We’re well aware that there’s a positive relationship between family engagement and student performance in school. When families are actively engaged in their children’s academic career, their children are more likely to do well in areas such as academic performance and school behaviors, and to have a positive attitude toward school.
However, not all families of students with disabilities are able to engage at the levels that schools expect, particularly those from diverse backgrounds and low socioeconomic status. Possible reasons could be related to cultural and linguistic barriers and/or a lack of understanding of U.S. legislation and the special education system.
Addressing the pressing needs of diverse families continues to be difficult for schools. While there’s a very diverse student population in America, 79 percent of public school teachers identified as non-Hispanic White in 2017–18, and they may not have a clear understanding of the cultural needs of their students and their families. Community partners can often play an essential role and fill in the gaps of support. They can also serve as cultural brokers and facilitate communication and partnership between schools and diverse families who have children with disabilities.
Create a Community Resource Directory
Each school or school district can create a resource directory that includes nonprofit organizations in the community that offer free or low-cost services. This directory can help families who are new to the country or the community to find resources and support. Update this directory periodically and share it with all new families; make it available in multiple languages and accessible in various formats (e.g., online, mobile, and hard copy).
The directory can be categorized based on services or needs and include the following:
- Organization name, address, phone number, and opening hours
- Main contact person and contact information
- Types of provided services
- Target audiences, including ages and languages support
- Cost of each service
Inform Families About Training and Resource Centers
Each state has at least one Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) that provides many different types of free services to families of students with disabilities, such as parent workshops and diagnostic services. In addition to PTIs, some states also have Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs). They specifically serve families of students with disabilities who are low-income or speak limited English.
All of these centers are federally funded and are invaluable to families of students with disabilities because their support and services can enhance their knowledge about how to properly advocate for their children. Since each center offers a variety of services, inviting their staffs to speak with families of students with disabilities about their services can be helpful.
Suggest or Create Parent Support Groups
Other than large nonprofit organizations, there are many local parent support groups that are eager to assist families of children with disabilities. Existing research indicates that many families go through a grieving cycle when they first learn about their children’s disability diagnosis. Due to cultural differences, some families from diverse backgrounds may perceive the causes of their child’s disability very differently from U.S. families. Meeting families who are from the same ethnic group, speak the same language, and have a child with a disability may offer them the emotional and psychological support they need.
Parent support groups are often founded by families who also have children with disabilities or professionals who are skilled at supporting the population. Although it’s rare, it can also be beneficial for schools to organize their own school-based parent support groups. Parent support groups can be for all families of children with various disabilities, disability-specific (e.g., autism or mental health), or ethnic-specific (e.g., Spanish- or Haitian Creole–speaking families). Regardless of their focus or structure, their ultimate goal is to offer families opportunities to connect with and learn from each other.
Offer Parent-to-Parent Support
While having the opportunities to meet and network with other families who are from the same cultural and linguistic background can be beneficial, some families may prefer connecting with others whose children attend the same school. School can recruit and train their veteran families of children with disabilities to network with families who are new to the school or at the beginning of the special education process. Veteran families can offer various types and levels of supports to new families based on their needs, share their experience when navigating the process, and offer additional strategies or resources to new families.
Hold an Annual Special Education Resource Fair
Schools can organize an annual Special Education Resource Fair and invite various organizations (such as Colorín Colorado) and government agencies that serve individuals with disabilities (such as the California Department of Development Services) in their community and/or state to share the types of services they offer. Many of these organizations and agencies periodically receive additional funding to serve a particular population or address a particular issue. Such an event can be a great opportunity for families to learn about existing and new initiatives.
While the community may be able to fill in some of the gaps of support that schools are unable to offer, it can’t do it all. A collaborative partnership between schools and community is needed. Schools can also seek feedback from families so that all parties can be aware of what’s working and what’s not working. This helps ensure that families and their children with disabilities are provided with effective support and services.