For special educators, families are an essential resource

To achieve successful outcomes, educators must meaningfully engage the families of the children they serve.

Photo portrait of Ed Bosso

This story appears in the Summer 2018 issue of In Focus.

We know that positive student outcomes are inextricably connected to meaningful family engagement, a simple yet complex concept. And yes, there is simplicity on the other side of complexity if we embrace families as a resource and true partners.

Engaging parents and families must begin with a listening journey for professionals, one that will provide foundational information leading to strong and sustainable partnerships. As professionals, we must be ever cognizant of our assumptions and biases and understand how they inform our interactions with families.

I have found it useful to borrow from a language-learning framework developed by Dr. Richard Ruiz, the late University of Arizona professor who helped develop policies supporting bilingual education around the world. Language learning, Dr. Ruiz suggested, can be understood one of three ways: as a problem, as a right and as a resource.

Family engagement can perhaps be understood the same way. And to open that critical channel – thereby unlocking a student’s full potential and facilitating our own evolution as teachers – we must understand it as a resource.

When family engagement is viewed from a problem orientation, educators mistakenly believe they have all the answers and may see families as “enemies not allies.” Conversely, when viewed as a right, educators may tolerate rather than embrace family partnerships. In either instance, the educators cannot succeed in their work because they have treated family engagement as an obstacle, or otherwise committed to it in a cursory manner.

As our work is complex, so too are family dynamics and compositions. Furthermore, there are innumerable environmental factors outside of the classroom that can contribute to a child’s development. Understanding these factors is a necessity to understanding the child, and building that understanding requires a deep reliance on individual families and the information they are uniquely fit to bring to the table.

This is not easy work. Families very often don’t know what they should be contributing to the relationship. As a result, unearthing important information in their possession requires more than simple outreach by the educator.

Educators must approach families while cognizant of their own assumptions, aware of how their orientation has been shaped by their own personal experiences. Upon being invited in, they must commit to a listening journey, not as the professional in the room, but as a fellow human being with much to learn.

When we do this, we can begin to understand family engagement, not as a burden and not as an obligation, but as a resource, a critical piece in the puzzle of our work. And this is imperative because only when we sit together, educators and families, as equals, can we build relationships that foster success.

Ed Bosso is executive director of Educational Programs and superintendent at Perkins School for the Blind. This article was adapted from a presentation he delivered at the first-ever Network of the Americas Conference. Hosted by Perkins and Deafblind International in April, the event brought together leaders in the field from North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

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