The Importance of Good Communication Skills: Strategies for Team Building
Before beginning the special education process, it may be useful for you to review the skills that can help build a collaborative relationship with your child’s school in order to develop an effective special education team. When an eligibility committee determines that a student needs special education services, parents often find themselves thrust into a new role as a special education advocate. In addition to learning about their child’s specific needs, parents also need to learn the skills necessary to communicate effectively with school staff members and to become integral members of their child’s education team. It is important for parents to develop a relationship of mutual respect and trust with school staff members. Parents and staff members need to express their thoughts in direct, honest, and appropriate ways while retaining and displaying respect for the rights and opinions of others.
The following hints and tips will be useful when preparing for a meeting about your child, whether it is an eligibility or IEP meeting or an informal meeting to discuss your child’s progress and/or your concerns. They will help you become a more effective member of your child’s education team and promote a positive, collaborative relationship with your child’s teachers.
• Assume honorable intentions on the part of people who work with your child. This is a phrase developed by the Pacer Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a federally funded parent information, referral, and advocacy center. Even though parents may disagree with the opinions and decisions of school staff members, they should realize that people are acting out of genuine concern for their child and in what the staff members believe to be the best interests of the student. Every teacher wants his or her students to succeed, and every teacher and principal wants parents to be supportive and satisfied with the services their child is receiving.
• Make sure there is an agenda for each meeting you attend. Get the agenda in advance and/or give the school your agenda with a list of things you’d like to discuss before the meeting. This will allow everyone to be better prepared for the meeting and will ensure that adequate time is allotted for the meeting and that all your concerns are addressed.
• For both IEP meetings and general conferences, find out in advance how much time will be allocated to the meeting. If you have not completed the agenda items or the IEP by the end of the meeting, schedule a time to reconvene. Meetings tend to become unproductive if they are unreasonably long. It is easier to determine the date for a new meeting right then, when people are present and can coordinate their schedules, rather than adjourning the meeting and trying to schedule a meeting later when everyone will have to be contacted individually.
• Keep the meeting focused and stick to the agenda. Make sure that your concerns as well as those of the school staff have been addressed. If other issues come up, save them for another meeting unless they are important to the discussion.
• Prepare for your meeting by organizing your thoughts and concerns. Use the Parent Information form or see Appendix F for a Student Profile to help clarify your perceptions of unaddressed needs. You may want to pass out completed copies to staff members.
• Leave “old baggage” behind (easier said than done!). Although past experiences may have had an impact on your feelings toward the school system or the school, try not to let those feelings affect the task at hand. Rather, learn from your mistakes and become a better advocate based on your experiences. For example, if you feel that services or accommodations you discussed at a previous meeting were never implemented, you now know that you need to document all important points discussed at a meeting (see the section on notes, below), make sure that everyone leaves the meeting with the same understanding of what will happen, and follow up on a regular basis.
• Take someone with you to the meeting if you feel that you will need support.
• Ask questions or ask for explanations, especially when educational terms that are not clear to you are used.
• Use active listening skills. Often, people become so concerned with discussing their issues that they may not pay full attention to what others are saying, and a breakdown in communication occurs. Use body language to show people that you are listening to them (keep good eye contact, nod your head in agreement) and reflect back to them what you think they are saying (“Let me see if I understand this correctly. You feel that my son… ”).
• Take notes (or ask someone at the meeting to take notes). Meeting about your child’s school program can be difficult and you may be hearing a lot of opinions and new information. Messages may be conveyed unclearly or misunderstood and, very often, parents and staff members leave meetings with different perceptions of what was said or agreed upon. At the end of the meeting, go back over your notes with the other participants to be sure that what you heard is what they meant to say. Include in your notes the names and titles of staff members who are present.
• Follow up an informal meeting with a note thanking the staff members for their time and summarizing the areas about which you reached agreement and/or the plan that was developed.
• Make the goal of any meeting resolution of the issues and by all means sign any documents with which you feel comfortable in order to expedite the process. However, do not sign any documents with which you do not feel comfortable or about which you have questions. Tell the school staff that you would like to take a draft with you if you feel you need to discuss it with others or if you need more time to think about it. If you do this, be sure to get back to the school staff with your decision in a reasonable amount of time (usually no more than 10 days). Let the staff know if you are planning to sign the document or if you feel that you need to discuss it further.
• If you are from another culture or a different ethnic background, make sure the school staff understands your culture and your cultural values. School staff members may make assumptions based on a lack of understanding of your beliefs. Help them by taking the time to correct their assumptions.
• If you reach a point in the meeting when communication begins to break down, you feel no further progress will be made, or you are feeling frustrated, it is time to end the meeting and agree on a date to reconvene.