By Kate Garcia
Like most educators, I find the word “collaboration” to be one of the most important words in my vocabulary. When implemented correctly, it has the ability to unlock an entire world for all families and students—particularly those with learning and thinking differences, like ADHD and dyslexia.
While research shows that collaboration between families and educators has a significant impact on student achievement, a recent study from Understood, a lifelong guide for people with learning and thinking differences, and UnidosUS, the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, found that 44 percent of parents do not know how to start the conversation with teachers about learning and thinking differences.
As educators, it’s important that we acknowledge the feelings and potential fears of parents on this journey, and that we push ourselves where we can to take that first step of collaboration— it’s never been more important. From my experiences, a simple way to intentionally kick-start and improve educator-parent collaboration is to remember the acronym “JOY”:
J: Just one perspective isn’t enough.
Students are complex individuals who encounter many settings and people throughout their day. Because collaboration utilizes multiple perspectives across different environments and situations, we can develop a broader picture to understand what supports, accommodations or help a child needs. For example, you may notice a student who seems to get anxious when reading aloud in front of the class, which may be a sign of a learning or thinking difference. Not only is that something to communicate to the student’s family, but it’s also impactful to ask questions to try to figure out if that behavior is consistent with how the student reads with their parents at home, and check in to see if or how the behavior evolves over time. Working together with parents to determine a regular communication schedule will provide teachers and parents alike a reliable way to share observations that will inform the support a child receives in the classroom.
O: Offering support in a single setting often falls short.
When teams discuss support for students, a holistic and collaborative approach will create the most impact. In some cases, community-based services or supports can empower families to facilitate change outside of school. Examples of these services include counselors and social workers for the student and/or the family and outpatient mental health services, among many others. We need to ensure we’re considering—and recommending, where relevant—support and collaboration across settings and engaging families to maximize our understanding of how we can support our students.
Y: Young people have a voice.
The voice of the student is one that is often overlooked in collaboration. It is crucial that we, as educators, acknowledge and include them in conversations and strategies (as developmentally appropriate). When students are given authentic opportunities to use their voice, they learn advocacy skills and deepen their trust with other members of their team—plus, they help their teachers and families better understand what they’re going through and what works (or doesn’t work) for them. That said, don’t be afraid to check in with your students. If you’ve implemented a new accommodation, ask them how it’s working, and use their feedback to help inform how you iterate on similar processes or activities moving forward.
Collaboration between families and educators will look different in each school, district and grade level. To visualize exemplary practices and their impact, check out this video by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction about Esma and her family.
Additionally, expect families to ask for suggestions about how to actively collaborate with schools and educators about learning and thinking differences. A great starting place is Take N.O.T.E. Developed by Understood in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Take N.O.T.E. is a web-based interactive experience to help parents identify signs of learning and thinking differences, and use that understanding to start conversations with their child’s teachers, pediatrician and other caregivers.
Unlocking joy in family-educator collaboration may take some time and support, but is a critical component of education. With proper collaboration, families and educators can work together to meet the needs of each individual student and help them thrive at school and beyond.
For additional resources, visit:
- Families weigh in: What I wish teachers knew before parent-teacher conferences
- Printable: Back-to-school update to learn from families
- How to break down communication barriers between parents and teachers
- Dear families and educators: Why parent teacher communication is more important than ever
- For ELL families: Why and how to partner with teachers
- Why families of color may feel uncomfortable communicating with teachers
About the Author: Kate Garcia is a high school science special education teacher at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. She has a B.S. in business administration from LaSalle University, an M.Ed. in special education and an M.Ed. in educational leadership from Chestnut Hill College. She is also a teaching fellow for Understood, a lifelong guide for people with learning and thinking differences. “My passion for working with students who have learning or attention issues is rooted in my belief that all children can succeed and deserve a high-quality education that meets their needs and challenges them daily.” As a master teacher in her district, Garcia has the opportunity to contribute to professional development. “I want to use the knowledge I gain through this fellowship to empower my colleagues to support these students the best way we can in each classroom.”
1 in 5 Americans struggle with learning and thinking differences, such as ADHD and dyslexia. They are misunderstood, undiagnosed, and dismissed, and their differences are viewed as a weakness.