A few years ago, a flyer came home from my child’s high school announcing the first annual sensory-friendly school dance. Knowing that a school event was planned with the needs of all students in mind, made me, a parent of children with disabilities, feel that my family was included in a meaningful way. When I found out the event was planned by other families like mine—not by the school or PTA—I was deflated.
My middle-school aged son is one of the seven million students in the U.S. who receives special education services. That means that nearly 14% of all students in the U.S. have been identified as having a disability that requires support at school. That doesn’t include students who haven’t been identified as having a disability or students who have a disability, but don’t need special education support.
Inclusion and Belonging are at the Heart of Family Engagement
When we use statistics and numbers, it’s easy to overlook the people behind them. Simply put, those numbers mean there are a lot of families like mine craving meaningful connection and inclusive family engagement.
The updated National Standards for Family-School Partnerships ignites my hope that education leaders, including PTA leaders, can help meet the needs and desires of students with disabilities. The six standards outline exactly not just why, but also how leaders can advocate for students with disabilities.
Here’s how that looks:
1. Welcoming all families into the school community requires an understanding of the barriers families face. Students with disabilities and their families may feel isolated and excluded from school communities due to barriers you are not aware of. Simply asking families what they need to feel welcomed is advocacy and builds a sense of belonging.
2. Communicating effectively with families of students with disabilities is not always easy. Many of us have had negative experiences, some of which are based on the misunderstanding that we do not want to be asked about how PTA can accommodate our children’s disability. We actually do want to be asked. Even acknowledging that you are not sure what to ask is a start.
3. Supporting student success means creating safe and supportive spaces where it’s believed that all students can succeed. Talking to families to let them know that you believe their children can meet their full potential is key in supporting success. You can start by asking one simple question: Do you have suggestions for how we can better or more authentically represent disability in our PTA?
4. Speaking up for every child takes some pressure off families like mine, who are used to speaking up for our children’s rights and for educational policies and services that support our kids. When you speak up for and with us, you become an additional voice of support, a person we can trust, and someone who sets the standard for speaking up against bias.
5. Sharing power requires you to be open to new ideas and different perspectives. It is also realizing that you can learn from families of students with disabilities. If you are unsure if every voice is represented and considered in the decisions you make, ask: Do you feel comfortable raising disability-related concerns?
6. Collaborating with the community means recognizing that the disability community extends beyond your school district and beyond the families in front of you. Include organizations that have their pulse on what’s happening in the disability community and people who are united by the experience of being disabled.
Strong Family-School Partnerships is a Shared Responsibility
As a PTA leader, you can take the lead in applying the updated National Standards for Family-School Partnerships to your relationships with families of students with disabilities. But strong family engagement only happens when all parties are engaged. That’s why I’ve partnered with National PTA to create a series of fact sheets, questions and conversation starters for each standard.
You can help enhance communication practices between school administrators—and parents like me—by sharing the Strengthening Family-School Partnerships for Students with Disabilities guide at PTA.org/NationalStandards.
National PTA has also published several policy resources, including a Position Statement on The Education of Students with Disabilities, Resolution on High Expectations for Students with Disabilities and a Position Statement on Safe and Supportive Schools to support inclusive advocacy efforts at the local, state and federal level. You can find these resources at PTA.org/PositionStatements.
Amanda Morin is an educational consultant, a former teacher and early childhood specialist, special education advocate, and author of five books, including “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She is also the mother of three children, two of whom have disabilities.