By Building a Respectful Relationship, Educators Can Reduce Parents’ Stress

Supporting Parents of Students with Autism

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Dianne Zager, Ph.D.

Parents of adolescents have to cope with stress that emanates from several sources… their kids, their own work, finances, social lives, and sometimes the school that their child attends. As educators, we can help alleviate stress levels of our students and their parents by being accessible, actively listening to parents’ concerns and wishes, and demonstrating our commitment to delivering excellent education.

This is especially true for families with a child who has special needs, such as autism. Nearly every day at work, I meet parents interested in applying to our private school because their neighborhood school hasn’t provided the educational services they feel are necessary for their son or daughter’s future success. I’ve asked myself why it is that so many families are dissatisfied with the special education they’re receiving from their neighborhood schools, what has caused these parents to feel frustrated by the system– and how we can help schools to improve student outcomes.

When I speak with teachers and administrators in schools, they sometimes mention that parents can be stressed out, difficult to deal with, and unreasonably demanding. The first part of the prior sentence is likely true. Parents are stressed. But for good reason. If their child isn’t making sufficient progress in school, or if the school appears to be interested in budget rather than on delivery of appropriate education services, this is certainly cause for parental concern. Such tug of war between parents and school districts can lead to legal battles for parents to attain necessary services for their children.

From my experience, parents very often are making reasonable requests, with their child’s educational needs foremost in their mind. Parents have historically been the heroes in our field of special education, advocating for their children to receive their rightful education. After all, every student is entitled to a free appropriate education.

As a former teacher, administrator, and teacher trainer, I understand the constraints, both budgetary and legal under which schools must operate– and I hold teachers in the highest regard.  As a school leader, I use my former experiences to remind myself to listen to parents and to hear their voices.

Last week three parents related to me stories in which they believed that their school districts had neglected the education of their children. While there may be more than one side to their stories, the bottom line was that these students were not progressing at an acceptable rate. Having met these students, it was clear that they were bright and wanted to learn. It was also apparent that they tended to behave, communicate, and learn differently than their neuro-typical peers. Most parents would prefer to keep their kids in their local schools. However, when schools lack the resources to provide needed services, other options, such as specialized settings, should be considered.

So, the question remains, how can we, as educators, help to reduce parental stress and keep families satisfied with the education their children are receiving? Some ideas are provided below:

· Listen to parents. They are a most valuable resource, second only to students.

· Be respectful of students and families, with awareness of familial stressors, as well as cultural diversity.

· Work collaboratively with administrators and families to promptly address concerns and solve problems.

· Take advantage of professional development opportunities to learn new techniques and strategies to meet students’ needs.

· Incorporate evidence-based and research-based practices into curriculum to foster student growth and development.

· Speak frequently to parents to ensure ongoing communication and to address concerns before they escalate.

Dianne Zager, Ph.D.

Co-Head of School and Head of Education

Shrub Oak International School

Mohegan Lake, New York

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