Teaching and Learning Strategies Drawn from Exploring Parental Needs in the Special Education Process

Jennifer Economos, PhD
Adjunct Instructor
Graduate School of Education, Touro College

Have you ever sat on the other side of the table as a parent at a meeting with a Committee on Special Education (CSE) for a child with special needs? The process does not always work as it is intended. Often, the parents are relegated to the task of receiving information about their child’s social/emotional behavior, etc. The parents are expected to listen to it not just hear it – process it not just understand it – and trust the speakers without having seen the data (every moment of every day) yourself – to name a few. This process can be challenging in many ways.

As graduate educators, we not only need to focus our attention on the strategies that are working in the classroom, but we also need to strive for continuous improvement. Clinical application of theory is the most important component of graduate education and there’s always room for more in the college classroom. Drawing from the work with parental needs in the special education process, here are simple ways to prepare students in the higher education classroom:

Expose Students to Mock IEP Documents

 By asking students to “marinate” in the data, also known as reading and writing model IEP documents, they can anticipate the time management, academic language and communication skills needed for this process. The more the students know about the IEP writing process, the more confident they will be in advising parents. It is also helpful to expose graduate students to IEP glossary terms to learn as well as provide them for parents to be sure that everyone is speaking the same “language” and parents aren’t feeling excluded during the meeting.

You can easily integrate mock IEPs into any course by asking students to use the IEP documents to inform the pedagogical decisions in their lesson plans for the course. By asking students to use bold font to highlight areas with interventions, accommodations, modifications, supports, scaffolding, and differentiation, you can shine a light on important areas. This can be very helpful for parents in order to understand exactly how their children are receiving services in the classroom.

Write IEP Goals Collaboratively in the Classroom

Goal writing is an exercise that can be integrated into a variety of graduate education classrooms. For example, if you are teaching a literacy-based course, you can ask education students to write three literacy-based goals with specifics about how the goals will be measured. This activity can be completed collaboratively in a group using a jigsaw method and provide graduate students with an opportunity to share ideas.  Once teacher candidates understand how to write goals accurately and clearly, they can include parents in the goal-writing process.

Model How to Progress Monitor IEP Goals and Use Formative Assessment

Accurate and efficient ways to progress monitor and use formative assessment are important to determine a student’s growth. They can also help teachers to evaluate the effectiveness of the instructional methodologies used in the classroom. Without monitoring students on a regular basis, it is unclear how and when they are meeting or not meeting their IEP goals. Parents need to understand the factors that determine their child’s success. If teachers can provide parents with documentation demonstrating how and when the student is progressing, it will be easier for them to understand their strengths and weaknesses. In the absence of progress monitoring, we may be leaving the outcomes up to circumstance, and not proficiency. Graduate students can develop goals for a focus learner they observe throughout a course, and monitor their progress using strategies learned in the college classroom. Students will be able to analyze the process holistically in a real-world environment.

Engage in Mock CSE Meetings

Role-playing activities should be included as part of a college class because many graduate students may have never attended a CSE meeting prior to their first meeting on the job. For example, if you are reviewing the various disabilities in course that a teacher may encounter in the classroom, a role-playing activity might provide them with an opportunity to check their understanding of the disabilities, and find ways to explain to parents how their individual needs are being met in the classroom. It is also important for students to learn how to navigate challenging discussions during a meeting.

Encourage Relationship-Building with Parents of Students with Special Needs

Lastly, relationships are the core of our success . While many new teachers can be overwhelmed with the administrative duties of the job, it is important for them to take time out to develop relationships with parents rather than just have conversations about assessments. We all know that relationships take time, however parents want to feel like they are connected with the person who is providing service for their child, and that their child is cared for beyond the meetings. An occasional brief note home or e-mail message asking parents how everything is going for them shows a genuine interest in their family. Teaching graduate students the importance of simple gestures like this, as well as modeling these strategies in your own class, will help graduate students to develop trust among parents and educators, and can make the process smoother.


We all probably agree based on our individual experiences that teaching and raising students with special needs can present different challenges. As higher education professionals, we may need to reassess how we are preparing graduate students (and parents) to face them.


MacKichan, M. D., & Harkins, M. J. (2013). Inclusive Education: Perceptions of Parents of Children with Special Needs of the Individual Program Planning Process, Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education, 3 (1).

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