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Motivating Parents to Get Involved

This post is the fourth in a series based on a transcript from a recent Q&A with Dr. Barry Prizant as part of his webinar, “Family Collaboration: An Essential Element for SPED Success.” Questions came directly from audience participants — special education directors, special educators, speech-language pathologists, and parents, and answers are from Dr. Prizant. Click here to see additional questions from the Q&A.

What is the best way to encourage and motivate parents to get involved and to carry over what it takes to help the child and to take what’s going on in school and take it into the home?

That is a great question and something that I run in all the time in my consulting. Let’s start from the perspective of the educator, the special educator, the special service provider, SLPs, OTs, and PTs. From our perspective, what we are thinking is, “I am a well trained professional and I have these great suggestions and these great ideas that I know will help your child outside of school, so here they are, please do them.” It is always helpful to take the perspective of the parent. The parent perspective might be, “Oh, I hear what you are saying and I know that it is important to you, but, you know, on our list of priorities, it may not be that important to us.” Or, “I hear what you are saying and I understand some of it, but I really don’t understand everything you are saying.” Or, “I hear what you are saying, I think it would be helpful and I understand what you are saying about using this visual schedule, but I really don’t know how to use it.” Or, “That is just not something that is a priority for us right now because my dad is in the hospital and I have to run and see him every night and I know you are saying we should get going on this immediately, but I’m sorry it just can’t happen right now.”

It is important to understand why parents sometimes are not able to follow through or they seem as if they are not choosing not to follow through. The flip side is how to encourage them and motivate them. Point number one — and this is something we should be doing anyway — is to make sure that we are addressing parental priorities. One of my personal strategies when I make a suggestion or I’m working with a staff member who is making a suggestion, is to always ask parents, “Is this something that is important to you? Is this something that you value?” If the parent says yes, then we need to follow up with another question, “Do you need any kind of information or help in terms of following through on what we are suggesting?” Sometimes they say yes, and sometimes they say no. Then we need to ask, “Is this something that you feel that you can start at this point in time or relatively soon, or is this something that maybe is on your punch list for something do down the line?”

We really have to focus on why it is that, when we make a suggestion for parents and ask two weeks later how it is going and the parents reply they haven’t gotten to it yet. We need to really consider why, and sometimes ask them why. This is important because, so often when we make what we think are positive suggestions, it can actually cause a great deal of guilt for parents, especially when they feel they know they should be doing something and they are not. If they kind of embrace a suggestion that would be helpful, and they just can’t fit into their lives and they don’t know how to implement that support or they don’t have the time, many, many parents will feel like, “Wow, I am really screwing up as a parent here.” We have to acknowledge the stresses on their lives, the stresses on their family, and find the best way to reach a common ground. It is not only about what is helpful, but what is doable, and in some cases what is doable is only possible if we as educators and therapists provide the right support.

The worst case scenario is to have a judgmental attitude and say, “I just can’t believe that parent! I made up this beautiful visual schedule for the child, or I have provided this great organizational support to help the mom with the child’s homework, and she is just not using it.” In some cases, we haven’t asked that “why” question, why isn’t she using it, and maybe it is not a priority right now. That is the essence, I believe, of encouraging and motivating parents. We have to really try to understand where our suggestions fall in the line of priorities in the life of the family and for that parent.
Just some other quick suggestions: if a parent does respond positively to something we are suggesting and we feel they maybe don’t know how to implement it, can we, even if we are school staff member, go into the home one time and demonstrate how we use that communication board, or the iPad, or the visual support, if that’s possible? If that is not possible, can the parent come into school and observe at a designated time the way supports are being used, or the way the staff simplifies language for the child, or the way the staff uses transitional supports to help the child go from one activity to another, or from the classroom to the cafeteria.

Of course, many people may be thinking, “Oh, yeah, I know when some of my kids see their parents in school, forget it, the day is shot.” So obviously we wouldn’t do that under those circumstances, but we want to help parents really see and understand how suggestions can be implemented, and how supports can be implemented, and not just assume that they are able to follow through just because we tell them verbally or hand them an instruction sheet.

Dr. Barry Prizant is a clinical scholar, consultant, researcher and expert on childhood communication disorders. His new book, “Uniquely Human: Seeing Autism Through a Different Lens” is scheduled to be released in August, 2015 by Simon and Schuster. To contact Dr. Prizant for a consultation or workshop in your district, visit

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