Family Involvement

Grandparents reading with grandchild

Author: Cathy Giardina, Stetson & Associates, Inc.

Happy New Year!  Some of us may have ushered in 2012 with the words of Auld Lang Syne or perhaps a list of resolutions. Regardless of how it is celebrated, a new year implies a fresh start—a time of endings and an opportunity for new beginnings.   I propose a good place to begin our first topic of 2012, Family Involvement, is by changing the deficit mentality when looking at our children’s needs.

I choose not to place “DIS”, in my ability.” 

Robert M. Hensel

As a parent, I’ve added another word to Hensel’s inspiring quote:

“I choose not to place “DIS” in my child’s ability.”

Focusing on a child’s ability begins in the home environment.  Pulitzer prize winning columnist, author, and speaker Ellen Goodman said, “The central struggle of parenthood is to let our hopes for our children outweigh our fears.”

Armed with that hope, let’s take a fresh look at what is parent involvement is in our world of today and its impact on addressing the challenges of inclusive school practices.  The dictionary lists involvement with synonyms such as participation, connection, and contribution. 


When my children were in school, I often associated parent involvement with participation at school—room mother, providing cookies, volunteering.   Whereas this traditional “helper” role contributes to the success of the school community, parent involvement or participation is far more than providing baked goods for holiday parties or cutting letters for bulletin boards.

Participation is supporting learning at home as well as at school.  Parents are a child’s first teacher.

Carl Dunst, researcher at the Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute in North Carolina tells us, “Findings from our research indicate that everyday family and community activity settings are real life, natural learning environments that make the most sense in terms of learning important life skills.”

So, perhaps when using the term “ family involvement” we should also look at “child involvement” with the family–opportunities for the child to be involved in learning in their most natural setting—the home.   I have found that family routines and rituals—cooking meals, grocery shopping, holiday celebrations, and child routines—dressing, grooming, storytelling, and play activities are family life opportunities that promote rich learning experiences for children.

Current research suggests that families whose children are doing well in school exhibit the following characteristics at home:

1. Establish a daily family routine.

2. Monitor out-of-school activities and supervised care.

3. Model the value of learning, self-discipline, and hard work.

4. Set appropriate goals, recognize special talents and celebrate successes.

5. Encourage children’s development/progress in school.

6. Encourage communication, reading, writing, and discussions among family members.

Consider the following books:

Believe in My Child with Special Needs—Helping Children Achieve Their Potential in School by Mary Falvey.  An upbeat book about the abilities of all children and a valuable resource for the benefits of effective inclusion.

Raise Them Up: The Real Deal on Reaching Unreachable Kids by Kareem Moody.  An emphasis on the need to focus on the unique strengths of hard-to-reach youth using the Search Institute’s Forty  Developmental Assets.


As parents, we have a responsibility to stay connected—first of all with our children, but also with their school.  This involves communication between the home and school that is regular, two-way, and meaningful.  That kind of communication builds trust and forms relationships.  Here are some suggestions I’ve found helpful:

  • Attend all meetings concerning your child.
  • Prepare by talking with your child about his or her feelings toward school, by listing your ideas about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, your goals for your child, and by making notes about what you want to say during the meeting.
  • Ask your child’s teacher, the principal, or the special education administrator when you have questions. 
  • Let your child’s teacher know that you want to be involved in your child’s education. 
  • Visit your child’s classroom.
  • Explain any special equipment, medication, or medical problem your child has.
  • Let the teacher know about any activities or big events that may influence your child’s performance in school.
  • Ask that samples of your child’s work be sent home.
  • If you have questions or suggestions, make an appointment with the teacher to talk about new ways to meet your child’s goals.
  • Ask the teacher how you can build upon your child’s school activities at home.

Connecting with the school also gives us a chance to know other parents at the school, so we can arrange play dates for our children, an important step in supporting inclusivity and connectivity.   And creating connections with the community helps us to access the resources available to support our children, our family, and our schools.

Parent involvement/connection also implies that we have the responsibility to educate ourselves—not only about our child’s disability but also about IDEA and the IEP process.  With so little “spare” time and so much material, educating ourselves can be both tedious and frustrating, so I’ve narrowed it down to a few.   Besides the Inclusive Schools Network, other excellent resources are:

Stetson & Associates, Inc. is an educational consulting firm dedicated to “Excellence AND Equity!” with a mission to support parents, administrators, and teachers in their efforts to enable every student to be engaged, included, high-achieving, and prepared for adulthood

The IDEA Partnership reflects the collaborative work of more than 50 national organizations, technical assistance providers, and organizations and agencies at state and local level. Together with the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), the Partner Organizations form a community with the potential to transform the way we work and improve outcomes for students and youth with disabilities.

From Emotions to Advocacy: The Special Education Survival Guide by Pam and Peter Wright

A comprehensive book for parents for effective advocacy for your child.


“Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

The educational needs of children receiving Special Education services, students who live in economically disadvantaged school districts, children from impoverished families, and students whose primary language is not English must be met by school districts. All of these areas require parent involvement and advocacy to assure that school districts adequately provide whatever support and accommodations are necessary to serve all children.

Get and share information.  Visit special education and general education classrooms and carefully explain why you believe inclusive education works and would be best for your child.

Enlist the help of advocacy organizations or special education parent groups, if necessary.

Become your child’s advocate!

Yes, parent involvement and advocacy requires a contribution of much time and energy and patience, but…

Your child—his disability and talents and future, are worth it!!

You may be interested in the following books:

Beyond Words – Reflections on Our Journey to Inclusion by Diane Linder.  A mother’s story of how she finds her way from doubt and fear to advocacy and trust.

The Exceptional Life of Jay Turnbull: Disability and Dignity in America 1967-2009 by Rud Turnbull

Written by a father telling his journey to promote the rights and dignity of his son.

Additional Resources/Links for Parents

Beach Center on Families and Disability: The Beach Center is a federally funded research and training center that offers training, technical assistance, and information on issues for families with children with disabilities.

Council for Exceptional Children: The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving educational outcomes for individuals with exceptionalities, students with disabilities, and/or the gifted. CEC advocates for appropriate governmental policies, sets professional standards, provides continual professional development, advocates for newly and historically under served individuals with exceptionalities, and provides resources for professionals, parents, and caregivers.

National Parent Information Network: Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, this national network has current news, online resources, and numerous networking opportunities for parents and educators.

Parents Helping Parents: Parents Helping Parents is a family resource center serving parents of children with special needs.

Parent to Parent Network of Pennsylvania: This network and the accompanying Web site were created by families for families of children and adults with special needs. They connect families in similar situations with one another so that they may share experiences, offer practical information and/or support.

Peak Parent Center: The website of this Colorado-based organization helps parents of children with disabilities reach out and assist other parents and professionals. Their goal is to ensure that children, youth, and adults, with disabilities lead rich, active lives and participate as full members of their schools and communities.

TASH: The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps: TASH is an international association of people with disabilities, their family members, other advocates, and professionals fighting for a society in which inclusion of all people in all aspects of society is the norm.

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