Parent-Teacher Collaboration: Help for Students on the Autism Spectrum

"I desperately need some advice on how to work with my son's (high functioning autistic) teacher so we can come up with a 'plan' that actually works for him - both academically and behaviorally."

Collaboration between parent and teacher facilitates successful education for ALL children. But for young people with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism, it’s especially important to have effective communication, consistency on goals and rewards across settings, teamwork planning, and monitoring of interventions. The parent-teacher relationship is ongoing, reciprocal, respectful, and child-centered.

This post offers important tips for facilitating effective parent-teacher teamwork:

1. A message notebook may be used so that the educator can communicate what is going on at school – and the mother or father can communicate what is happening at home. Notebook comments from the educator may discuss a youngster's progress, his behavior, attitude, the rate at which he completes class work, and so on. A message notebook also provides an opportunity for the mother or father to ask questions she or he may have for the educator or provide information about the youngster to the educator.

2. Brainstorming requires both creativity and patience. Parents need to allow the teacher to share suggestions with them, even though they might not necessarily make sense to parents at first. The best solutions are not always the most obvious ones. Parents should be flexible in their thinking and open to the teacher’s suggestions – and listen to the reasons behind the suggestions (e.g., the educator may suggest a particular approach because that intervention has been effective with other Asperger’s children in the past).

3. Children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism often have difficulty planning ahead for longer assignments or class projects. To assist with lengthy assignments, these kids benefit from having a contract for the assignment so they are aware of their timelines and responsibilities.

4. E-mail has become a very common and convenient method of communication. If moms and dads and educators both have an e-mail address, e-mail may be a convenient way for them to communicate.

5. Homework is frequently an area of difficulty for children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism – and may be the subject of the majority of parent-teacher trouble-shooting. Parents and teachers often report that Asperger’s children are not aware of assignments, have left books or homework at school, or have completed work - but have not returned or submitted it for grading. It’s important that all parties understand homework policies and their individual roles and responsibilities (e.g., How often will homework be given? How much time will be required to complete assignments? What is the parent’s role?).

It’s equally important for educators to obtain information from the mother or father about their schedules, the parents’ other children, and household routines. Many moms and dads find that assisting their Asperger’s youngster with homework requires time, organization, and patience, which can be challenging for them to muster after a day with job and family responsibilities. When educators and parents communicate their expectations and situations, they can develop and monitor successful homework plans.

6. For children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism, managing homework assignments may require assistance from an advocate or "coach." The coach is often a special education teacher who meets daily during "homeroom" or "study skills" class with children to build organizational, study, time-management, and self-advocacy skills. The special education teacher mentors and supports the child and communicates with teachers at weekly team meetings to discuss and monitor the child’s assignments and projects. The special education teacher serves as a contact person for parents and educators and provides consistent communication and teamwork between home and school for academic and behavioral growth. 

7. In order to come up with the best solutions to a youngster's problems, moms and dads and educators need to discuss the problems in detail. Although such discussions may be difficult, they are necessary in order to develop interventions that can be implemented consistently at school and at home. With the right interventions, most Asperger’s kids will improve, although it may take a while. Stay positive, work collaboratively, and think about how all of this time and effort will ultimately benefit the youngster.

8. Lack of motivation by children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism is often a factor in starting and completing school assignments. When educators offer children multiple ways of demonstrating their learning, they can explore their interests and creative talents, thus increasing their motivation and effort.

9. Make use of a student planner, which is a notebook that is used to help kids keep track of their daily homework assignments. While many educators can write the assignments that are due in the planner, some kids may be required to do this task themselves in order to increase their independence and responsibility. When kids are responsible for writing their assignments in the planner, the educator can check their notebook to see whether they completed the task accurately. Moms and dads and educators can communicate daily through a youngster's planner.

10. Medications are often an integral part of treating comorbid conditions associated with Asperger’s (e.g., ADHD, anxiety, depression, OCD, etc.). Medication can be a beneficial component of a treatment plan for some of these “special needs” children, and educators are in an excellent position to judge effectiveness of medications on behavior and learning. Therefore, moms and dads and educators will want to provide teamwork feedback to doctors regarding these kid’s behavior and performance when on medication. Information about performance before - and when receiving medication - is critical for determining the overall effectiveness of medication, its dosage and timing, and side effects. Some of the side effects that parents and educators can observe and note are nausea, loss of appetite, headaches, stomachaches, lethargy, moodiness, and irritability.

Behavioral, learning, and other side effects noted by educators are best reported to parents, who in turn, will present this information to the doctor. Parent permission is required for any direct communication between educators and doctors. Parent-teacher communication regarding medication monitoring may take the form of phone calls, notes, or forms. For working parents, it’s important to let them know that frequent communication is very useful when Asperger’s children first begin medication or adjustments are made. When medications are given at school, the school nurse should maintain a medication log and administer medications per doctor’s orders. Also, the school nurse should be included in the parent-teacher team when monitoring medication.

11. Moms and dads should attend each open house that their youngster's school holds. This is an excellent opportunity for parents to meet their youngster's educators face-to-face and get to know who they are.

12. Parental involvement should be included in all stages of assessment, identification, and the development of behavior plans. While moms and dads have always been included as participants on their youngster's Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, they should also have input during pre-referral and eligibility meetings and help plan positive behavioral interventions.

13. Parents can be a volunteer. While some principals will not assign moms and dads to their youngster's classroom, being a “room mother” or “room father” is a possibility in many districts. Volunteering in another class can still provide many insights into what goes on in the school (e.g., what happens daily or how the educator manages the classroom).

14. Phone conversations can be a good way to communicate, because each party can ask more detailed questions. Phone conversations often do not provide the ongoing dialogue that corresponding through a message notebook does. However, for complex issues, a phone call may be the better choice.

15. Some districts use a homework hot line that allows educators to communicate homework information to moms and dads and children. Parents can call a certain number in order to hear the day's homework assignments for their youngster.

16. The school should develop communication folders and homework plans that foster parent-teacher teamwork. Though these specific folders and plans may vary by grade with homework requirements increasing each year, the principles and policies should be consistent across the grade levels. All “special needs” children should have a communication folder that goes back and forth from school to home each day. Announcements, notes, weekly school newsletters, and weekly homework packets should be put in this folder. The front cover of the homework packet should have a weekly class schedule, list of upcoming school events, and a list of spelling/writing words. Also in the packet, there should be a “homework schedule” with suggested assignments for each day. Moms and dads should communicate with the teacher by signing and returning the bottom half of the weekly schedule along with any comments. The folder needs to be given to the Asperger’s child on Friday and needs to be returned to the teacher the following Friday.

Keeping the homework packet in the communication folder is particularly helpful when the Asperger’s child participates in after-school study or childcare programs or has homework assistance from others. For some children on the autism spectrum, educators can make accommodations by varying the homework that is included in the packet, particularly if their achievement levels are substantially below that required of the homework. While it’s important for ALL children to practice skills and do work that is at their independent or instructional levels, this is particularly true for kids with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism, for whom focusing on “too challenging” academic work after a day at school can be particularly difficult.

17. Utilize a web-based homework list, which is a list that provides a directory of reading and homework assignments for the night. The website may also include links to relevant Internet resources. A homework list is often offered as part of a program that allows moms and dads to log in and access their youngster's grades. This feature allows parents to continually monitor their youngster's progress, which is particularly important if they are concerned that their youngster's grades may be slipping because of extracurricular activities or after school employment.

18. It’s is helpful to provide Asperger’s children with a sequence of steps for complex or multi-step assignments and a checklist to monitor their completion of the steps. This list can be created by the teacher - or by the teacher and child - as they think through the steps in the process.

19. Moms and dads have a lot to offer, whether it’s information about the youngster's medical, developmental and educational history, ratings for behavior and attention levels, or information about interests. When a problem arises, using an effective problem-solving plan that incorporates parent-teacher teamwork can be helpful for both parties. The following 10-step plan for the problem-solving process addresses specific concerns, incorporates a positive plan of action, and offers specific means for follow-up communication:
  1. Teacher writes one sentence describing the problem.
  2. Why is it an issue?
  3. Give a brief history.
  4. Whose responsibility is it (teacher, parent, or child)?
  5. What has already been tried to handle the problem?
  6. Is the problem similar at home and school?
  7. Teacher and parent generate, write, and clarify possible solutions.
  8. Teacher and parent select preferred solution(s).
  9. Teacher and parent select specific way(s) to implement the preferred solutions.
  10. Teacher and parents specify times for follow-up and teamwork.

Below is an example of the 10-step plan for problem-solving:

Child: Michael Jameson
Grade: Second
Teacher: Mrs. Smith
Date: March 2, 2013
Parent: Sara Jameson

1. Teacher writes one sentence describing the problem: Michael does not stay in his seat and complete his work.

2. Why is it an issue? Moving around the classroom distracts Michael’s fellow students.

3. Give a brief history: Michael stays in his seat for about 3 minutes when doing classwork. He misses instructions, walks around the classroom, gets a drink, talks to peers, etc. At home when doing homework, he stays in his seat for 5 minutes, then gets up and plays with his dog.

4. Whose responsibility is it (teacher, parent, or child)? This is Michael’s responsibility.

5. What has already been tried to handle the problem? Verbal reprimands have been tried.

6. Is the problem similar at home and school? Not completing assigned work happens both at school and home.

7. Teacher and parent generate, write, and clarify possible solutions:
  • Schedule appointment for physical with Michael’s doctor
  • Give Michael stickers or extra playtime for staying in area and completing work
  • Set up a behavior monitoring plan for staying in seat, listening to directions, and doing work
  • Have the school counselor talk with Michael weekly about importance of staying in his seat/desk area and completing work
  • Use masking tape on floor to outline Michael's desk area

8. and 9. Teacher and parent select preferred solution(s) and select specific way(s) to implement the preferred solutions.
  • Parent and teacher set up a behavior monitoring plan for listening to directions, staying in seat/area, and doing work at school during morning classwork and at home during homework. With his mother or teacher, Michael monitors his own behavior. Each day that he receives an "X" (hit the target) for all target behaviors, he will receive a "target sticker.” If he receives stickers 3 out of 5 days at school, he gets a "special treat" at home. If he receives stickers 3 out of 5 days at home, he gets 15 minutes of free time at school on Friday. Checklist goes back and forth from home to school in Michael’s folder.

10. Teacher and parents specify times for follow-up and teamwork: Mrs. Smith telephones Michael’s mother on Friday to check on how it’s going. Then Mrs. Smith calls Michael’s mother on March 10, 17, and 24th …and then weekly for a month. Number of days needed to get stickers will increase as Michael is successful.
  • Mrs. Smith and Michael’s mother were consistently communicating and had similar expectations.
  • Michael was actively involved in self-monitoring using a parent-teacher behavior checklist that was titled "Hit the Target".
  • When Michael received his reward for schoolwork at home and vice versa, Michael got a "double dose" of praise and, when needed, additional support.

Parent-teacher teamwork is an important key for the success of children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism. Communication fosters common language and consistent expectation and engages all parties involved. Teamwork is particularly crucial for input during assessments, when developing behavior plans, when monitoring medication, and in coordinating homework.

The consistent use of parent-teacher notes is an important part of the communication system. Parent-teacher notes promote consistency in expectations and help everyone develop a common language. These notes may be simple check sheets or lists for reporting child behavior or academic work.

Using daily or weekly journals is helpful when more elaborated information is important. Educators and parents also have opportunities to regularly communicate through formal and information meetings and phone calls. 

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

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