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DOE Digest Episode 28: Thinking Outside the Box—Parent Collaboration and Special Education

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.

Introduction

Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

[upbeat background music]

Ken: The week of this week's podcast episode is also Special Education Week in New Jersey. We are thrilled to be able to bring to you a conversation between educators and parents about what it means for parents and guardians to collaborate with educators around Special Education services. At the New Jersey Department of Education, we believe that parents and guardians are integral parts of students' education. The concepts we discussed in this episode are so inspirational, and I can't wait for you to hear them and think about how they apply to your classroom.

Let's begin.

Interview

Kevin: Hi, my name is Kevin Sturges. I'm affiliated with the Arc of New Jersey. I'm a volunteer member of the Board of Directors and I'm a parent to three kids. And my middle child Clare is 18. She's in high school. She has a developmental disability, Down syndrome. And my oldest daughter, Kaely, she is 20 and is studying be a special educator at TCNJ.

Jodi: My name is Jodi Mahoney. I'm principal in South Brunswick and I'm a principal of the elementary school. And I'm co-chair of our Team Dyslexia. And I am in Middlesex County.

Ginny: Hi, my name is Ginny Bryant. I'm the parent of a 16 year old girl with Down syndrome. We are in Mercer County. And I'm pretty involved in the Special Education Parent Advisory Group PTO, and the Boggs Center in New Brunswick. Very interested in policy affecting people with disabilities and education.

Paul: Good afternoon. I'll Paul Barbato. I am Director of Special Services in Dumont, New Jersey in Bergen County. I'm also the chair of the State Special Ed Advisory Council and President of the New Jersey Association of Pupil Services Administrators.

Kasey: My name is Kasey Dudley. I am a project director at SPAN Advocacy. I oversee the Parents as Champions for Healthy Schools project and although I do cover the entire state, I am out of Essex County.

Ken: Could you explain what it means for school staff and parents or guardians to collaborate when it comes to special education and services students receive?

Paul: This is Paul. When I think of what it means for school staff and parents to collaborate when it comes to special education, I think of a system where parents and school staff maintain consistent communication. I think of a case manager who has a keen awareness and familiarity of parental concerns and has an understanding of classroom and functional data from the personnel working directly with that student.

Collaboration also includes connection with and involvement of the special education parent advisory group or council. Collaboration involves labor, making sure that all the professionals working with that student have a clear understanding of who the student is.

So that involves the parent, you know, completing some sort of inventory

—SPAN provides an excellent resource with a positive profile that we use in our district—and the teachers are able to get parental feedback on strengths and challenges and areas to work on. And that provides the teacher a really clear understanding of what to work on in addition to what the IEP may already capture. It's not a one and done kind of meeting that's annually done with the IEP, it's an everyday kind of consistent communication.

Ginny: This is Ginny. In terms of coordination and consistency, I'm always thinking of communication between parents and guardians and the school staff. I guess I always look at it from the perspective of a younger child, or a child with verbal issues, or a child with working memory issues. The partnership and collaboration between the home and the school is essential—obviously for things like behavioral modifications, right? Things we're trying to change—that we're all kind of on the same page working together.

But also in terms of topics discussed, that's really important that we have the same words, in the same language, and the same sort of rules about that at home. I also think that collaboration from home about what are things maybe happening at home that might affect what's happening at school. From my daughter when my husband used to travel a lot on business was really predictable that she would be having sort of an off week. Her, you know, her home routine was disrupted. And so that essential sort of communication, collaboration, consistent team with the school and and the home is just imperative.

The other piece for me is about sharing resources and information. I've been to classes. I've been to seminars. I've been to trainings. I have books. I've learned a lot about how my student learns. And things like...I'm a valuable resource for the teacher, for the school staff, to tap into and then listen to sort of how that can get superimposed on the classroom. Right? I'm not a teacher, but I do know a lot about my child. And I know a lot of families now who have the same disability. So I'm just a valuable resource. And collaboration really means tapping into each other's skill sets to get the best possible outcome for a student.

Kasey: It's Kasey. I just wanted to kind of piggyback on, you know, a few things that was just mentioned. One, the positive student profile, right? So you know, we actually do have the document and we do encourage all districts, as well as parents in addition to students who are part of that IEP process, to make sure that that document is used and it's used effectively and it is meaningful within the IEP. Right? Not just a document that is going to sit there and exits, but sit there and be used in a way that is going to support the needs of their child, their educational needs, their social needs, their emotional needs, right?

Because there's so many different components of the IEP that are missed out on. And I think that parents sometimes, you know, get into some meetings and some of them, although it has gotten tremendously better, I have to say may not or may not be aware of what their rights are, or may not be aware of, you know, other avenues. And I agree that services can be supported.

So I think that kind of document, that when it's coming from the parents or the students, and I continuously say students, because students should be a part of this process as well. You know it's used effectively to show that there is a true collaboration and it's not just, you know, words on paper, but organically where it is really child centered where they're getting the most out of the collaboration for their IEP. And it should be adjusted on an annual basis, as the reason why we have annual [review].

Kevin: Hi, it's Kevin. To me, collaboration means open and honest communication between the school and the parents, and in many cases the student. And the communication should be for the benefit and support of the student. That's the point. That's why we're collaborating. It's to support the student being able to achieve their goals. In my opinion, the collaboration must include high aspirations for the students and no predetermined outcomes. So in order for it to be collaboration, we can't enter the discussion already knowing what outcome we want. It's got to be open, honest and for the benefit of the student.

Jodi: This is Jodi. I just want to piggyback off of what Kevin just said, because for schools it's important to remember that the law states that parents are partners. But that really means creating opportunities and processes that allow for those partnerships to be created and fostered. For example, at intervention meetings or IEP meetings, often the educators do all of the talking. But parents also have those perspectives. And I think that schools need to examine their intervention meeting protocols, their agendas, and see where there's space for parents to be collaborative, and parents to voice concerns and voice what they're thinking about. Schools really need to look at those systems and procedures for how we're following out these collaborations, or how we're creating these partnerships.

Ken: So, I was just wondering if we could dig in a little bit to the importance of collaborating with parents and guardians around special education. So we heard a lot about what that means, how you define it. In the last question, what it is. Why is it important for that collaboration to happen? And we can start off with...Kasey.

Kasey: So it's important because, number one, we want to make sure that we're showing a great example to the student what collaboration is. My son is nine years old and he's always present at his IEP.

And number two, I think that it's also important that when we are sitting down and having this conversation and having this meeting that, like I said prior too, the collaboration is meaningful. Like we understand that this is a team effort and that was, as it was previously said, the parents are a equal part of this process.

Jodi: This is Jodi. I'll chime in on this one. Every child who comes to school is a superstar. Every one of them has strengths. Every parent is sending the best that they have to your school every single day. And it's our job to, maybe you know, to honor that. All all parents want to know is that their kids are going to...their needs and their talents are going to be recognized and supported. And every educator needs to value and honor that, and be knowledgeable, therefore, about learning differences, learning disabilities, physical disabilities. And if they're not knowledgeable about it, go ahead and be knowledgeable about it. So if you've never had a child with dyslexia in your classroom, you need to you know do some research and find out about it, so that the parents feel that you really are invested in what this child brings, both strength- and obstacle-wise to the classroom.

So, you know, it's really critical that parents feel that educators are invested in their child's particular situation, are knowledgeable about it, and can be proactive and responsive to it. That really builds a layer of...a foundation for building, trust building open communication. And then, hopefully, building academic success and school success for this child. You know, no matter where they start and moving them from point A to point B and further on. So, you know, really understanding those pieces really helps to build that relationship between the educators and parents.

Ginny: This is Ginny. I'm thinking about a conversation I had with a teacher in my professional life, and he was sharing with me, not knowing anything of my background, that he had just had a school year where he was assigned a student who had a particular disability. But his conversation was that, "boy, I found out this student was coming to my class and I was really scared. I didn't know how I was going to teach this kid." You know, he was all worried about that. And then he had this year and it turned out phenomenally great. And he was sort of just you know regaling me with the story of, "Wow. I was so scared and professionally it was challenging, but boy, what a year." And in fact got the school to agree to having the kids kind of looped, so he'd have that same student again next year.

And it occurred to me for the first time that teachers might be scared, right? I know I had a prenatal diagnosis with my daughter, and we were scared to death. And his humanity and sharing that story with me as a teacher, like "I am not... I'm a general education teacher. I am not prepared to teach that." And I was like, "oh yeah. You know as parents I was too, right?"  I gave birth. I had no idea what I was doing. Scared to death. And no certification, right? No training. No experience. But I learned teachers, particularly good teachers, don't ever want to not be great at something. Right? But to say, you know, "I have no idea and let's work this out together." Right? Like "parent, you're a great resource in general, but you're an expert in this kid. Let's partner."

Paul: And this is Paul. I just want to add a little more language to that. The IEP I always remember is a legal document. And it's of utmost importance to make sure that if you're a teacher new to working with a student with special needs, then to make sure that the IEP is understood thoroughly. And, you know, in our district we provide an overview of special education to our new hires. Whether you're an instructional assistant. Whether you're a custodian. Whether you're a teacher. And at the beginning of the school year, we present key information from our specialist code to forecast what is expected. The student's case manager can serve as the liaison to school personnel and the parents. So they're also a resource to reach out to.

You know, the spirit of the question deals with collaboration. And when you think of collaboration, I think it's essential since there may be modifications, or accommodations, or assistive technology needs, or supplementary aids and services, that a staff member is either directly or indirectly involved with implementing. So it's absolutely critical to become super aware of the child's needs to provide a free and appropriate public education.

Kevin: So to add to what Paul said, on a more personal level for a general educator or a special educator, as far as collaborating with parents of child with special needs, I wouldn't overthink it. Just as you would to a parent of a student who's not classified, I wouldn't hesitate to reach out to the parents by phone, or by email, by communication sheet. And do it early in the year. We found the most effective communication and collaboration we've had with the teachers is when we meet a few weeks into a new year. You know, we schedule a meeting and we just have a half hour discussion about our daughter, what she's good at, what her aspirations are, what her challenges are, what are some techniques we've learned on our own or from other teaching staff in the past that work well. And keeping that open dialogue, it could just be an email once a week, once a month, once a marking period. And we found that that's been our best collaboration is that informal communication with the teacher. And I don't think teachers should be afraid to reach out and have an informal discussion outside of the IEP meeting.

Ken: That's a great point. Thank you, Kevin.  Thank you all. This is really great and I think that this highlights, really, both the informal and the formal avenues that folks can take to get to that place of collaboration between parents and guardians and the teachers in the classroom.

I wanted to ask what lessons, in your mind, all teachers can learn from the collaboration between special education students and their families and educators?

Jodi: This is Jodi. In terms of lesson learned, I always talk to my families and my teachers about advocating for every child as if they're your own. And really, whether you have kids or you don't have kids, you know what...how you would want someone to advocate for somebody that you know and love. And that, you know, really speaks to this idea that just because some parents have the resources and maybe the know-how or have asked friends, you know, how to navigate the system, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be as proactive and responsive to others who might not know those things to ask. And so it's really our job as educators to advocate...support every child who sits in front of us. Thinking outside of the box, just because we don't have a program doesn't mean we shouldn't offer that program. We really need to think about what these kids need, and work as educators, as an educational system, to support what that student needs, whether we have it in place or we don't have it in place. It's our job to both be  proactive about it. And that would be my, you know, my biggest sort of lessons learned and my hope for moving forward.

Kevin: This is Kevin. Jodi, that comment you made, advocate for every child as if they were your own, that's so nice to hear. And I think that's the right mindset. We have some fantastic teachers. We've had many very good teachers. And I remember every time when I noticed that a teacher was advocating for my child as if they were their own. I agree with you. I think that's what we should strive for. We want teachers to be able to advocate for every child as if they were their own. And you're exactly right, not everybody has the same level of knowledge and can approach the table with what the rights are for the child, with what the best practices are. So we really collectively have to advocate for the child, for the student.

Paul: This is Paul. One lesson that I always emphasize with a teacher, or administrator, or a colleague, or a parent, is really what special education is defined as. When I refer to the blue book, or the special code, the definition of special education simply refers to a specially designed instruction. And it's not any definition of a location or a place. And so, for me, one lesson to emphasize with a teacher or a parent or colleague, is that special education is not a location but rather specialized instruction. So when we focus around that mindset, I think we just heard the word mindset around it being a service, then we're really focusing on what those needs are for that student. And, you know, whether it's within the LRE, the least restrictive environment, and seeing what is appropriate for that student. That's what I think of.

Kasey: This is Kasey. I just have to say I absolutely, 100% agree and love that, you know, the comment about special education being a service and not a place. Because that is the truth, right? And I think it's something that teachers, along with other school staff, we need to continuously remind them of that. So then they will look at all of our children on an individual basis and not, overall, that they're all in special education. They all receive individualized services for special education.

Ginny: I just want to pick up on something that Jodi said. A great lesson to be learned would be just "think outside the box." As parents of children with learning differences, and it's what we've learned to do sort of everything is outside the box. And I think that's just a great lesson to think of from an educator perspective. And it just takes thinking outside the box, right? Not this is he way we've always done it, or this is the way it should be done, or this is the linear way it goes. But what's another way to access, or what's another way to present the content, or to get back the information from a student just thinking in different ways.

Ken: I wanted to end today's discussion by asking you just about resources and just give a little bit of a description about why you think that those resources are important.

Ginny: This is Ginny. One of my favorite resources is understood.org. It's a great website that has a parent community and also a great series of educator resources. That tends to be sort of my go-to first place for anything I'm looking for. [It] has a... just great resources, great presentation. And another website that I love is called EducatingAllLearners.org and also a lot of resources for parents and educator collaboration there. So those are sort of my go-to's.

Kevin: It's Kevin. It's a free resource. It's just study guides. You know, typically with study guides when our daughter was younger, they would come out shortly before the test. And then we were supporting her filling out study guides at home, you know, one two three days before the test. I think providing the study guide further in advance, a week in advance, and allowing the student more time to familiarize himself with the material and get repetitions has been a great modification to help her secure the material. So for me it's the use of Quizlet and study guides in advance of an exam.

Jodi: This is Jodi: I will second the idea about understood.org as a phenomenal resource, and also add Learning Ally [learningally.org/], not only for audiobooks, but also just for resources and articles and information about supporting students. So Learning Ally would be another one of my favorite resources, as well as understood.org.

Paul: This is Paul. This site that we provided turnkey training on, called PBIS Rewards, it's a great informational site that looks at how we provide positive behavioral reinforcement to students who are being educated virtually. So there's a virtual component. And they provide matrices to consider on what to align expectations with. Reinforcement examples. There's a parent engagement piece, which I love. So certainly one to take a look [at] if you haven't seen it directly.

Kasey: This is Kasey. I think definitely I have to say that the SPAN website is definitely a great resource for parents, along with educators and students, to use and to be aware of. We have a plethora of information tools, toolboxes, resources, programs, and services that we support all across the state of New Jersey that will help you in the journey of within special education.

Then I also would say for all parents to ensure that they keep the parents [unclear] special education handy at any time. It's an easy read. It has all of your rights as a parent within that document. It's always given, an IEP is not experienced electronically, but, you know, learn it, understand it. You're going to use it for a very, very long time,  and it will definitely help you be a more efficient advocate for your child and understand again what your rights are as a parent.

Conclusion

Ken: Thank you so much for listening and please join us for the May 18, 8:30 pm #NJEdPartners Twitter chat. We'll be discussing this topic of special education and parent/guardian and teacher collaboration. And hope that are able to join us at that time.

I'd like to thank our guests, the Office of Special Education in the New Jersey Department of Education, as well as Elizabeth Thomas, who transcribes these episodes so that they're accessible for all.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.


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