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Communication Matters

Fairfax County Public Schools Parent Clinic: Collaborating More Effectively With Parents

By Donna Douglas & Jeff Hoffman

Across the country, school psychologists consistently note that one of the most significant challenges they face is effective communication with and outreach to the community, specifically parents. Challenged by the limited available time of working parents, large geographic areas, lack of technological accessibility, and parental lack of awareness of the role of the school psychologist, we frequently must think outside the box for efficient and effective ways to reach the parents of the students we work with daily. School psychologists provide a wide range of services to a variety of students, families, educators, administrators, and community practitioners. Opportunities for consultation abound, enabling us to share our knowledge and expertise regarding assessment, the special education process, social–emotional development, and behavioral functioning. However, it is unrealistic to expect that most parents will come to us to seek out the information to better meet their children’s needs; sometimes you must bring the information to them.

In an effort to expand our relevance and value to the school community, The Department of School Psychology Services in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in Virginia participates each year in the FCPS Special Education Conference, a day-long conference for both educators and families designed to increase families’ understanding of the special education process, provide current information regarding intervention strategies, and increase community awareness of the academic, social–emotional, and behavioral development of our students. School psychologists typically provide conference participants with information regarding school psychological services, respond to parent questions, and serve as presenters on a variety of topics. Following the opportunity to consult informally with a school psychologist at the conference in 2010, one parent commented on the value of such a meeting, indicating that it would be beneficial to parents to have additional opportunities to meet with school psychologists to discuss their concerns. In response to this identified need, the FCPS Department of School Psychology Services offered parents the opportunity to schedule a 30-minute individual consultation with school psychologists approximately 1 month later during the week of spring break. This opportunity was the beginning of the FCPS Parent Clinic.

Following the success of the spring break Parent Clinic pilot program, the Parent Clinic expanded to become a program, joining the variety of services that school psychologists provide to parents over the summer months when school is not in session. A team of school psychologists sketched out the parameters of the program. This included bringing in other professionals such as school social workers to consult with parents as well, when necessary. As each referral appointment is made, a referral sheet with basic information about the student and the presentation problem is initiated. This allows practitioners consulting with the family the ability to prepare ahead of time and gather the necessary resources to share with families. The referral/follow-up form is given to the practitioner to be completed once the session has ended. The clinic was originally designed for two practitioners (which included school psychologists and school social workers) running sessions concurrently 2 days per week. An online survey was created to allow us to have immediate feedback about the quality of the service that was provided. The Web address (http://www .surveymonkey.com/s/8TBLWF2) is sent to parents via e-mail at the end of each session. A press release was crafted, which went out electronically to all parents enrolled in FCPS’s Keep In Touch (KIT) Communication System. FCPS uses KIT to communicate to families and staff emergency, delayed opening and school closing information, attendance, and outreach messages (this includes news and announcements from your child’s school). Basic contact information from the student information system and the employee databases are uploaded to the KIT system. Additionally, parents can subscribe to receive information on specific topics. More information about KIT can be found at http://www.fcps.edu/kit.

The following information was included in the KIT e-mail message:

Supportive consultation is available if your child may be anxious, not sleeping well, a target of bullying, or experiencing other social or emotional issues. Assistance will be available in accessing community resources and referrals for services through county agencies. School psychologists and school social workers can also offer guidance on how to manage challenging behaviors, as well as how to work collaboratively with the school team.

The response from parents following the e-mail blast was immediate and stupendous, with over 100 phone calls the first day alone! Over the course of the summer more than 400 phone calls were fielded, resulting in 165 summer clinic appointments scheduled and attended. The scope of our initial program, two clinicians 2 days per week, had to be completely reconsidered due to demand; there were weeks during the summer where multiple clinicians met with parents all day every day of the week to keep up with the need! Clearly, we tapped into a real need area for our system’s parents. While the concerns varied from consultation to consultation, the areas of concern clustered primarily around two areas: behavior problems at home and behavior problems at school. These accounted for approximately 59% of the total referrals. Repeatedly, parents stated that it was a wonderful opportunity to consult with school system staff trained in behavioral and emotional health who were not directly connected to their children’s schools. In many cases, they were not yet ready to broach some of these topics with the student’s school-based team. The fact that privacy made parents more comfortable to take the first step toward consultation was an important insight for our staff. Like many districts across the country, most school psychologists do not work a full year schedule. One psychologist who does work year-round was the organizer of the clinic, helping with phone calls, appointments, etc. We staffed the clinic on days when school-based practitioners were already scheduled to work a certain number of days over the summer, thereby reducing the cost of running this program to next to nothing.

By the time we gasped our way through the initial summer Parent Clinic program (whew!) we had seen 165 parents of students from preschool through 12th grade, attending both public and private schools! Parent survey results were overwhelmingly positive, indicating that the parents truly valued the time with the clinician. According to exit survey results, more than 80% of parents felt that the clinician provided information that was useful and relevant to their concerns and over 85% indicated that they would recommend the FCPS Parent Clinic to others.

Due to the positive community response, the Parent Clinic concept was adopted by some of the schools in FCPS. It became clear that the opportunity for families to speak with clinicians not attached to their child’s school was a major draw, so the program was adapted and continued during the school year. It has become a part of the services offered at the FCPS Parent Resource Center on a monthly basis. The local press profiled the success of the summer Parent Clinic program in one of the local newspapers as an example of success stories for parent outreach from the school system.

One of the unintentional consequences of the program was the ability to educate a large number of parents about the fact that mental health staff (including school psychologists) were present in our schools. We were able to connect many parents to the school psychologist at their school. Overall, the program far exceeded our modest expectations, and clearly was a valued service offered to parents. It increased our visibility in a school system where school psychologists, due to our small numbers compared to other school staff, can get lost in the crowd. It also helped to illustrate to administrators and other key stakeholders exactly what types of services school psychologists provide. Given these tough economic times it is essential to everything possible to keep ourselves on the radar as valued as professionals in the school system.

The success of the FCPS Parent Clinic demonstrates the critical importance of community outreach. By responding to a need identified by one parent, we were able to reach over 165 additional families and to connect countless others with school and community based resources. Through partnerships with both our social work colleagues and parent liaisons, we have been able to continue our Parent Clinic on a monthly basis throughout the 2010-2011 school year. We have learned that publicity is critical to success and that the FCPS electronic Keep In Touch Communication System was invaluable in helping us to provide families with information regarding this opportunity. As we begin to plan for the upcoming summer Parent Clinic we realize that we can expand this opportunity even further by considering the needs of our culturally diverse community, offering appointments with bilingual school psychologists, and using the services of language interpreters. In addition, we continue to seek immediate feedback from parents regarding the quality of their experience, using that information to inform the process, increase our preparedness, and to expand the scope of our services to the parents and families of FCPS.

Donna Douglas and Jeff Hoffman are school psychologists with the Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia.