We have all heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There are no truer words when it comes to a child with special needs. I know this, not only as a special education teacher, but as a parent of an adult son with significant needs. I know I could not do this alone. And, being a part of a community is crucial to my success as a teacher and as a parent.
Building community in your classroom
Almost all of our students have social and communication goals as part of their IEP. So, as teachers, we naturally set up multiple opportunities for our students to interact with one another. This does not come naturally to our kiddos, and requires careful planning and conscious effort.
In the lesson plans I create for the units I have in my store on TPT, I make a special effort to include a designated time every day for students to share either what they have learned or share their completed activity. This is one of the first steps in building community among your students. Learning to share and giving positive feedback to those who do, is a skill ALL students need to learn.
Assigning roles and responsibilities is another way to help build community on your classroom.
Finally, one of the reasons I love doing group teaching so much rather than one on one, is that it builds that sense of community.
- Students can learn together.
- Students can help one another.
- Everyone learns how to respect each person’s learning style and speed.
Building community in your team
Hopefully you are lucky enough to have at least one or two other special education teachers and related service providers in your building. I was so lucky to work with an amazing team when I taught in elementary school. Not only did we support one another emotionally, but we truly planned together. We would plan indoor, traveling field trips. We took off campus field trips together as well.
One of the most beneficial things we did was set aside a protected time every Friday when all of our students came together for a social skills activity. During the week, we would each work with our own individual class focusing on the skills that would be needed for that Friday’s activity. Then we would all meet up, usually in the cafeteria or outside for that week’s Exploration Activity.
- We acted out social scripts.
- We played games, taking turns and practiced following the rules.
- We went on short hikes, exploring the campus. (Check out my blog post on the Magic Pumpkin Activity we did!! It was awesome. Just click HERE)
- We even put on plays.
Whatever we focused on that week, we knew it was a time for all of us to come together in a safe place for ourselves and our kids to work on generalizing some skills we had been practicing. It was, by far, my favorite time of the week.
Building community with and among your parents
This can seem challenging and daunting for several reasons. First, we have all the privacy issues to worry about. We cannot be just handing out phone numbers and encouraging parents to connect with one another. So how do we get people who have so much in common, interacting and connecting with (and hopefully supporting) one another?
Second, there is that underlying fear that parents may start talking and gang up against you. Teaching in special ed is so hard. There is no clear cut guide or right way to do things. You also are very vulnerable to close scrutiny and suspicion. Many times, these parents cannot get the information of what is happening in the classroom from their child. So, they are forced to piece together small bits of information to put together a fuzzy picture which is often inaccurate.
Finally, if you are exhausted teaching these students with such high demands, then imagine how their parents must feel. You will have parents going through various stages of grief dealing with the fact their lives are forever changed due to a diagnosis. It is difficult to navigate at times.
So, how can you help build those relationships among your parents? Throughout the year, you can plan several opportunities for family involvement.
- Consider putting on a play during Christmas.
- Practice those social scripts in front of a larger audience.
- Host a movie night.
- Our team always put together a huge cookout at the end of the year (that the teachers all chipped in for).
Will every parent come? No. But we need to meet them where they are. For many of these parents, it is very challenging to do things in a group due to the issues their child may be dealing with. School is a safe place. They can come and know there will be adults to help corral their kids and navigate the behaviors or tantrums that may erupt. There is no need to feel embarrassed or judged.
These get togethers are a great way for parents to meet and talk with future teachers. They can also connect with parents who are a step or two ahead of them in the school journey. They can ask questions and get answers to some of their concerns from parents who have truly been there. Because of course another parent will “tell you like it is.”
So, don’t be afraid to get your parents together. If you work with other members of your special ed team, encourage them to plan one of these larger get togethers to encourage more parent interaction. Believe me, your parents need each other. And yes, there will be many who may not come. But some will, and those may be the parents who need it the most.
Maybe this all seems obvious to many of you, but for those who are just starting out on their teaching journey or who may be new to special education, building community is so important. In the end, you will be amazed at how much you, and your teaching, will benefit from it.