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Special needs: Communication log tips for school

Maureen used to be obsessed with baseball -- and then she had children. After she welcomed her son, Charlie, and his extra chromosome, she discovered her passion for writing about Down syndrome and disability-related issues.

With two...

Two-way communication

When I sent my toddler with Down syndrome off to preschool, I agonized over the hours he would spend without me, the one person who knew all his signs and the trillions of nuanced facial expressions he uses to communicate. Then we learned about his daily communication log.
Boy with down syndrome working with his teacher | Sheknows.com
Photo credit: Erna Vader/E+/Getty Images

Charlie's preschool teacher showed us the communication log she would include in his folder. Every day. The clouds parted and I could feel the warmth of hope in my heart.

Almost a year later, his teacher and I have shared highs, lows and frustrations by using the log, and it's been reassuring and informative. For other parents of children with special needs, communication logs can help make or break the trust between a parent and a child's school support system. Here are some dos and don'ts from experts — teachers who have been there and parents who have signed that.

Dos for parents

  • Make it easy. "Purchase the notebook and put the goals in it for the teacher," suggests Norma Honeycutt, executive director of Partners in Learning in Salisbury, North Carolina.
  • Choose a format that makes sense for your child and takes into consideration how much time the teacher will have to complete the form. "Remember that teachers won't have time to write much every day, so come up with a form/log that helps expedite the process and still gives you the information you want/need regarding your student's day," recommends Amy Allison, executive director of the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City.
  • Be clear about your expectations and, if possible, have the communication log included as a requirement in your child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP). "Figure out exactly what you want to know and also what the teacher feels is most important to know," recommends Cory Sutherlin, who teaches a first-grade inclusion class.
  • Share home events that might affect your child’s behavior (e.g., a pet's death, parent traveling). Also share positive events so teachers and therapists can reference them (e.g., went to the beach, helped dad paint the fence). "I typically write in the notebook Monday morning with the weekend events so that if [my daughter] is trying to relay a story they will be able to understand her," shares Terri Leyton, whose daughter has Down syndrome. "The [speech therapist] used to use those stories for conversation during their sessions."
  • Stay involved. "Check it every day, praise all concerned when they complete it, write back notes of encouragement and thank you for all they do," Honeycutt adds.

Don'ts for parents

  • "Don’t make it too time-consuming, don’t get angry when there is a sub and it doesn't get done or an occasional slip on the teacher (occasional being the key word)," Honeycutt shares. "It's a time-consuming thing even for a teacher who has done it before, much less one who has never done one," adds Stephanie Young, who advocates for her children and others. "The biggest problem I see is not what should go in one or how formal it should be, the problem is just getting it done."
  • Don't freak out if you miss a day. "Try not to get bent out of shape," says Christy Dula, whose son has Down syndrome. Teachers have busy days, too.
  • Don't address major concerns through the log. Reach out by phone or in person.
  • "Don't get discouraged and don't give up," Young says. "Be patient and always be kind with your reminders — and of course put your reminders in writing every time."
  • "Don't be a victim of your child's school district, be their champion," adds Young. "Let them know you want your child to be their success story, their banner student — and you are here to be the bridge between the school district and your child to make sure that happens."
  • Don't underestimate the value of your communication. "I love the daily folders," Sutherlin says. "I check them every morning. Parents relay information ranging from how students will get home to what emergency they faced the night before. I also add notes when needed. To me, this is the best form of quick communication."

Dos for teachers

  • Consider a single worksheet instead of sending the entire log home every day. "When working with a parent that may not be as involved and may not bring the book back if they take it, a daily sheet could be done and given to the parent at the end of the day with the child's goals, how they were worked on that day and an idea for the parent to do with the child," Honeycutt recommends.
  • Sign your name! "Someone wrote in [my daughter's] journal last week and I have no idea who it was," says Larina Pierce, whose daughter has Down syndrome. If multiple people will use the log, make sure everyone initials their own comments.
  • Have fun with it. "I love hearing about [my son's] funny stories or his odd times to fall asleep," Dula says. "Even the Post-it notes telling me he didn't have a potty issue, but instead decided to dump his juice cup all over."
  • Discuss opinions in person, Honeycutt recommends. "For example, the teacher should not write, [your child] had a good or bad day. What does that mean? [Comments] need to be specific and related to the child's IEP/IFSP (Individualized Family Services Plan) goals."
  • Engage parents. Leyton's daughter's second-grade class receives weekly updates from the teacher summarizing lesson plans and school events. "In addition, the teacher sends home a data notebook weekly. It has student work samples in it, along with a sort of progress report. The parents have to write a note to their child showing that the parents have actually looked at the notebook."
  • Recognize the context your notes provide. "As [our son] got older… we moved to a communication log that documents what he does during the day," shares Jill Wagoner, whose son has Down syndrome. "We find it very helpful because [our son] tells us about his day in words and phrases, but it's hard to put into context. If I ask what he did today and he says 'red bird,' does that mean he saw a red bird, read a book about a red bird, made a picture of a red bird during art? But if I have notes about the day often I can translate what he's saying and in turn ask more questions about his day."

Don'ts for teachers

  • "Don't sugar coat it," says Julie Camfield, whose son has autism. "You are not expected to make a good day happen every time."
  • Don't use the communication log as a rap sheet. "No matter how bad a day the child has had, the teacher needs to find one positive thing to say," advises Matilda, whose son has Down syndrome.
  • Don't think anything is too small to share. "[My son] is non-verbal so I don't get anything from him," shares Jenny Winjum. "I've asked school to tell me little trivial things about his day as well as the big things. Are they practicing for a concert? What did he love for lunch today? Did a friend do something super nice for him today? Did he feel like slacking off today?"
  • Don't hesitate to pick up the phone. "I try to make phone calls or send emails when something amazing happens, or even something out of the ordinary that may or may not be a concern," Sutherlin explains. "The reason for that is that I can do those from home," she explains, instead of trying to pack everything into each child's communication log every day.

Read more about special needs

When families fail parents of children with special needs
My sibling with disabilities embarrasses me
Art therapy to treat ADHD in children

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