Special Education Classroom Observation

“Can I observe my child’s classroom?” I’ve been hearing this one a lot lately. And unfortunately, this issue often brings out the pitchfork crowds and a plethora of bad IEP advice. So, rather than having parents pursue options that aren’t really options, I wanted to give you some clarity and options on what to do.

Rather than follow the chants of “That’s illegal, it’s a parent’s right to visit the classroom!” let’s take a moment and think this through.

a parent observing her child's classroom from behind a closed door

Can parents observe a classroom?

Whenever I hear parents say that they want to do special education classroom observation, I have the same inner alarms go off as when a parent asks, “Is that teacher even qualified?”

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Questions to ask:

  • What do I hope to gain by observing the classroom?
  • Is there another way to obtain this data or information?
  • Will my observation be an accurate picture of daily school activities?

Do parents have the right to visit classrooms?

Short answer, yes. ESEA does allow for this. IDEA says nothing about it. Neither does FERPA. So what are the rules for parents visiting classrooms?

Can a parent observe a classroom under FERPA?

No. However, FERPA does not prohibit a parent from visiting a classroom either. And that is often the excuse. What you want to look at is ESEA, not FERPA. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states:

Rules for Parents Visiting Classrooms

ESEA mentions this and allows for it, but unfortunately does not offer any rules for parents visiting classrooms. You’ll have to look to school policy for that. Again, if school policy doesn’t allow it, you’re going to have to go up the chain of command, up to and including possibly filing complaints or lawsuits.

ESEA Section 8101 Definitions

(39) PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT- The term ‘parental involvement’ means the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities, including ensuring —

(A) that parents play an integral role in assisting their child’s learning;

(B) that parents are encouraged to be actively involved in their child’s education at school;

(C) that parents are full partners in their child’s education and are included, as appropriate, in decision making and on advisory committees to assist in the education of their child;

(D) the carrying out of other activities, such as those described in Section 1116.

Section 1116 Parent and Family Engagement


[…] each school served under this part shall jointly develop with parents for all children served under this part a school-parent compact. […] Such compact shall —

(2) address the importance of communication between teachers and parents on an ongoing basis through, at a minimum —

(A) parent-teacher conferences in elementary schools, at least annually, during which the compact shall be discussed as the compact relates to the individual child’s achievement;

(B) frequent reports to parents on their children’s progress; and

(C) reasonable access to staff, opportunities to volunteer and participate in their child’s class, and observation of classroom activities; and

(D) ensuring regular two-way, meaningful communication between family members and school staff, and to the extent practicable, in a language that family members can understand.

Parents in the Classroom

My son’s elementary school has over 1500 students. Imagine if every parent wanted to visit and observe the classroom! What a major disruption that would be.

But my child has special needs or an IEP. Ok, I hear you. Even using just the kids with IEPs, that’s probably about 250 kids in my son’s school. With the PA school year only 180 days, that means that just about every day, there could be a parent in the school observing.

How to Observe a Child in the Classroom

If your child sees you, they likely are not going to act as they usually do. Their behavior will either be better or worse, but it’s not very likely that it will be business as usual. Also, if staff know you are coming, or even once they see you arrive, it is likely that they will be on their best behavior. If you planned a “gotcha!” you’re not likely to get it. (and I’m wildly against trying to get gotcha moments anyway, very poor practice)

Make sure you have a clear goal and defined time frame for your special education classroom observation. Make sure it’s a class or activity that you want to see. Put your request in writing.

Parent Observation in the Classroom

Whether or not you think it is, I’m telling you that it is disruptive for parents to visit classrooms. Even my typical child notices this, and will tell me the days that the principal came in to observe the classroom.

Check your school’s policy. If they have a visitation policy, follow it. If they don’t have one, ask the principal what it is. Submit your request in writing.

It would seem to be bad PR and it could appear that they are hiding something if the school doesn’t allow you sit in a child’s classroom. That isn’t necessarily the case. They likely just do not want the disruption of parents coming in, and that is reasonable.

You know what? I don’t want my son’s school day interrupted by you visiting either. If my son started reporting that there was frequently a parent standing in the corner watching, I’d have a problem with that and would likely contact the teacher.

Class Observation: What’s the End Goal?

While you ask “Can I sit in my child’s classroom?” ask other questions too.

You hope to learn….what? What is it that you want to see? Can you brainstorm of other ways to obtain that information? Or, if your child has a home behavior team, can they go in and observe in a more clinical manner with less disruption? Also, as a special education advocate, I have gone into classrooms to observe what is going on. You may want to consider that.

You may just want to brainstorm or strategize on some SDIs or supports to help your child in the classroom. That’s certainly reasonable, but see if there is a way you can do it without disrupting the classroom. A parent observation in the classroom isn’t the only way to get the information.

A matter of trust.

Bottom line…..most of the time that I hear parents wanting to observe and being prohibited from doing so, it’s due to a lack of trust. The parent does not trust the teacher, the 1:1, the team…someone at the school. In my experience, your parent observation in the classroom for 30-60 minutes to watch the classroom is not going to change that.

Look deeper within and ask yourself why there is this mistrust? Is it lack of progress? Is it your child telling you of things going on? Better to just confront those head on: “My child is reporting XYZ, and I would like us to meet to see what we can do to resolve it.” Keep it focused on what your child is or isn’t receiving, rather than what staff are or aren’t doing.

Parents Not Allowed in School

You still want to visit a classroom or know the rules for visiting a classroom.

I’ve looked, and cannot find any case law behind this. It is mentioned in ESSA, but not clarified as far as terms or circumstances. Almost all disability and special ed law is complaint based, which means that nothing happens until a citizen files a formal complaint. So you’re going to have to look up your state regs and do just that. Or contact an attorney. Is this really the way you want to proceed?

But, is this the hill you want to die on? Once you start arguing and pushing for the right to observe the classroom (which in my experience is not going to be valuable anyway) you have changed the focus. The focus is no longer on your child’s needs, but you wanting to watch the classroom. I prefer to keep the focus on my child.

As one of our Facebook group admins has said, “I wasted a lot of time focused on little details that I couldn’t change because I did not know what else to fight for.

My guess is that this is not the hill they want to die on either. And that they will eventually concede to allowing you to observe even if they’ve previously said no. But, they do not have to allow it unannounced and you should not expect that. Again, I do not think you will get the information you are seeking. And you could damage your relationship with the school in the process. Make sure it’s worth it.

Other things you may want to try instead:

  • a private meeting with just the teacher (and 1:1 if they have one)
  • Are there video cameras in the classroom that you can watch?
  • meet with your child’s school/home behaviorist about this
  • consider having advocate or behaviorist watch instead
  • look into other evaluations that might give you the data you need
  • meet with your child and ask them what they think
  • brainstorm with other parents
  • read over lists of SDIs and suggestions

My child has rights too.

As a parent of a child with an IEP and a taxpayer myself, I have rights. I have the right to expect that my kids’ classrooms are run well and with limited disruptions. I do not think that merely being a taxpayer and/or having an IEP gives you carte blanche access to your kids’ classrooms whenever you want. Or for however as long as you want. I do not think that is reasonable.

A mom once commented “well, I don’t want my kids in a school where I’m not welcome!” It’s not a matter of being welcome. I’m sure you’re welcome, but are you being reasonable about it? In either of my kids’ classrooms, I don’t want a constant parade of parents observing them. And that is a reasonable request. Because very likely, the information you are seeking can be obtained without disrupting my kids’ school days. And that’s something to consider too.

Good luck with whatever you choose!

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