Hello teachers! How was your summer? I know if you're like most teachers, you've spent the warm months making classroom materials, scouting out great lesson plan ideas and taking classes to stay at the top of your game. As a former special education teacher, I remember the excitement of getting ready to face a new class of bright, shiny faces each fall. Those of us who've had the privilege of working with students with special needs know how important it is to have great communication between school and home, especially for our students who struggle with communication. When I taught, I tried to find creative ways of keeping parents involved and I'd like to share some of my favorites with you here.


1. Communication notebook. We've all used these, the spiral bound notebooks sent back and forth between home and school to exchange information, ask questions and share the good and not as good moments of each day between the classroom staff and families. This is a great, simple way to stay in touch but you can take it a step further by involving students. At the end of each school day, I'd call each student to my desk for an end of the day conference. Students who are able to write would add a sentence on how they felt about the day, verbal kids would dictate a sentence I'd write and kids who are non-verbal would circle a picture symbol (such as a happy or sad face) describing how they felt about the day. It's a great way to explore emotions, self-management and encourage independence and self-awareness in students.


2. A classroom newsletter. Ten years ago, this would have been much harder to do, but nowadays there are at least a dozen free or cheap resources available for designing a newsletter with very little design skills needed. In addition to the benefits as a communication tool, creating the newsletter can easily be blended into lesson plans for spelling, reading, computer skills, social skills and communication skills. By dividing and differentiating tasks, every member of the class can participate; from writing articles to taking pictures to hitting print, there are enough jobs for everyone to feel important.


3. The Secret Message. Over the years I taught a few students who would be very self conscious about having a communication notebook, especially if the news wasn't always good. Frequently, I'd replace the notebook with phone calls home after school, but as all teachers know, the time right after students leave is also when many buildings schedule staff meetings or trainings, making it difficult to speak with a caregiver before the student makes it home. One of my students was especially sensitive to a notebook, we had several incidents where he tried to get rid of it on the way home by tossing it out the school bus window. His mom and I brainstormed and came up with the idea of the triple secret confidential safety pin method of communication. On days when the student had a great day (which was most of the time) I'd pin a tiny gold safety pin inside a pocket on his bookbag. On days with more challenges, I'd use a silver safety pin. When mom saw the silver pin, she'd call me out of the student's earshot and we'd talk about whatever challenge we had.


4. Use a classroom website. Most schools have the option of creating classroom webpages for teachers to communicate classroom policies, homework, activities and special events. Several educational companies offer a teacher website service as well (Scholastic has a great one) Like making newsletters, making an attractive website is much simpler than it was ten years ago. Also like newsletters, a classroom website is a great teaching tool and a project in which all students can participate with a little planning and creativity.


5. Have an open door policy. On the first day of school, invite parents to visit whenever they would like. Since I worked with students with autism, I asked for at least fifteen minutes notice so I could let the students know a visitor was coming and avoid any anxiety brought on by a surprise. Make sure to always have examples of student work on display, and consider creating a parent corner in the classroom where moms, dads and caretakers can observe the action without distracting the students. I can't tell you how many parents were relieved to know they could pop in whenever they wanted, and I think it helped establish trust between us.


I hope these ideas will inspire you to think of new, creative ways to keep parents and families involved in your classroom this school year. Please share any ideas you love in the comments! Here's to a wonderful and productive new school year!