You can learn a lot about your students’ abilities from prior work, testing, and records. But records alone aren’t the best way to learn who your students are. Getting to know your students in a way that builds meaningful connections and authentic relationships comes from gathering information directly from primary sources — students and their families.
Sometimes it’s hard to find the right questions to ask about students who learn and think differently. That’s where student and family questionnaires come in handy. If you think of yourself as an investigator, these questionnaires are tools to help you crack the case. They give you an opportunity to ask and learn about a students’ strengths, interests, and challenges.
Interviewing students’ families can help you gather clues and begin a healthy partnership in support of your students. They know what brings their child joy, what causes frustration, and how the child reacts in different settings. These are insights you don’t have access to without asking. As educators, we know families are the foremost experts on their kids. It’s critical to get their unique perspective before a student starts to struggle.
For teachers of English language learners: The Spanish version of the questionnaire can help you better understand Spanish-speaking families. This way, you can find more effective ways to teach English language learners in school. No matter the home language, keep in mind that families from some cultures may be more comfortable speaking with you than others, especially when discussing disabilities. You may want to use a word like challenges when referring to disabilities to allow families to be more open to discussing their kids' issues. Also, if the family prefers to speak in person or by phone, arrange to use translation services (such as a colleague or a translation tool), if necessary.
Administering the questionnaires
The best time to give out the questionnaires is at the beginning of the school year. This way you can start the year with as much information as possible. The questionnaires are also handy in advance of parent-teacher conferences, back-to-school night, or other meetings. No matter when you use them, be sure to let students and families know that the information will be kept private.
You can administer the questionnaires in one of two ways: First, you can invite students and families to write their responses. Be sure to explain the purpose of the exercise. Invite them to ask about the wording or intent of the questions. In this case, you can also offer to have a follow-up meeting or phone call to discuss the responses.
Or you can schedule a time to ask the questions in face-to-face conversations. These discussions often provide you with better information. They also give you a chance to read the questionnaire with struggling students.
The questions will help you focus on gathering specific pieces of information. That said, be open to going off script so students and family members can elaborate on responses or raise other issues. Sometimes the most important information comes not from the answer to a question, but from the moments you pause to allow others to share what’s on their mind.
“In administering the questionnaire about likes and interests, it may be beneficial for the student’s understanding to have a checklist or a list of examples, because there may be some students who struggle with vocabulary or idea formulation. My student did not know the word for trampoline, so he just reported that he likes to jump. When I clarified this with the caregiver, she told me that he meant trampoline — and I made the connection that this student was enrolled in our afterschool program.” — Denise Panaligan, middle school teacher in California and Understood Teacher Fellow
“I told my student I wanted his honest opinion about everything before we started and I sat with him. When he had difficulty, I could prompt him with other questions so that he could think about them a little deeper. I could also see and feel his emotions when responding to the questions. Having this conversation did a lot for our relationship. I am also planning on following up on the parent survey during parent-teacher conferences.” — Ashlee Upp, third-grade teacher in Delaware and Understood Teacher Fellow
Putting the information to work
The questionnaires are only as useful as what you do with the responses. After using them in her classroom, Melissa Sandler, a third-grade teacher in Maryland and an Understood Teacher Fellow, shared the following tips about how to maximize the information you gather:
- Let students and families know you reviewed their responses carefully.
- Refer to the questionnaires as talking points during parent-teacher conferences and other communication.
- Offer ideas for how you’ll act on the information.
- Translate those ideas into classroom practice as soon as possible.
Reflect on your practice: In what other ways do you gather information from students and families? Which methods have been the most successful, and why?
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Rayma Griffin, MA, MEd has spent her 40-year career advocating for the rights of children with learning and thinking differences, both in the classroom and as an educator.