Helping Schools Motivate Parents to Participate in their Child’s Autism Education Plan

Interview with Cheryl N. Engel, Ph.D.

Q: Why is parent involvement important to their child’s autism education program?

A: Parental involvement in their child’s educational program is essential for all children to experience success.  It is even more so the case when a child has special needs, such as a diagnosis on the Autism Spectrum.  Oftentimes, children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are unable to communicate their needs and wants effectively.  They rely on others to determine how best to educate them and help them with their daily functioning, outside of the educational setting.  We know, as well, that consistency and structure are important to those children with ASD, thus helpful strategies should be carried across settings.  As Geraldine Dawson, author and creator of the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) states, “Parental involvement and the use of these strategies at home during routine and daily activities are likely important ingredients of success of the outcomes in their child’s progress.”

In addition, in her on-line article, Autism Outcomes with Early Intervention, Ella Rain states, “…parental involvement is a critical aspect of a child’s success.  When a family receives early intervention services, but fails to follow through consistently with the child’s treatment plan, the prognosis drops.”  Thus, it is the responsibility of both the school and parents to maintain open communication regarding a students’ education plan.  Schools, in particular, can “step up,” to assist parents in establishing and maintaining their involvement in their child’s educational plan.

Q: How can schools effectively motivate parents to participate in their child’s autism education plan?

A: While all schools and districts have their own policies as to how they work with parents, there are a few techniques that we have found to be particularly effective in maintaining parents’ involvement in their child’s autism education plan.

Communication:  Our first and most important task is to establish rapport with parents and gain their trust.  Establishing open lines of communication from the start is extremely important.  On a basic level, functioning as a Team, with the parents being a member, is essential for a child’s success.  With designated staff members being the liaison between the school and home and communicating with parents on a regular basis, the parents are clear as to whom to contact with questions or concerns.  In addition, daily communication, in the form of a written notebook which travels back and forth from home to school and vice versa is extremely helpful in insuring that communication is consistent.  When notes are written from home, each member of the educational team (e.g., classroom staff, administration, related service providers) is aware of issues that are important regarding each child.  In emphasizing open communication, our goal is to empower parents with regard to their child’s education plan.

Open door policy:  In addition to emphasizing open communication on a daily basis, parents are encouraged to visit the school to observe their child in various settings/lessons, etc.  For example, a parent may visit and observe their child receiving individual instruction from a teacher, speech therapy from a speech/language pathologist, occupational therapy from an occupational therapist, etc.  The value of doing so is that the service provider can model the strategies they use with the child and perhaps impart their strategies so that parents can implement them at home.

Parenting:  It is important to assist families with parenting and child-rearing skills.  Monthly workshops are helpful for parents, to address issues relevant to them and our students.  Topics vary, but have included addressing issues related to feeding, communication, sensory needs, challenging behaviors, etc.  These workshops often occur during the school day, wherein childcare is not an issue, and parents are able to take their children home immediately after school.  Another resource that we have found to be helpful in building rapport and trust with parents is a monthly parent support group.  This group is held in the evening with childcare provided by staff that are familiar with the children, at no cost to parents.  A separate Siblings Group is also available, free of charge, and is geared towards helping siblings explore their own feelings about having a brother or sister with ASD, in a fun and engaging way.

Volunteer opportunities:  Involving parents and families in various volunteer activities to support student and school programs is important, as well.  Whether this be via PTA/PTO, fundraisers, community activities, etc., this type of family involvement is important in helping parents feel invested in their child’s educational program.

Decision-making:  In terms of a child’s specific Individualized Education Plan (IEP), parents are encouraged to participate at all levels.  At the beginning of each school year, parents are invited to attend Parent Conferences with access to all of their child’s providers, should the parent wish.  This meeting is held to review how their child began the year and the goals that are to be implemented as the year progresses.  Parents’ input is welcomed, with written follow-ups for staff in terms of any changes, additions and/or concerns that a parent has regarding their child’s program.

As the year progresses, an Annual Review meeting is held to review their child’s progress, their child’s recommended placement for the upcoming year and the goals and objectives to be implemented in the future.  This meeting’s participants may vary, but always include the Committee on Special Education Chairperson from a child’s respective school district, parents, and a representative from the school the child attends (e.g., Special Educator, administrator, etc.).  What we have found especially helpful, is to speak and/or meet with parents prior to the Annual Review meeting to explain our recommendations and obtain feedback from them as to how they feel about these recommendations.  In this way, we are again empowering our parents and reinforcing their trust, which is essential if we are to work successfully with their children.

Q: Are their barriers to this process?

A: At times, there are instances when a Team may not be in complete agreement with a parent in terms of their child’s educational plan.  At such times, it is even more important to encourage open lines of communication between a school Team and parents.  It must be emphasized that a parent is by far, the most important advocate for their child.  Obviously, it is then in the best interest of a child for an Educational Team and parents to work towards a compromise that can best meet the needs of the child.

Q: What resources are available to parents to explain their rights to participate in their child’s autism education plan?

A: Many resources are available to parents, particularly if they have access to the Internet.  Some resources include:

  • American with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FOIA)
  • Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
  • United States Department of Education

We cannot emphasize enough the importance of parental involvement in their child’s autism education plan.  Parental teaching and involvement for children with autism is essential for a child to progress.  We have experienced much success in building rapport with parents using the various supports mentioned, with our goal being to motivate parents to participate in their child’s educational plan.

About Cheryl N. Engel, Ph.D.

Cheryl N. Engel, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  She has worked as a School Psychologist in public schools in New York and as a clinical psychologist in various clinic setting.  Dr. Engel is currently employed as a Clinical/School Psychologist and is the Head of the Clinical Department at the Center for Spectrum Services, where she provides counseling, social skills and behavioral support services to students and transdisciplinary evaluations.  In addition, she provides specialized training to staff and serves on the Center for Spectrum Services leadership team.  Dr. Engel is approved by the New York State Education Department as a provider of training in the needs of children with autism and is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA).


Vice President, Relias Institute, Relias

Vice President, Relias Institute||In 2008 Emaley McCulloch co-founded Autism Training Solutions, LLC and is currently the Vice President of Relias Institute at Relias Learning. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds an MA in Special Education. She has over 20 years’ experience in the field of autism and ABA and has provided and overseen services to individuals between the ages of 18 months to 24 years in homes, schools and clinical settings. For eight years she served as a consultant and supervisor at agencies based in Hawaii and Japan where she trained groups of professionals and parents.

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