Two Heads Are Better than One: Why teachers should partner with parents to accelerate diverse student learning
While co-founding a startup may not be the traditional path for someone with a Ph.D. in school psychology, I find countless connections between my training and experience and our work at Family Engagement Lab to help teachers and families collaborate to support student success. The connection is especially strong when considering our targeted efforts to promote the success of diverse learners, including students identified as English learners (ELs) and students with disabilities.
School psychologists are trained to support diverse learners in a number of ways: by assessing diverse learner needs, providing culturally responsive services to students and families, planning appropriate Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities, modifying and adapting curricula and instruction, and more.
Effectively supporting the heterogeneous needs of diverse learners in the classroom can be challenging. I saw this firsthand when providing school psychological services. I continue to witness it today as we work closely with teachers and schools, and it’s an issue that’s clearly communicated in national studies of teachers. For example, in a May 2019 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood, only 17% of the 1,350 teachers surveyed reported feeling “very well prepared” to teach students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. This finding is concerning given that one in five individuals have learning and attention issues, and the majority of students with disabilities spend most of their day in general education settings. Teachers report feeling “overwhelmed and undersupported,” meanwhile the academic potential of many students with disabilities remains unmet.
The research on teacher preparedness and self-efficacy for teaching ELs paints a similar picture. In a study of teachers from California (the state with the highest concentration of ELs), titled “Listening to Teachers of English Language Learners,” general education teachers reported experiencing a number of challenges, including struggling to meet the distinct academic needs of ELs and non-ELs in the same class. While ELs are the most rapidly growing student subgroup, representing nearly 10% of public school students and speaking more than 400 different languages and dialects, over 30 states do not require EL training for general classroom teachers beyond what is required federally. Like students with disabilities, many ELs have unmet academic potential, as evidenced by academic data comparing the achievement of ELs to their non-EL peers.
It is clear that we need to do more and do better at supporting the teachers who work with diverse learners each day. One way to do this is to help teachers engage and collaborate with the other key adults in their students’ lives: parents and caregivers. Parents can play a big role in supporting teachers by reinforcing classroom learning at home—and their engagement in a child’s learning has consistently been shown to make a positive difference on student outcomes. Moreover, diverse learners have diverse needs, and parents know their children best. They know their child’s motivators and their barriers; they help their children practice the skills outlined on their IEPs; they support their child’s language development every day. Partnering with the “experts” who deeply understand their child’s unique strengths and challenges can help teachers ensure more diverse learners reach their potential.
As a school-psychologist-turned-family-engagement-advocate, I’ve had the unique opportunity to identify, design, and study innovative technology solutions like FASTalk that help teachers activate the power of families to support the success of diverse learners. It will take time and effort to accelerate the learning of all these students, but the process will be less challenging and more children will benefit when parents and teachers collaborate.
Elisabeth O’Bryon, Ph.D.
Co-founder, Family Engagement Lab