A Teacher’s Guide for Communicating Effectively with Families who have Autistic Children
Effective communication with families is a significant piece of being a good teacher. It can be challenging for us teachers to find time in our day to communicate with the families of our students, especially with the unexpected daily occurrences that may happen throughout the school day. And today, I want to share why and how we should be effectively communicating in our classrooms. Whenever possible, focus on positive communications with families, that way you will have established a positive relationship so that if behavioral issues need to be discussed at some point the relationship already has a strong foundation.
Let’s first start with why we should communicate with the families of our students. What are the goals behind communicating with families?
- Building Trust:
Let’s always remember that the children in our class are someone’s baby, and we should treat our students as we expect our children to be taken care of when they go off to school. Having parents feel comfortable leaving their baby with someone new is difficult for all, but can be even harder for parents with autistic children. Building trust through communication will help families feel more comfortable leaving their children in your hands for the day. You want to have your families feel comfortable talking openly with you about their child, and you need to establish trust before you can have that connection.
- Sharing of Knowledge:
Remember, we as educators share a few hours a day with our students, but their families spend the rest of the time with them. Families have brought them up. They have the utmost knowledge about their child with autism. Having the families share what makes their child tick is so essential for any teacher. I always ask my families to complete a questionnaire at the beginning of the school year, asking them to tell me about their child. The answers they provide allows me to better understand the student and how I can successfully teach them. At the beginning of the school year, you open the door and ask the parents to share as much knowledge as possible about their child, and it will truly help you become a better educator.
It’s also important to share knowledge of yourself with the families of our students. Going back to trust, we want our parents to feel comfortable with leaving their child with us. Communicating your credentials and experience will help to build trust with our families.
As educators, we have expectations to stay up to date on research or resources relating to the field of autism. We have vast knowledge and experience in teaching students with autism. Communicating instructional methodologies, research, and resources can be so beneficial to our parents. Some families are new to the world of autism, and you’re their first point of contact in that world. It’s our job to give direction to the families that may need guidance.
Setting forth clear parent communication within your classroom at the beginning of the school year will prove successful for any teacher. Parents need to understand the expectations that you have for their child and your classroom. Setting up a communication routine at the beginning of the school year will help hold both you and the families accountable.
We already discussed why communication in the classroom is so important. Now let’s discuss how we could communicate effectively with our families.
- Introduce yourself:
Always start the school year by making that awkward phone call to the parents of the students in your class before the student steps foot in your class (if possible). Tell them about your experience as a teacher, reassure them that their child will do well in your class. Let them tell you about their child, and ask questions. Set the tone for the school year by letting the parents know that they can reach out and communicate with you when needed.
I suggest starting the school year by sending home a brief questionnaire for families to fill out. I always include questions about favorite shows, foods, characters, toys, etc. I also ask on my questionnaire what aversions their child may have during the school day. I ask the parents to write what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are. I also ask what goals they want to see their child accomplish this year. Having the knowledge provided by the questionnaire is so beneficial towards gearing instruction to meet that student's needs. Specific to autism, you might want to ask how best to soothe their child if they get upset and what things are especially rewarding to their child.
- Daily Communication Log:
I recommend sending home a daily communication log with your students. The log can be a notebook that goes home or a binder with premade communication feedback sheets. I prefer a daily worksheet that our students can complete or you can use this highly recommend parent communication sheet that is used in our new ARIS autism curriculum to give you some ideas about how to set up a first contact with parents/families and how to communicate to parents what skills their child is working on. Our students often struggle with communication, and it can be difficult for the students to explain how their day went to their families. I like my communication sheets to be straightforward. Some communication sheets can be student-led, depending on the abilities of the child with autism. If they have the skills, sheets can be designed to allow for students to circle how they think their day went. I also have my students circle things we did that day at school. Having this form of communication gives families helpful information and may allow for meaningful conversation opportunities with their children.
Many APPS on the market facilitate communication between families and teachers. If you’re not a fan of using paper daily, using an APP to address daily communication is for you. These APPS include but aren’t limited to Class Dojo, Remind, Parent square, Seesaw, and Bloomz. Some of these are APPS are free, and others do require a subscription fee. I find with apps that some families are on board with technology, while others struggle with the technology component of apps.
I like using email in my classroom to share weekly updates about the happenings of my class. I don’t suggest sending a generic email to all your families. I do recommend personalizing the emails to individual families. I go over skills we’re focusing on in the weekly emails, seasonal themes, lesson overviews, home connection learning ideas, reminders, progress, and pictures of their child hard at work.
A monthly newsletter is a fun way to keep the families involved in the school community. A newsletter is an excellent way to share upcoming birthdays, assemblies, field trips, and other happenings around the school or in the classroom.
- Phone Calls:
Ok, guys, this is important. Make sure to call parents to share good news and accomplishments that their child is making. Don’t only call to discuss challenging behaviors. The more positive phone calls we make, the less likely the families will be on the defensive when you have to share struggles that the student may be facing.
Effective communication is vital in developing a positive relationship with our classroom families. What communication strategies do you use in your classroom? I would love to hear from you!