When I first started teaching early childhood special education four years ago, I was confident in my teaching ability and behavior management skills. I was quickly confronted with the realization that I was working not only with my students, but with their families.
During my first round of parent-teacher conferences and the first few IEP meetings, I wasn’t sure what to talk about besides the students’ progress. I was getting to know the families, but only on the surface. For example, I knew the names and ages of my kids’ siblings, but didn’t know about their parents’ educational experiences or employment. As parents began asking me for help, I learned that I had just as much of a responsibility to support them as I did to teach my kids.
Throughout the last four years, I have provided families with shoes and books, gotten them connected to outside-support agencies, and helped process a disability diagnosis. If I hadn’t built strong connections with these families and recognized their needs, I wouldn’t have learned about the many incredible things my students’ parents were doing for their children.
Señora Ayala is one such parent. After we finished a recent meeting, I spent a few minutes talking with her via a translator. I did my best to ask and answer questions in Spanish, and learned in the process that Señora Ayala works with her child on stringing noodles on yarn to develop his fine motor skills. I praised her for doing so many wonderful things to support her child’s learning and development.
I Challenge My Colleagues to Take Steps to Connect
This year, I challenge other early childhood educators to make their students’ families a priority:
Make it a goal to build a strong, trusting relationship with one family.
Show them that you truly care about their child and let them know you appreciate the family’s efforts and sacrifices. A simple phone call or a note thanking them for always sending a snack or teaching their child to say “please” and “thank you” is a great start.
Always assume the best of each family and believe that they have their child’s best intentions at heart, even if they don’t show or share it the way you’d expect.
It can be easy to judge the parents and become frustrated or indifferent. Instead, be persistent in your attempts to encourage the family, build mutual respect, and develop a strong relationship.
Recognize the family’s needs, and do your best to meet them.
You don’t always need to spend a lot of money or start a donation jar; meeting needs could be as simple as listening or providing extra snacks. As a result of listening to parents share their concerns and frustrations, I have provided scissors and crayons, visuals, token boards, and simple tips to improve a child’s communication, behavior, fine motor skills, etc.
Provide parents with written communication in their native language, and send home simple activities that parents can do with their child.
Parents want to help their child succeed, but they often do not know how to develop play skills or expressive language.
Above all, do your best to break the communication barriers and engage in meaningful dialogue with families.
Use your school or district’s translators, ESL/bilingual teachers or paraprofessionals, or even Google Translate. None of my parents expect me to master their native language, but showing an effort to greet them and communicate with them in it fosters a strong relationship.
If I hadn’t done these simple things, I wouldn’t have been able to provide Ezra with a new pair of Angry Bird shoes, connect Mary’s family with a child development specialist, or lend a Kleenex and a listening ear to Lauren’s mom as she processed her daughter’s new diagnosis of autism. We may be the experts in early childhood, child development, and teaching, but the families are the experts on their child. Not taking advantage of this expertise causes us to miss out on important information, such as a death in the family that is contributing to a student’s misbehavior, strategies that work well to calm a child down, or something as simple as a child’s favorite toy. Make a connection with a family this year. The results will be well worth the effort.
Maddi Bodine teaches early childhood special education at Kingston Elementary School in Kingston, Illinois. She is a 2018-19 Teach Plus Illinois Early Childhood Educator Fellow.