Often, families don't know that services exist or that their youth is eligible. It's critical for professionals and schools to introduce these services.
LEARN: Develop your knowledge
Learn how to evolve your outreach strategies to ensure equitable access to services.
How do you ensure that all families feel welcome and part of the planning and support process? Not all families are able or equipped with the information to be partners in education or employment. However, engaged families with high expectations are associated with improved outcomes for people with disabilities. Trust that families want what's best for their loved one as you implement creative ways to engage all families.
To develop an informed outreach strategy, use data to determine your target population.
What are the demographics of your target population?
Who are your services reaching now?
Who are your services missing? Are certain geographic areas or cultural communities under-represented?
Then, use data to measure impact.
Set outreach targets to track.
Review data regularly to measure impact and make adjustments along the way.
To build effective outreach strategies, it's important to understand the needs and concerns of the families you serve.
Hold listening sessions. Use these sessions to discover what's important to and for families so you can build meaningful programming, messaging and engagement.
Attend a local Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC). SEAC (pronounced "seek") is a group of parents and guardians who provide input on special education issues to the local school district. Each school district has a SEAC, and each SEAC may have their own mission and structure.
As you develop outreach strategies:
Use varied communication styles. Traditional methods of communicating with families, such as paper notices or email, are passive and not always effective in establishing working relationships. Explore creative ways to establish communication, keeping in mind that not all families have access to the internet or have an easy time with jargon or information written in English. For example, can use you use visual media that's translated to reach diverse families? Does your program allow text messaging as a form of communication? Can you use virtual meetings or smart phone apps to create more convenient communication?
Consider nontraditional hours. Families may find it difficult to participate in key meetings during weekday business hours. Many businesses, such as medical offices, now offer appointments later on weekdays or on weekends. This same spirit of customer service can be applied to education and disability service programs. Consider reserving IEP meeting slots in the early evening to reach families who work during the day, or holding informational meetings on the weekends when it may be easier for families to attend.
Leverage your partners. Family engagement isn't something education and disability service programs need to tackle alone. Minnesota is rich with community-based organizations that serve and advocate for people with disabilities and those from multicultural populations. These organizations are trusted sources of information for many families who are weary of formal service systems. Build partnerships with local advocacy and community agencies to help you contact hard-to-reach families. For example, you can include information in a local family network organization's newsletter or social media. In addition, many counties in Minnesota have outreach and support programs that may have access to families not connected to formal services. Developing a collaborative relationship with trusted partners can also help you learn and adapt to changing needs and concerns in the community.
Try community-based or home meetings. Some families may be reluctant to attend meetings at schools or government buildings. They may have had negative experiences in school themselves or are worried about issues with citizenship status. Instead, try holding key meetings in welcoming public spaces or at partner organization sites. For example, a restaurant that serves a certain cultural community would make a great place to meet. You could also host a dinner in the community with activities and childcare. If your policies allow, consider home visits. This is a good way to build trust with a family so they feel more comfortable attending meetings in your space in the future.
Focus on equity. Education and disability service policies and practices are increasingly examined through the lens of equity. How do these systems address disproportionate use of diagnoses and restrictive practices for certain populations? How can systems better understand inherent bias or perceived disincentives to accessing services? Families may not view education or disability supports as something they can or want to access due to policies and practices being rooted in a white, middle class, medical model. To learn more, check out this diversity, equity, and inclusion resource snapshot guide (PDF) from the Disability Employment TA Center.
Honor the individual nature and cultures of families. Consider strategies to structure services and supports based on what a family needs rather than one-size-fits-all options. This might mean examining your own beliefs about multicultural or socioeconomic groups, respecting religious holidays and cultural traditions, and revising paperwork, orientations and key meetings to allow for a reciprocal exchange of ideas. To learn more, check out working with culturally diverse families from the PACER Center.
Create clear, responsive messaging to increase impact. For example:
Keep outreach messages positive and strengths-based.
Align messages to what matters to parents.
Connect the importance of transition planning to a loved one's quality of life.
Families who recently completed transition can be great ambassadors for your services.
Recruit parents and youth who recently completed transition to help get the messages out or perhaps lead family workshops or events. Hearing from families who worked through some of the same concerns can improve engagement and comfort.
You can also:
Share this family engagement video (13:06) developed by the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council as part of your outreach efforts. It's a great way to help families open their minds to new possibilities.
Think about how to connect with community partners. Minnesota has a wide variety of community-based organizations that support families and individuals with specific disabilities and/or those from certain cultural groups. There are potential partners for to build family to family support efforts.
Leverage the real-life experience of your staff. Strive to hire family members of people with disabilities or those who have previous experience supporting families. This will create a natural family-to-family connection with any family accessing services as well as bring a family perspective into the program.
DO: Work with families
Find resources to share with families in your outreach.
Hearing from families who have worked through similar concerns can improve engagement. As you connect with families, share this family engagement video (13:06) developed by the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council. It's a great way to help families open their minds to new possibilities.
To encourage family connections:
Create virtual meeting spaces through social media. Promote the opportunity as a safe space to share and learn. If possible, assign a neutral party or staff member to moderate the interactions and posts. Use the platform to host regular training sessions as well as encourage open sharing.
Host in-person support groups for family members. This allows for deeper sharing and may be more effective when targeting specific groups, such as those who have loved ones with rare conditions or who were recently diagnosed with a disability.
Conduct in-person training events for parents focused on helping youth with disabilities prepare for success in employment and postsecondary education. This gives families the opportunity to learn from each other as well as get information from experts.
Create a family mentor program. Pair experienced families with those just beginning the transition process.