Table of Contents

This chapter will focus on the High Leverage Practices (HLPs) in Special Education (1-3), related to Collaboration and communication.

  • HLP 1: Collaborate with professionals to increase student success.
  • HLP 2: Organize and facilitate effective meetings with professionals and families.
  • HLP 3: Collaborate with families to support student learning and secure needed services

Voices from the Field


Adapted from McLeskey, J., Barringer, M-D., Billingsley, B., Brownell, M., Jackson, D., Kennedy, M., Lewis, T., Maheady, L., Rodriguez, J., Scheeler, M. C., Winn, J., & Ziegler, D. (2017, January). High-leverage practices in special education. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center.  (Permission is granted to reproduce and adapt any portion of this publication with acknowledgement)

Key Takeaway

Effective special education teachers collaborate with a wide range of professionals, families and caregivers to assure that educational programs and related services are effectively designed and implemented to meet the needs of each student with a disability.

 Collaboration allows for varied expertise and perspectives about a student to be shared among those responsible for the student’s learning and well-being. This collective expertise provides collaborators with a more comprehensive understanding of each student’s needs, which can be used to more effectively plan and implement instruction and services. Teachers use respectful and effective communication skills as they collaborate with others, considering the background, socioeconomic status, culture, and language of the families and the professionals with whom they work.

Collaborative activities should be focused on (a) designing each student’s instructional program to meet clearly specified outcomes and (b) collecting data and monitoring progress toward
these outcomes. Effective and purposeful collaboration should enlist support from district and school leaders, who can foster a collective commitment to collaboration, provide professional learning experiences to increase team members’ collaborative skills, and create schedules that support different forms of ongoing collaboration (e.g., individualized education program [IEP] teams, co-teachers, teachers–families, teachers–paraprofessionals).

HLP 1: Collaborate with professionals to increase student success.

Collaboration with general education teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff is necessary to support students’ learning toward measurable outcomes and to facilitate students’ social and emotional well-being across all school environments and instructional settings (e.g., co-taught). Collaboration with individuals or teams requires the use of effective collaboration behaviors (e.g., sharing ideas, active listening, questioning, planning, problem solving, negotiating) to develop and adjust instructional or behavioral plans based on student data, and the coordination of expectations, responsibilities, and resources to maximize student learning.

Collaboration is broadly recommended in special education for accomplishing a wide range of goals, including determining eligibility for services, delivering instruction, ensuring support through paraprofessionals, and resolving student and programmatic issues (see Burns, Vanderwood, & Ruby, 2005). However, collaboration is ethereal in that it is never an end in itself, instead operating as a culture or a means through which any goal can be reached. Collaboration often is indirectly fostered among members of a school work group by arranging time for participants to meet face-to-face, guiding them through the development of positive professional relationships, establishing explicit and implicit procedures for working together, and teaching them about school programs that rely on collaborative interactions (e.g., teams, co-teaching). Collaboration is not explicitly mandated in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act IDEA), nor is it generally part of formal policies related to educating students with disabilities, but the requirements of the law and established school practices strongly infer that it is through collaboration that the effective education of students with disabilities is achieved.

The two most common school structures presumed to rely on collaboration are co-teaching and teams. Co-teaching, research generally has found strong support among teachers, but mixed results for students (Murawski & Swanson, 2001; Scruggs, Mastropieri, & McDuffie, 2007). The most recent examination of the co-teaching research literature, an analysis of six co-teaching and inclusion research syntheses, concluded that when general educators and special educators work closely to coordinate the delivery of curriculum and have resources such as time to plan, small positive effects on student academic outcomes are achieved (Solis, Vaughn, Swanson, & McCulley, 2012). A related study supported this conclusion, finding that elementary-age students with disabilities in co-taught classes made significant educational progress while those in separate special education classroom settings did not, the gap between the two groups widening across time (Tremblay, 2013).

HLP 2: Organize and facilitate effective meetings with professionals and families.

Teachers lead and participate in a range of meetings (e.g., meetings with families, individualized education program [IEP] teams, individualized family services plan [IFSP] teams, instructional planning) with the purpose of identifying clear, measurable student outcomes and developing instructional and behavioral plans that support these outcomes. They develop a meeting agenda, allocate time to meet the goals of the agenda, and lead in ways that encourage consensus building through positive verbal and nonverbal communication, encouraging the sharing of multiple perspectives, demonstrating active listening, and soliciting feedback.

Special education teachers typically organize, schedule, and lead a variety of meetings, including annual IEP meetings as well as ongoing collaborative meetings essential to instructional planning and progress monitoring. IEP meetings involve both parents and professionals (e.g., general education teachers, fellow special education teachers, reading specialists, curriculum specialists, principals, other administrators, outside consultants), as well as students with disabilities. IDEA requires that parents be given opportunities for full participation in the development of the IEP. The way in which the IEP meeting is organized and facilitated should ensure that the family is an equal partner in the development of an appropriate education for the child.

Special education teachers need to facilitate meetings so they run smoothly, involve others as equal participants, and accomplish the goals of the meeting. These tasks require communicating effectively with others, being able discuss aspects of the individual child’s program (e.g., explain the rationale behind behavior intervention plans, describe effective practices), and facilitating consensus among all involved. The partnership principles of equality, choice, voice, reciprocity, praxis, and reflection aid in the development of effective communication skills (Knight, 2007). Using these principles requires specific skills, which may be developed with diligent practice. It may be helpful to solicit feedback from a mentor or colleague as well as team members to improve one’s communication and facilitation skills.

The Council for Exceptional Children’s special education Code of Ethics (2015) includes the following principles relating to organizing and facilitating effective meetings:

  • Practicing collegially with others who are providing services to individuals with exceptionalities.
  • Developing relationships with families based on mutual respect and actively involving families and individuals with exceptionalities in educational decision making. (p. 7)

Collaboration—when teachers work together to diagnose what they need to do, plan and teach interventions, and evaluate their effectiveness—has shown a strong effect size of 0.93 on student achievement (DuFour, 2007; Hattie, 2008).

Meeting agendas should be planned in a way that invites the sharing of multiple perspectives, involves active listening, and encourages consensus building, while maintaining efficiency. Agendas for formal meetings should be developed and shared in advance; the meeting should be scheduled for an appropriate amount of time given meeting goals and participants invited with sufficient advance notice.

Meetings will be more productive if there is trust among participants. Teachers should consider taking steps before meetings to build relationships with professionals and families on an ongoing basis (Billingsley, Brownell, Israel, & Kamman, 2013). At the start of the school year, effective special educators communicate with families via phone, e-mail, or notes home with positive messages about individual children and their accomplishments.

As special educators are primary communicators in the school regarding students with disabilities, they also should serve as models of respectful communication by using person-first language.

In order to promote collaboration between special education teachers and general education teachers and service providers there should be a plan put into place about how often they are communicating with one another about the identified students. If no plan is put into place it can be easy for communication and collaboration to get swept underneath the rug and the student can easily fall behind. During this planned communication time, the team can discuss what has worked and what hasn’t worked for the student and what their goals and vision for that student and whether or not they are being met. Christina Shaughnessy

HLP 3: Collaborate with families to support student learning and secure needed services.

Teachers collaborate with families about individual children’s needs, goals, programs, and progress over time and ensure families are informed about their rights as well as about special education processes (e.g., IEPs, IFSPs). Teachers should respectfully and effectively communicate considering the background, socioeconomic status, language, culture, and priorities of the family. Teachers advocate for resources to help students meet instructional, behavioral, social, and transition goals. In building positive relationships with students, teachers encourage students to self-advocate, with the goal of fostering self-determination over time. Teachers also work with families to self-advocate and support their children’s learning.

The importance of collaborating with families to promote participation in educational decision making has been identified as one of the key principles of IDEA (H. R. Turnbull, Stowe, & Huerta, 2007). IDEA provides for specific rights that enable parents to participate as equal members of the IEP team and to be involved in evaluation, placement, and special education and related service decisions. For families to take on such roles and responsibilities, collaboration between professionals and families is necessary. Using effective partnership strategies has been identified as a necessary element of building collaborative relationships.

Family–professional partnerships have been defined as a relationship in which families (not just parents) and professionals agree to build on each other’s expertise and resources, as appropriate, for the purpose of making and implementing decisions that will directly benefit students and indirectly benefit other family members and professionals. (A. P. Turnbull, Turnbill, Erwin, Soodak, & Shogren, 2015, p. 161)

Seven principles of effective partnerships have been identified in the literature (see A. P. Turnbull et al., 2015):

  • Communication: Teachers and families communicate openly and honestly in a medium that is comfortable for the family.
  • Professional competence: Teachers are highly qualified in the area in which they work, continue to learn and grow, and have and communicate high expectations for students and families.
  • Respect. Teachers treat families with dignity, honor cultural diversity, and affirm strengths.
  • Commitment: Teachers are available, consistent, and go above and beyond what is expected of them.
  • Equality; Teachers recognize the strengths of every member of a team, share power with families, and focus on working together with families.
  • Advocacy: Teachers focus on getting to the best solution for the student in partnership with the family.
  • Trust: Teachers are reliable and act in the best interest of the student, sharing their vision and actions with the family.

In implementing these principles, it is essential to honor and respect cultural diversity and differing communication styles and preferences.

voices from the field

Voices from the Field

Collaborating and Communicating with Families

There are many things about a student’s family a special educator should be aware of in order to build a strong family friendly relationship.  First, the cultural background is important to getting to know the basics of the family dynamics.  Understanding culture can help the special educator better connect with the family.  Culture can determine not just the languages spoken in the home, but most importantly how the family may view and deal with the disability. Second, understanding the family home and financial situation is very important.  This is key to understanding basic stressors the family may be facing and allow the special educator and IEP team can prepare for meetings and important conversations. They may have a hard time having meetings at “normal” times due to work.  They may sound on edge due to stress.  If the special educator is aware of the family struggle, he or she can better prepare themselves to give the family resources and help by lending a sympathetic ear.  Special educators need to build trust, and being sympathetic and understanding, providing resources to help while focusing on the child’s goals, will go a long way with the family.  This can be as simple as providing the family with resources or even giving them meeting times outside of the normal “business hours” if they are working multiple or odd jobs.  Simply caring can go a long way with a family who is already under stress.  Finally, once you have got to know the family, earned their trust and showed them you care, a special educator should encourage them to “meaningfully participate” in their child’s education and IEP process. More often them not, families are lost and often believe the specialist is right and may not express concerns or ideas.  Giving encouragement may mean helping them understand jargon or simply giving them extra time to ask questions.  When someone feels included, they are more likely to be engaged.   Deanna Hanley


Collaborating effectively with families is vital to student success. Many first-year teachers report not feeling prepared to work with families and feel like they don’t have the time or resources to do so (Sears et al., 2021, p. 201). Teaching Exceptional Children recommends starting the school year with a fresh perspective and building positive relationships with families that lead to trust and respect. Several of the readings this week have included the extreme importance of the parent/family’s role in education and showed how the special educator can provide resources to parents, helping them advocate for their child and be empowered. One of my favorite pieces of advice from this week was: “Instead of advice, offer information from several different sources (e.g., one or two books and a couple of verified websites) and empower the parent to be confident in making their own decisions about their child, while still providing them with needed support” (Koch, 2017). It’s important to help parents/families learn to advocate for the child because they are going to be the ones there pre K-12 and beyond, while a teacher may only work with them one school year. Rachel Stoudt


For some of my students, I send home a daily home-school communication log, which tells the parents what services the student had, what specials the student had, what they ate for lunch, what the best part of the day was, and what the hardest part of the day was. It tells the parents whether the student had a “not great”, “OK”, “great”, or “excellent” day. Some of my families reinforce great and excellent days at home by providing praise or a special reward.  Anonymous


One of the first things I can do as a special educator is start building the relationship early in the year.  Before school starts, reaching out to parents and letting them know that I am the case manager and that I am looking forward to working with them would be helpful in setting the stage for open communication.  I also like the idea of talking to parents about their child outside of school, his/her likes and dislikes, interests, and any other information they think is important.  It’s good to let families know that we are interested in getting to know their student as a whole person.  I think families feel more comfortable when they feel we really know their child.

Part of knowing a student is being able to identify his/her strengths and to not dwell only on the disability or gaps in achievement.  In addition, reaching out to parents early in the year lets parents know that the educator is available to talk to if questions arise.  In addition, if a parent does reach out with questions, replying promptly lets them know that you take their concerns seriously.  Maintaining confidentiality is also important in building and maintaining trust.  Jessica Warning


Communication is integral to student success. Special educators (wearing their many hats) need to keep communication open, respectful, and timely with the IEP team. Parents especially need to know that we have their backs. Through our reading and some of our classmates’ posts, we know that parents can feel exceptionally vulnerable throughout the special education process. Consistent, patient and kind communication is key. Heather Roberson


When I worked at a daycare, there was a lot of communication with parents. One of the teachers had an app where she could update the parents with a picture of their child and how their day has been. The parents loved it. I think meetings should always be in person, but a quick email/message is beneficial.  Morgan Chase


Something our school does that I really like is a back to school BBQ, where everyone in the school is invited and serves as a sort of informal meet and greet a few days before school starts (we didn’t have it this year because of covid sad but normally when we do, each grade level of teachers and staff wear a certain color shirt and have a table with balloons or something eye catching. Parents and students are told ahead of time what color to look for, and students and their families can go over and meet the teacher in a nice informal way, eat some food, chat, etc. Special ed and support staff are there too to meet families. Its such a great way to begin that relationship!  Caitlin Dubisz


There are many key points that special educators need to be aware of when they interact with the parents of their students with disabilities. “First and foremost, remember to be kind, listen to (not just hear) what parents have to say, and don’t judge them or their decisions” (Koch 2017). Parents trust us with their children and their child’s education, and we need to respect the decisions that they make in regards to their child. Making parents feel welcome and valued is important to building a positive relationship with them. Pointing out their child’s strengths and accomplishments versus only focusing on the things their child needs to improve upon is an important aspect of building that positive relationship. Another key point to be aware of is the fact that parents may not always know all of the things that educators do about the special education process. They may need clarification of definitions and laws and we need to convey those things in a way that is easy for them to understand. Making sure that parents understand the processes involved with their child’s education, will ensure that parents can make informed decisions pertaining to their child. Michelle Shaw


When I was a classroom teacher the first week of school I called all my parents and let them know how glad I was to have their child in my class. I always seemed to have a lot of involved parents when it came to class activities, etc., since I started doing that! I am always recommending articles and books and webinars to parents and try to follow up as the behavior interventionist when a student is having a rough patch so we can talk about it.  Being able to call parents and help them advocate for their child’s needs is so important to their success. Jacquelin Godin


Educators should also consider the fact that these families are forced to take on multiple roles because of their child’s disability. They have to be a parent to that child and possibly other children, a medical expert for their child, an ethical and legal advocate for their child, and know all the laws about inclusion and disability rights that relate to their child, in order to meet their child’s needs. To help build the positive relationship with families, educators can “accommodate their schedules, listen and respond to their concerns, help them learn to navigate the education and social service systems, and assist them with finding support networks” (IRIS Center). Caitlin Dubisz


I feel communication logs are an important tool to help educators and families have an open communication pathway where they can communicate daily with each other on how the child is at home and school. This not only informs the educator of anything that might have happened at home but it also allows the family to feel more connected and involved in their child’s daily school life. We need to remember that we only see these children for 7 hours out of a day, for the rest of the day they are at home or out in the community so we rely on open communication to inform us of anything that happens during that time that could impede their learning. Nicole Coonrod


One of the most challenging and important steps to encourage parent involvement is to educate families on how they can help their child with learning when they are not at school. This might look like sharing homework strategies and giving suggestions for setting up a productive study space. Along this same line, it might be helpful to have a communication plan, which is meant to help families and special educators more effectively communicate with each other. The plan gives structure to communication and might include scheduled times to talk that are convenient for the family’s schedule, assigned activities, and goals. While this is a suggestion for remote learning, it might be useful to do all of the time. Rebecca Foss


The IRIS Center. (2008, 2020). Family Engagement: Collaborating with Families of Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from

Koch, K. (2017, Apr 4). IEP: Students benefit when we collaborate. Edutopia. Retrieved from 

Sears, J. A., Peters, B. L., Beidler, A. M. S., & Murawski, W. W. (2021). Using relationships to advocate with, for, and to families. Teaching Exceptional Children, 53(3), 194–204









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