Coping with a learning disability is a constant struggle – a struggle for the special needs students, a struggle for the parents, and a struggle for the teachers. I may not have a learning disability myself, but I can still relate.
My chronic arthritis limits me daily in what I can and cannot do physically. While it is not the same as dealing with a learning disability, it does help me with the empathy factor.
I am a pre-service teacher. I have a year and a half left of college before I am working full-time (hopefully) in the schools. But in my time at doing field work for my university classes, I have learned quite a bit about special needs students.
I have worked with the teachers behind-the-scenes who have fought for years to help their struggling special needs students. I have worked directly with special needs students who continue to amaze me at how they try day after day to keep learning.
And I have even worked with a few of the parents who face the challenges with their special needs students every single day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
While at the end of the school day we teachers get to go home and take a break, the parents of special needs students do not. They face new and old challenges each day without a break – making them people to respect, and to learn from.
That’s why I spoke with a few parents of special needs students to get their unique perspective – one that many of us cannot relate to – on what they think teachers should know about dealing with parents of special needs students.
1) The first request – just talk to us! Parents of special needs students say the most important thing you can do is open up the lines of communication. And that makes sense, when you think about it.
How can we expect parents to help us with issues during the school day when we have not strategized with them? So teachers, talk to your parents about what methods of communication are easiest for them – some prefer email, others like phone calls, and some appreciate notes sent home in a notebook.
Make sure this communication method works for you, too. But whatever you do, start communicating with the parents of special needs students.
2) Set aside the time that is truly needed for IEP Meetings. That’s right teachers, the parents notice when you show up for 15 minutes and then expect to rush off to another meeting. Trust me; I know you have a lot to do. But most everyone at the meeting had to alter his/her schedule to be here too.
And the parents of special needs students are saying that they want to finish this meeting today. So please give these important meetings the time they need to do it right the first time. And please include all the people who can make the decisions in that first meeting – otherwise the meeting may not be worth the time for anyone involved.
3) Try to stay current on issues affecting special needs students. Parents are realistic – they understand that teachers don’t have the resources to know everything about every disability.
But they do hope that teachers would take the time to read about current issues, technologies, etc. that might affect particular students in their classroom – especially issues that affect their children.
4) Be open to suggestions and new ideas. Parents of special needs students have an obvious investment in their children. Because of that, they often do a lot of research to learn more about the challenges their children face.
So they might email you an article they read that provided some insight, or they might tell you about a program that could help their child, or they might recommend a new technology they have found.
Please understand that they care about the special needs students and are trying to help you, as their teacher, learn more about how to help them too. Don’t think that they are trying to tell you how to do your job; they are simply trying to help.
5) And finally, try to look beyond the surface issues with your special needs students. There is often a root cause for a behavior issue that can be linked to a diagnosed (or even undiagnosed) learning disability.
Parents of special needs students ask that teachers don’t switch into “punishment mode” right away.
They want you to look for ways to help the special needs students.
And that often means talking directly with the special needs students, as well as his/her parents.
Keep a journal of the behaviors if it becomes a habit – you might find a pattern in the behaviors. And use other resources in the school system (like a speech therapist, occupational therapist, or school counselor) to help you evaluate the special needs students.
Did you notice the trend in these five suggestions? They all center on a form of communication – whether it be dialog, meetings, research, or planning. Hopefully many of you teachers (current and pre-service) are already doing these five things when working with the parents of special needs students.
If not, there has never been a better time than the present to get started!
Pat Wyman  is the best selling author of Instant Learning for Amazing Grades , Learning vs. Testing , CEO and founder of HowToLearn.com  . and the creator of the Personal Learning Styles  Inventory.
HowToLearn.com  thanks Amy Dolley for writing this article for parents and teachers of special needs students.