As a school-based therapist, especially in specialties like speech or occupational therapy, the ultimate purpose of your job is to help your students communicate and interact with the world around them. But no matter how many kids you’ve helped do just that during your career, there’s no guarantee that you’re an expert at applying the same principles you’ve imparted on those kids in your own life. Life’s ironies never cease.
Now, this isn’t the time or the place to reckon with the various communication failures that may or may not have plagued your love life for the past however many years. That’s a whole other can of worms. But when it comes to matters concerning your job, well, communication is key – especially when it comes to interacting with your students’ parents, guardians, and other family members. No matter how significant the gains you make during the school day are, if you don’t foster a healthy relationship with whoever is looking after your students at home, it could all be for naught. Not only does a mutually communicative relationship with parents help ensure program continuity once students head home for the day, but if you are friendly – or at least cordial with – students’ families, everything is going to be a whole lot simpler and more pleasant for everyone involved.
Granted, not every parent you come across is going to have the most agreeable temperament. You are inevitably going to run into a few Daddy Vaders and Mommie Dearests along the way, from stage moms to football dads to overbearing helicopter parents seemingly spawned out of a boiling cauldron of ink from a David Brooks thinkpiece. For that reason, here are a few tips you can use to build a genuinely collaborative rapport with even the most difficult parents.
Give Them a Call
Start off the right foot by introducing yourself – if not in person, then with a friendly phone call. More than anything, parents just want to know what their kids are up to during the day and that they’re in good hands. Just a simple introductory chat (and subsequent semi-regular check-ins via phone, text, or email) can go a long way toward helping parents feel secure. Talk about the specifics of your experiences with the child in question, both positives and negatives if necessary – above all, use details that make it clear you’re truly getting to know him or her. And while you should always keep things professional, you should also keep an open and amicable tone – do what you can to make parents feel comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns.
Use Online Tools
Messenger apps, customized classroom blogs, portfolio tools – these days, there are all kinds of ways for you to connect with parents online. So many, in fact, that you can afford to get really creative with how you track your students’ progress. Create personalized, password-protected WordPress sites for each student. Print out Buzzfeed-style listicles about what your student accomplished in the day’s therapy session for kids to share with parents or discuss in meetings. Parents will feel secure and involved knowing exactly what’s going on with their child at school, and you will get to exercise your long-dormant web design skills even though you tragically had to give up your dream of becoming an Instagram model.
Get Them Involved
Obviously, whatever progress your students make at school needs to be reinforced in the home. But don’t just give parents rote exercises to go over with their kids. Instead, go further – encourage them to participate in the activities themselves. Not only will the repetition help your students, but it may in fact strengthen the bond between the parents and their kids, especially for students with developmental or other types of disabilities that often impede their ability to relate to others. It will help your students feel more comfortable and accepted, it will help parents better understand what their kids are going through, and it will help all of you feel like you’re on the same team.
Respect Their Point of View
When you encounter parents who don’t share your particular educational, therapeutic, or general child-rearing philosophies, it can be tempting to dismiss them, declare “I’m the professional here,” and just forge onward as you would normally. But parents just want to feel like they have some level of input into their child’s therapy. While it’s true that they didn’t go through the same training you did and their ideas might not always align with the practices you have seen firsthand be most successful in your career, the fact is that they know their own child better than you or anyone else. It’s for that if no other reason that you should at least be respectful of their alternate viewpoints and fully hear them out. Yes, even if they insist you stuff their child’s ears full of goat cheese because they read on the internet that it cures stuttering. You may not end up agreeing, but as long as you are courteous and show a willingness to keep a dialog open, you can still have a productive relationship.