Preparing for a new school year can be exciting but also daunting for many families. They have to help their children transition from unstructured to structured schedules and may worry about the children’s adjustment to a new environment—especially if attending a new school. Families of children with disabilities who have new placements may be concerned about how the change might impact their children. Being prepared and connecting with families as early as possible at the beginning of the school year can be beneficial to both school professionals and families.
How General Education Teachers can Welcome Newcomers
Once teachers receive their class list, they have access to students’ cumulative files, which consist of valuable information, such as students’ statewide assessment results, multilingual learners’ English proficiency levels, and a home language survey, which informs them if interpreters will be needed for future communications with families.
General education teachers need to review 504 plans or individualized education programs (IEPs) of their students with disabilities. These legal documents inform them of students’ strengths, needs, and required accommodations; special education services they need; and whether these services need to be provided inside and/or outside of classrooms. To avoid interruptions in learning, it’s especially important for teachers to meet with special education teachers and related service providers (such as speech and language pathologists) and discuss upcoming service schedules.
Considerations for Special Education and Related Service Providers
It’s helpful for special education teachers and related service providers to review their students’ IEP annual goals and short-term objectives, create tentative plans on how services will be provided, and decide what data need to be collected to monitor student progress.
Often, new general education teachers may need support when working with students with disabilities. They may not be aware of their legal obligations when serving this population. This is a good time to share with them what services they are obligated to provide within their classrooms. Additionally, some students with disabilities have behavior intervention plans that are created based on the outcome of their functional behavior assessments. Special education teachers can demonstrate some research-based interventions that they can implement in classrooms.
Reaching Out to Families Early
Once school professionals have general knowledge about their students, the next crucial step is to connect with families who are their key partners for the upcoming school year. Avoid waiting until back-to-school nights, since a lot can occur in between.
Making short welcome phone calls instead of sending text messages and/or emails can be a great start to bonding with families. Teachers can introduce themselves and inform families that they can expect to receive a welcome package and explain what they should do with it. During the call, families can state whether they prefer a hard copy or electronic version.
For families whose primary language is not English, they may be anxious to speak with their children’s teachers by phone. Prior to the welcome phone call, teachers can use free apps, such as TalkingPoints, that automatically translate texts both ways to connect with families first and determine if they are comfortable speaking with them by phone.
Sending home a welcome package has become a routine for many teachers. The package needs to be written in families’ preferred language and may include the following:
- Contact procedures. Share with families about how they would like to be contacted, by phone, email, and/or text. At the middle and high school levels, sharing the names and contact information of students’ content area teachers is necessary.
- General survey. Create a short survey to learn about the families, such as their preferred mode of communication and their availability, and offer them opportunities to share what they believe teachers should know. For example, some students with disabilities may take medications at school. Families can share how often this needs to be done. Teachers can also use this survey to determine if families are interested in contributing to schools, since many immigrant families who are new to U.S. school systems may not know how to be engaged and its benefits. Are they interested in volunteering in classrooms? Reading to students? Serving as field trip chaperones? Contributing class supplies? Making drama costumes? etc.
- School and classroom policies. Share where families can access school policies. It’s helpful for teachers to also share specific classroom policies that families should be aware of, such as homework requirements, classroom behavior expectations, and what to do if they are interested in observing the class.
Prioritize the Needs of Students with Disabilities
Connecting with families of students with disabilities early in the school year is especially important. Special education teachers can revisit the students’ annual goals with families, so they are aware of how to help reinforce the necessary skills at home. For high school students with disabilities who have internships outside of schools, detailed information, including where the job sites are located and how students would travel there, should be shared.
Tentative special education–related service schedules can also be shared with families, so they can avoid scheduling doctor’s appointments at those times. If an IEP meeting or a reevaluation will occur during the first two months of school, communication about these details should be made early.
The goal of having a back-to-school night is to welcome families and students, so they can get to know the school, visit their children’s classrooms, and meet with teachers. Therefore, prior to the event, teachers who have families whose primary language is not English should request interpretation services ahead of time, so these families can easily communicate with teachers and feel welcome.
This event is also a great opportunity to share the year’s curricula and demonstrate some of the planned instructional and behavioral strategies. Encourage families to use the same strategies at home. This not only strengthens student skills at school and home, but also can prevent students from getting confused. Being consistent is especially important for students with disabilities.