Helping Teachers Help Parents: Natasha Strassfeld on Service Delivery in Special Education

Natasha Strassfeld is an assistant professor of special education in Steinhardt’s Department of Teaching and Learning. She earned a J.D. degree from the University of Wisconsin School of Law and a doctorate in special education from Pennsylvania State University.

Strassfeld’s research examines service delivery to parents and students with disabilities in the special education services and accommodations process, minority disproportionate representation, special education policy and law, and juvenile justice.  We spoke to her about her recent publication, Preparing Pre-Service Special Education Teachers to Facilitate Parent Involvement, Knowledge, and Advocacy: Considerations for Curriculum, which advocates for curriculum enhancements that can help pre-service teachers work more effectively with parents of students with disabilities.

Natasha Strassfeld

What is IDEA?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that mandates free and appropriate public education and related services to meet the individualized needs of all eligible students with disabilities. Approximately 6.7 million U.S. students with disabilities received IDEA services in public schools during the most recently reported school year. The federal IDEA legislation also outlines what states must do to comply with its mandates. Individual states are free to offer additional protections to parents and families, on top of what is already offered under IDEA.

What provisions of IDEA do you think need to be enhanced in order to better prepare pre-service teachers to be equipped to work with the parents of students with disabilities?  

First and foremost, the teaching profession is both a noble pursuit and an incredibly demanding endeavor. For special education teachers in particular, teachers’ roles are quite complex as they must provide high-quality special education instruction and meet the individualized needs of parents and students with disabilities as mandated under IDEA. Problems with the delivery of high-quality special education instruction can occur when IDEA’s parent involvement provisions are vague or unclear, thus being less helpful to pre-service and novice special education teachers attempting to comply with IDEA’s requirements. Prior research has found that novice teachers, both general and special education teachers, often feel unprepared to work with and engage parents in practice. When teachers are equipped with communication skills that allow them to offer support and resources to parents as they navigate the special education system and to share and disseminate knowledge to parents, it is parents who gain an opportunity to advocate for themselves and utilize the skillsets, resources, and knowledge of teachers to shape their advocacy on behalf of their children.

What are the curriculum considerations you recommend for teacher preparation programs and state certification programs?

In my recent article, I examine why curriculum for pre-service teachers on parent involvement and advocacy is so critically important. In addition, I offer suggestions for pre-service special education teacher preparation programs, both programs with firmly-established parent involvement or parent engagement coursework and programs with no offerings.

Specifically, I offer three recommendations based upon a body of research that has identified curricular needs for teachers working with and engaging parents and families of students with disabilities.

First, when possible, a stand-alone course or course sequence on parent involvement should be offered, because understanding the importance of parent involvement also requires a foundation in the relevant theory and pedagogical areas that undergird the connection between parent involvement, high-quality instruction, and academic achievement.

Second, fieldwork opportunities that complement student teaching experiences should be integrated into curriculum when possible. Fieldwork opportunities could include working with parents directly while in a student teaching placement or practicum experience, but it could also include opportunities whereby pre-service teachers develop a set of informational materials for parents.

Finally, I recommend that pre-service teachers receive guidance regarding resources on parent involvement, advocacy, and communication that are currently available online and at physical, IDEA-funded Parent Training and Information Centers across the U.S.

How has your work preparing teachers and in the classroom influenced your advocacy?

It is a privilege to be able to work with pre-service teachers each semester. Indeed, my scholarly work is, in many ways, shaped by the experiences of our pre-service and novice special education teachers within the field. In discussing IDEA and parent involvement with my classes, I both help students to understand how to develop an approach to parent involvement and navigate these issues as they arise in their placements and in their careers going forward.

Also, I benefit from the stories that they share about their experiences in their placements. Accordingly, it is imperative to continue to consider their experiences. Moreover, another related consequence is a continued focus on how teachers can best involve parents and help parents advocate for themselves and their children within the special education and service delivery process.