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What Does Good Communication Feel Like?

Two weeks ago, we received a letter in the mail sharing that our son would receive occupational therapy (OT) at school and that we would be periodically informed about his progress. The letter was from a person I didn’t know and have never spoken to, and it didn’t specify the services he would need. The letter left me feeling both taken by surprise and, worse, unsure of myself as a parent. What had I missed?

Communication is an essential component of relationships, and effective communication can go a long way to support or hamper the dynamic between two people or between people and institutions, like schools. It’s worth the time and effort to get it right.

With his teacher, my first step was to reach out to ask about the letter. Over email, she apologized and shared that she believed those letters were going out the following week; she had not expected families to get the letters without a heads up. She also shared that he would be receiving help from a speech therapist as well as an OT (another surpise). After a short exchange, and with my anxiety building, I asked if we could move our back-and-forth to either a phone call or an in-person meeting. She agreed, and we scheduled a meeting for the next week.

It was the right call. Our conversation was kind, affirming, and under an hour (all perks!). In sitting together, his teacher and I did a few key things:

1) We discussed our own perspectives on what we’re seeing. His teacher had taken some notes and was ready to share observations about what she’d noticed and when things are hardest for him. I talked about what I see at home, and we compared similarities and differences. She was also able to shed light on what other specialists were seeing that made them think he was a good candidate for some services. As soon as I heard what they were talking about, I knew I’d seen those same things, which made me feel like they knew my child.

2) We strategized. After getting a fuller, clearer picture of what his entire day was like, we began to make sense of it, thinking through what might be most helpful to him. We agreed on getting someone else to observe him in his class, and his teacher took notes about who to contact and how to move forward. Before the end of the day, I had a couple of emails from her and specialists taking further action.

3) We developed our own relationship. My son’s teacher and I haven’t spent much time together, but we were able to connect over the shared experience of working with this child. Being in the same room, it was much easier for me to read her facial expressions and understand her tone, which meant that I could see the warmth she had for my son. She could also clarify that the services he would receive would be as part of the general education curriculum—I hadn’t missed anything big, but I didn’t have the specific expertise to know what I was seeing. Being in-person also meant that she could share in an offhanded way that she had a meeting the day before the letter arrived in our mailbox, going through the best way to communicate with families about these services (a meeting that didn’t need to happen, since someone had already decided about how families would be notified and put that communication in the mail). Seeing her own frustration about what happened helped me understand that there was an error in the system and not an error with any individual. The meeting helped engage my empathy (because, of course, I’ve also been on the teacher end of this type of interaction) and took me from a place of confusion and fear to a place of gratitude and understanding.

When it comes to building strong partnerships between schools and families, good communication matters. While that communication must be done by individuals, it needs to be supported by a system. There were breakdowns in the system this time, but because of the interaction I had with my child’s teacher, the rupture could be repaired. I can see more clearly what happened, which put my response (and anxiety) in perspective. So, this isn’t a post railing against the school or the system. Rather, I’m advocating for more in-person meetings, empathy, and taking a step back—within schools and between schools and families. These are things that make relationships run more smoothly, every day.

Have you had a challenging moment interacting with your child’s school lately? Want us to help you think through what you can do to lean into that relationship instead of pulling back? Leave us a comment here or message us through Facebook; we’d love to help!


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