needs teachers have time to keep communication with parents open, McKittrick says. Parents also need options to keep them occupied, such as: virtual IEP To meet.

“How can we use some of the things that worked remotely so we don’t just go back to the way it was?” She says. “I think we learned a lot because we communicated, solved and individualized problems and were more flexible in special education than perhaps in the past.”