Explaining Your Inclusion Program to Families

By Salend, Spencer J

Ms. Carr, a general education teacher, and Ms. Stevens, a special education teacher, had worked as a cooperative teaching team in an inclusion program for several years. Things had gone well over the years, and the teachers tried to improve their program each year. This year they decided to focus on family involvement. Because they had found in the past that many families did not know much about inclusion and their program, the teachers decided to have a meeting to explain their inclusion program to families.

The teachers developed a family needs assessment survey to identify what aspects of the program families would like to know more about, as well as to solicit questions they might have about the program. The needs assessment also asked families to identify the best dates and times for scheduling the meeting and accommodations they might need in order to attend. The teachers used this information to develop goals for the meeting and a schedule of appropriate activities.

There was a good turnout of family members. After introductions, Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens explained the idea of inclusion and discussed the philosophy and goals of the school’s program, the day’s schedule, communication with families, and other issues. The classroom paraeducators explained their responsibilities as well, and noted how fortunate the class was to have this additional support for all the students in the class. The teachers discussed the research on inclusion in language that families could understand, and cited examples of how their students had grown academically and socially. Family members of a former student spoke about the program and its impact on their child.

At the meeting, the teachers responded to questions from family members, including “Does the class have computers?” and “How does the teaming work?” One family member asked, “If there are two teachers in a class, which one is my child’s ‘real’ teacher?” which enabled Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens to describe their approach to team teaching. They concluded the meeting by thanking families for attending and participating, and invited them to visit and volunteer in the class. They also provided families with materials from the state education department and a handout of relevant Web sites.

Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens asked the family members to complete a departure survey to assess their satisfaction with the content, activities, organization, and scheduling of the meeting. Several family members indicated that they would like to learn more about how they could support the inclusion program, and others requested that the teachers periodically provide them with updates on the inclusion program. Following the informational meeting, the professionals met to evaluate the success of their meeting, review feedback from family members, and plan the next meeting.

Family involvement and support is an important factor in the success of inclusion programs (Palmer, Fuller, Arora, & Nelson, 2001; Salend, 2005). Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens were aware of the range of family experience and opinions regarding inclusion programs (see box, “What Does the Literature Say About Family Responses to Inclusion Programs?”), which can significantly affect a family’s participation. Rather than assuming that family members understood inclusion programs and were pleased with their child’s placement in an inclusive classroom, they created an opportunity to explain their inclusion programs to families.

This article builds on the experiences of Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens to present guidelines, strategies, and resources educators can use to share information with family members about, and consequently develop support for, their inclusion programs.

Respect and Ensure Confidentiality

Educators must at all times respect and ensure the confidentiality of students and their families, including when they are talking about the range of learning styles and needs within their classrooms (Fleury, 2000). In addition to protecting student and family rights to privacy with respect to student records, confidentiality means that teachers, administrators, and staff should not

* Reveal personally identifying information about students (e.g., their disability or immigration status, medical condition and needs, test scores, etc.) and families to others.

* Speak or write about students and families in public ways and places (e.g., staff room, meetings with other families, college classes and inservice sessions, etc.) that allow specific students to be identified.

If educators feel that it is necessary to share information about a student with someone who is not directly involved in delivering the student’s educational program, they must specify the exact information to be shared and obtain written permission from the student’s family.

Plan the Meeting

The first step is to identify the goals for the meeting and to develop a schedule of appropriate activities. The schedule should allow enough time to implement the planned activities and to discuss relevant issues and address family questions, experiences, and concerns. Distributing a family needs assessment (Figure 1) will assist in this endeavor; by highlighting family perceptions regarding inclusion programs, and providing some indication of family willingness to participate in informational meetings and the program itself, it establishes the issues and questions that meeting planners need to address. It also provides essential information for logistical planning (the best time and place for the meeting, and travel and/or child-care needs).

Once the meeting has been scheduled, teachers should contact potential attendees with information on the time, place, purpose, and duration of the meeting, and a description of the planned content. Because families are structured in many different ways, the notice should encourage family members to invite others as well. The notice also can provide families with helpful hints for taking part in the meeting by identifying important materials to bring, listing which school personnel will attend, and listing questions or suggestions to help them participate in the meeting. For example, before their initial meeting, Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens asked each family to think about their goals for their child’s educational program and their perceptions of their child’s feelings about school, as well as other questions they might have had. Follow-up reminders to families via mail, e-mail, or telephone may enhance meeting attendance.

Figure 1. Sample Family Needs Assessment

Determine Appropriate Learning Activities

The needs assessment information can help determine the schedule of events, including the content, format, and length of various learning activities. Although it is possible to share information about inclusion programs with families via print materials, multimedia, role-playing, simulations, and Internet Web sites, teacher-led presentations and group discussions are excellent ways to help families understand inclusion and to introduce and discuss important aspects of inclusion programs with them. Video materials are useful supplementary materials because they provide a visual image and a model, and can be paused to discuss, review, or replay the content. Print materials can help families extend their knowledge of inclusion and provide them with access to additional information and resources. For example, Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens gave family members print materials from the state education department and a handout listing Web sites for additional information about inclusion.

Guest speakers can also be an effective way to educate families about inclusion and inclusion programs. Family members of children with and without disabilities can speak about their experiences with inclusion (Hartwell, 2001), parent-to-parent; Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens asked family members of a former student to speak at their introductory meeting. Potential guest speakers also can be identified through local community agencies, professional and advocacy organizations, and special educator referrals. It is important to carefully identify, select, and prepare guest speakers, and determine if it is appropriate to have a panel (Shapiro, 1999). Every guest speaker should be able to present inclusion in a positive light, and foster positive attitudes; speak in an open and honest way; use language that families can understand; and share meaningful stories and examples. Meeting planners should meet with guest speakers in advance to discuss the goals of the presentation, topics to be covered, and confidentiality issues.

Conduct the Meeting

The meeting should set a positive tone and encourage understanding, participation, and collaboration. A good way to start the meeting is to welcome everyone, and ask all attendees to introduce themselves. After reviewing the agenda and the purpose of the meeting, it can begin on a positive note with professionals highlighting the importance of diversity and learning about individual differences as significant features of an education in our diverse and everchanging society. Teachers can then introduce and describe their own inclusion program, and discuss how the program benefits all students and addresses individual strengths and challenges.

When sharing information about their inclusion programswith families, all presenters should make sure the information is easily understood by using language that is direct, avoiding professional jargon, explaining key terminology, checking periodically for understanding, and paraphrasing and summarizing important points; and by sharing stories and examples to illustrate concepts and definitions, and showcasing materials such as work samples, test results, and anecdotal records to support and clarify their comments.

Orally presented information can be more concrete and understandable when accompanied by visuals such as illustrations, charts, diagrams, advance organizers, overheads, and slideshow presentations. Some teachers find it helpful to supplement their presentations by using video and the Internet to access and share information, and easels or chalkboards to record ideas and highlight important points (Rock, 2000). Interpreters and translators should be available to assist non-native Englishspeaking families (Al- Hassan & Gardner, 2002), or those with hearing impairments. (See box, “Encouraging Family Participation and Collaboration.”)

Since collaboration is an essential aspect of effective inclusion programs (Salend, 2005), teachers might want to use a collaborative presentation style at the meeting, varying responsibilities so that all educators have similar opportunities to present important information, assume a leadership role, respond to questions, and interact with families. Teachers also can communicate in terms of “we” and “our” rather than “I” and “my,” and make sure that the contributions of all team members and their impact on all students are recognized.

The meeting should conclude on a positive note by summarizing the issues discussed, inviting family members to visit and volunteer in the class, and providing families with additional information about inclusion (e.g., a listing of Web sites, DVDs/videos, and articles, books, and other print materials). Since family involvement and education are long-term processes, the agenda should include follow- up activities and plans for future meetings. For example, in the case of Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens, some family members indicated that they would like to learn more about how they could support the inclusion program, and others asked the teachers to provide them with periodic updates on the inclusion program.

Evaluate the Meeting

Meetings with family members should be continually evaluated to assess their usefulness and success in achieving intended outcomes. Feedback from families and professionals can identify factors that should be replicated in future meetings, as well as pinpoint aspects of the meeting that need revision; a postmeeting assessment provides the basis for an action plan for successful future meetings.

Exit surveys assess attendees’ perceptions of the content, format, and scheduling of the meeting; examine the impact of the meeting on their understanding of the inclusion program; identify questions and informational needs they have about the inclusion program; and delineate preferences for future meetings. Surveys using a yes/no or true/false format, or those using a Likert-type scale, are easiest to complete and therefore have a higher response rate than open-ended questions. Ms. Carr and Ms. Stevens’s survey asked family members to rate their satisfaction with the content, activities, organization, and scheduling of the meeting, and to identify the issues they wanted future meetings to address.

Figure 2. Reflective Questions for Teachers and Administrators

Periodically throughout the school year, teachers can distribute follow-up surveys or interviews that focus on (a) family beliefs and concerns about inclusion, (b) the experiences and perceptions of children regarding the inclusion programs, and (c) the impact of the inclusion program on the children (Davern, 1999; Pivik et al., 2002). Surveys and interviews also can address satisfaction with the quality of the educational program, communication with school personnel, family roles in implementing inclusion, and the inclusion practices of the school and the district. Salend (2005) offers sample survey items and interview questions that can be used to assess the perceptions, experiences, and satisfaction of families concerning inclusion programs.

Reflection is a particularly good way for teachers to evaluate their meeting with families and critically assess their professional practices (Dabkowski, 2004) and can serve as a framework for determining the meeting’s strengths, problems, and misunderstandings as well as problem-solving the steps that can be taken to improve it (see Figure 2).

Final Thoughts

The support of family members is vital to the success of inclusion programs. However, since the quality and extent of family member support may be related to their understanding of inclusion programs, educators need to offer family education sessions that explain their inclusion programs. The guidelines in this article for planning, implementing, and evaluating meetings to help family members learn about inclusion programs provide a basic template that teachers and schools can adapt to fit the unique needs of their communities.

What Does the Literature Say About Family Responses to Inclusion Programs?

Family members have varied views of and experiences with inclusion. Although the perceptions and reactions of families of children with and without disabilities toward inclusion are often positive, family members also have important concerns that need to be considered (Garrick Duhaney & Salend, 2000).

Familles of children with disabilities may feel that inclusion:

* fosters the academic achievement of their children;

* provides their children with increased friendships;

* gives their children greater access to positive role models;

* offers their children a more challenging curriculum;

* prepares their children for the real world;

* improves their children’s self-concept, and language and motor skills;

* increases the sensitivity of children without disabilities;

* results in a loss of individualized accommodations, curricula, and services for their children;

* places their children at risk of being ridiculed; and

* lowers the self-esteem of their children.

(Gallagher et al., 2000; Palmer et al., 2001; Pivik, McComas, & Laflamme, 2002; Seery, Davis, & Johnson, 2000).

Families of children without disabilities may believe that inclusion:

* does not interfere with the education of their children;

* fosters a greater tolerance of human differences in their children;

* benefits children with disabilities;

* results in less teacher attention for their children; and

* can cause their children to develop inappropriate behaviors.

(Giangreco, Edelman, & Cloninger, & Dennis, 1993; Hanson et al, 2001; Hunt, Hirose-Hatae, Doering, Karasoff, & Goetz, 2000; Reichart et al., 1989).

Rather than assuming that family members understood inclusion programs and were pleased with their child’s placement in an inclusive classroom, they created an opportunity to explain their inclusion programs to families.

Every guest speaker should be able to present inclusion in a positive light, and foster positive attitudes.

Encouraging Family Participation and Collaboration

At your introductory meeting with new families

* Feature other parent-speakers with personal experience in inclusion programs.

* Provide time for family members to ask questions.

* Initiate discussion with open-ended rather than yes/no questions.

* Group family members in cooperative learning groups.

* Listen attentively.

* Be aware and respectful of cultural differences.

* Use humor.

* Respond to comments and questions with empathy, understanding, and sensitivity.

* Outline positive ways of addressing family concerns.

* Acknowledge and reinforce participation (“That’s a good point”; “I’ll try to incorporate that”; Dabkowski, 2004).

Since family involvement and education are long-term processes, the agenda should include follow-up activities and plans for future meetings.

References

Al-Hassan, S., & Gardner, R. (2002). Involving immigrant parents of students with disabilities in the educational process. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 34(5), 52-59.

Dabkowski, D. M. (2004). Encouraging active parent participation in IEP team meetings. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 36(3), 34-39.

Davern, L. (1999). Parents’ perspectives on personnel attitudes and characteristics in inclusive school settings: Implications for teacher preparation programs. Teacher Education and Special Education, 22(3), 165-182.

Fleury, M. L. (2000). Confidentiality issues for substitutes and paraeducators. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 33(1), 44-45.

Gallagher, P. A., Floyd, J. H., Stafford, A. M., Taber, T. A., Brozovic, S. A., & Alberto, P. A. (2000). Inclusion of students with moderate or severe disabilities in educational and community settings: Perspectives from parents and siblings. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 35, 135-147.

Garrick Duhaney, L. M., & Salend, S. J. (2000). Parental perceptions of inclusive educational placements. Remedial and Special Education, 21, 121-128.

Giangreco, M. F., Edelman, S., Cloninger, C., & Dennis, R. (1993). My child has a classmate with severe disabilities: What parents of nondisabled children think about full inclusion. Developmental Disabilities Bulletin, 21(1), 77-91.

Hanson, M. J., Horn, E., Sandall, S., Beckman, P., Morgan, M., Marquart, J., et al. (2001). After preschool inclusion: Children’s educational pathways over the early school years. Exceptional Children, 68, 65-83.

Hartwell, R. (2001). Understanding disabilities. Educational Leadership, 58(7), 72-75.

Hunt, P., Hirose-Hatae, A., Doering, K., Karasoff, P., & Goetz, L. (2000). “Community” is what I think everyone is talking about. Remedial and Special Education, 21, 305-317.

Palmer, D. S., Fuller, K, Arora, T., & Nelson, M. (2001). Taking sides: Parent vi\ews on inclusion for their children with severe disabilities. Exceptional Children, 67, 467-484.

Pivik, J., McComas, J., & Laflamme, M. (2002). Barriers and facilitators to inclusive education. Exceptional Children, 69, 97- 107.

Reichart, D. C., Lynch, E. C., Anderson, B. C., Svobodny, L. A., Di Cola, J. M., & Mercury, M. G. (1989). Parental perspectives on integrated preschool opportunities for children with handicaps and children without handicaps. Journal of Early Intervention, 13, 6- 13.

Rock, M. L. (2000). Parents as equal partners: Balancing the scales in IEP development. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 32(6), 30- 37.

Salend, S. J. (2005). Creating inclusive classrooms for all: Effective and reflective practices (5th ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill/ Prentice-Hall.

Seery, M. E., Davis, P. M., & Johnson, L. J. (2000). Seeing eye- to-eye: Are parents and professionals in agreement about the benefits of preschool inclusion? Remedial and Special Education, 21, 268-278, 319.

Shapiro, A. (1999). Everyone belongs: Changing negative attitudes toward classmates with disabilities. New York: Routledge-Falmer.

Spencer J. Salend fCEC NY Federation Chapter 615), Professor, Department of Educational Studies, State University of New York at New Paltz.

Address correspondence to Spencer J. Salend, State University of New York at New Paltz, 9 South Oakwood Terrace, New Paltz, NY 12561 (e-mail: [email protected]).

TEACHING Exceptional Children, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 6-11.

Copyright 2006 CEC.

Copyright Council for Exceptional Children Mar/Apr 2006

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