As the parent of a special needs child, one of the biggest frustrations I have had to face is a lack of adequate feedback from teachers and other educational staff. For their part, teachers are often frustrated by a lack of training and support to help them address the needs of disabled students. Learning to open the channels of communication between home and school can help address the needs of both parents and teachers. It can also mean a huge difference to the academic success of the special education student, because parents and teachers work together collaboratively on helping the child achieve individualized educational objectives.
Communication in special education: What effective feedback looks like
Many teachers don’t know what effective feedback looks like, writes educator Shelly Terrell. Their workload constrains them to providing written feedback in the form of a few red markings on a student’s paper, a letter grade or percentage on a report card, and a couple of brief statements addressed to parents at quarterly intervals. Most of this feedback falls short of being effective when it comes to average students, so it should not surprise educators when parents of special needs students are unsatisfied with the information they are receiving from school.
There are many rubrics that outline the steps to giving effective feedback. Michelle Collins and Julie Richie’s “3 Rs” of feedback are particularly well suited to an educational environment. They say to be effective, feedback must meet the following requirements: 1) it must be regular; 2) it must be given right away; 3) it should be used as a remedy to reinforce desired behaviours and to discontinue behaviours that are not desired. Teachers of special education students may find a daily communication book useful for this purpose. The book can be set up using a template that allows for multiple choice or fill in the blank answers, or it can simply be a blank book in which educators and parents write each day. Feel free to consult How to Write a Communication Book Entry for more on the kind of feedback parents of special needs children find helpful.
Communication in special education: Strategies for effective time management
Terrell notes that a second reason many teachers do not give effective feedback is difficulty setting aside time to both give and receive feedback. Time management is critical in today’s classroom, especially in a mainstreamed or inclusive education setting. Educators need to lean on the other members of the IEP team for support, rather than attempting to take on the entire burden of adapting the curriculum to the needs of a special education student. Resource teachers and parents can both be helpful in selecting and writing up educational objectives for the IEP; professionals such as speech or occupational therapists can help to adapt learning units or to design a schedule that allows for remedial help and attention to behavioural or health-related needs. Classroom aides spend a great deal of time working individually or in small groups with special needs students. They can be a wealth of information about a specific student or type of disability, and often have a great deal more to contribute than is expected.
Whenever possible, teachers should look for opportunities to show, rather than to tell. Sending a completed school exercise home with a blank copy to be done as homework provides parents with a tremendous amount of insight into their child’s learning process and work habits, as does inviting the parents of special education students to come into the classroom or to observe their child’s school day through videos. This strategy is less time consuming than writing, or waiting for a face to face meeting to tell parents what is going on in the classroom. It makes the parents feel more a part of the team, and also allows for prompt follow-up and home support of the skills a special needs student is currently working on in school.
Inclusive education can provide a number of benefits to all students. It also presents a number of challenges to educators, to special needs students, and to their families. Learning to give and receive effective feedback is a simple thing any educational professional can do. It requires a very small investment of time, and offers big pay outs in terms of success for both the teacher and the special needs student.
Michelle L. Collins & Julie K. Richie, “Giving and receiving feedback.” Leadership Her Way, July 2005
Shelly Terrell, “Goal: 12 resources for giving constructive feedback.” Teacher Reboot Camp