When people learn I work in special education, there is often a show of gratitude and a response along the lines of, “It takes a special person!” While well intentioned, and I’d like to think somewhat true, I’ve always thought to myself that, in reality, I send the students home at 3:00, at which point the parents of these amazing kids begin the real work, often after they have already worked another full-time job.

Beyond my work as a special educator, I also know firsthand how these parents must feel; when my youngest daughter was born, she had a stroke as a result of residual seizures from a rather difficult labor and subsequent emergency C-section. Due to my career as a special educator, after seeing the MRI indicating areas of ‘dead’ brain matter, my question to the neurologist was, “What are the best- and worst-case scenarios?” Really, I was asking what my life would look like from then on.

Many special educators, of course, empathize with how difficult it can be to raise a child with disabilities, but do we really know what the parents of our students are thinking? Do we ponder what they need from us, or do we just hope they are not one of “those parents” who take up a lot of time and energy? Based on my unofficial, not at all research-based poll on social media, the following comments from parents of children with varying abilities and needs provide a glimpse into what parents really need from their child’s special educator:

1. Communication is key.

  • Be honest about what you are seeing in the classroom; we need to know what is working and what is not working at school.
  • Be judicious with constructive criticism and praise.
  • Be a good listener and don’t internalize all the ideas parents have because some parents see the disability as a reflection of them as parents.

2. Make it personal.

  • Remember that even if you have the best intentions, many parents have had to fight for their child’s rights along the way. Don’t take it personally.
  • Get to know my child as a person, not just a name on your caseload. Use a questionnaire so I can share information about my child with you. I need to know that you care.
  • Please partner with me to help my child and my family.

3. Support comes in many forms.

  • Provide parents with opportunities to network and meet each other.
  • Provide extracurricular activities because often we don’t get the opportunity to see our children participate in things other kids their age are doing.
  • When young adults are “aging out” of school, remember that this is a major transition for parents too, and that it’s scary. Please support us through this process.

Finally, parents emphasized that they appreciate special educators more than we know and do understand that our job isn’t easy. I know that throughout my life as an advocate for my daughter I wanted to be heard and to feel that the teacher valued my insight. I believe communication between school and home is the most vital part of a good relationship. No one knows the child better than the parent, and in order to create a cohesive support team we need to work together and focus on what is in the best interest of the student. Mutual respect and support for one another can help both special educators and parents do the best job possible and keep our mutual goal of helping this child with unique learning needs as our main priority. Bottom line: everyone must communicate, trust one another and work together to support this amazing individual!

About the Author
Jennifer Schmidt has spent 23 years as a general education teacher, autism consultant and special educator. She is currently a high school teacher, a college instructor, and an experienced national and international presenter. Jennifer recently published her first book on the use of peer modeling and other evidence-based practices to teach social skills to students with autism. Jennifer earned a Master of Education degree in Special Education from Wright State University.