Most educators would agree that striving for a collaborative relationship between parents of children with special needs and educators is a worthwhile endeavor. Strong partnerships between school and home enable our at risk students to learn from informed, respectful, and invested team members. What I hope to offer in this writing is a deeper understanding as to why parent-educator collaboration is essential in the Special Education setting, how it has evolved over time, what it looks like, how educators can promote collaboration, and what educators can do if collaboration breaks down.
Collaboration is Essential
Fostering effective collaboration as an educator is a purposeful, and often labor intensive, process that is not always smooth and natural. It requires patience, open communication, empathy and respect from all parties. We know we need to do it, but why, exactly? Probably one of the most compelling reasons is simple – It’s what is best for kids and research supports this. Seligman (2000) references numerous publications that support the notion that school environments that are rich with strong parent-educator partnerships are more likely to foster accelerated academic progress. Current literature also reflects that parents of children with special needs can provide information that is vital to the planning and implementation of their child’s educational program (McCloskey, 2010). The more information that is available to teams as they plan interventions for a child with a disability, the more likely it will be that the child’s needs are met. Additionally, as Seligman (2000) states, parents who participate in intervention planning are more likely to honor the plan rather than undermine it.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first introduced in 1990, is another factor to consider when setting up systems that foster parent-educator collaboration. In short, parent involvement is the law. IDEA increased the role of parents in their child’s education and incorporates specific language that requires educators to actively involve the parent in the planning of interventions as well as report the child’s progress on a regular basis. According to IDEA, educators must give parents advance notice of IEP meetings, inform them of the purpose of the meetings, and let them know who will be attending. The meeting time and place must be mutually agreed upon and the school must provide interpretation services if necessary. A copy of the IEP in its entirety must be provided to parents as well (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).
The Evolution of Collaboration
Inviting and encouraging parent participation in the process of developing and implementing an intervention plan has not always been a popular idea. Fine and Gardner (1994) found that professionals in past decades commonly considered parents incapable of contributing useful information to teams and discouraged their involvement. Sometimes they even identified parents as the cause of the child’s problem. The dominating school of thought was that parents should leave such diagnostic decision making to the professionals. Parents who tried to become involved were considered overbearing and domineering.
Parent participation became a bit more common in 1975, after the passage of PL 94-142, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, and even more so in 1990 when IDEA came in to play. However, change did not come overnight and there were, and still are, hurdles to overcome. Currently, the timing of meetings is often difficult for parents to accommodate. Parents are frequently intimidated by attendees at IEP meetings and feel inadequate in the presence of professionals in the field. Also, decisions are sometimes made even before the parent joins the meeting (Fine and Gardner, 1994).
Just as parent involvement has evolved over several decades, so can it evolve, develop, and be strengthened throughout the duration of the parent-educator relationship in a specific case. Fine and Gardner (1994) point out that a parent’s perspective during the early stages of a child’s diagnosis is very different from that of a parent who has had time to adjust and gain knowledge about a particular condition. Families of children with a new diagnosis may be overwhelmed and dependent and need encouragement as they move towards a collaborative partnership with educators. As parents interact within the world of special education over a period of time, they often become savvy to the routines of meetings, evaluations, therapy, legal documents, and other aspects of the system (McCloskey, 2010). If parents have had good, collaborative experiences with educators by this point, a firm foundation for continuing a beneficial partnership has been set.
Steps to Collaboration
Setting up a system that invites parent collaboration and presenting a program that reflects this collaboration is an ongoing process and share many of the same characteristics. Most of the steps described in this section serve to both promote increased parent involvement as well as reflect it.
Creating an atmosphere of trust, respect, and open communication from day one is essential if educators wish to promote a partnership with parents of children with special needs. Joyce Reynolds-Ward (2012), a special education professional attending Portland State University, suggests that educators start the year off by putting the families of Special Education students at ease through an informal open house. This provides a venue for parents to interact with school personnel and other families without the pressure of a formal meeting. She also recommends that special education teachers made direct contact with families of students with complex cases at the beginning of the year. This is an opportunity to gather important information on the student regarding any changes over the summer as well as to relay new information about the school and/or program. Teachers should become familiar with community resources in order to be able to refer families to supportive organizations as needed. Attending students’ extracurricular events, encouraging in-class participation, and meeting parents at the door each morning are still more ways that educators can connect with the families of students (Reynolds-Ward, 2012).
A simple and routine communication system is essential to an effective partnership. Reynolds-Ward (2012) advises that one IEP case manager should serve as the main point of contact for the team. The student’s general education teacher will change each year but the case manager remains constant. Also, communication notebooks, planners, newsletters, regular emails and phone calls are additional techniques educators can put into place to keep communication flowing.
It is important to plan and adhere to a timeline as close as possible when planning interventions and setting goals. Communicate with parents when the inevitable disruptions and changes occur. Openly discuss any program constraints, if any, that you think are relevant to a student’s case. Likewise, listen and be understanding if parents also experience time constraints or struggle with program logistics.
Taking the time and effort to understand the family dynamics of a disabled student’s home life can strengthen parent-educator collaboration. It can reveal areas where a family may have strengths as well as areas where the family may be in need of support. Fine and Gardner (1994) describe several factors to consider when professionals work with children with disabilities and their families. Does the family have an adequate support network? Are other stressors present such as financial difficulties, separated or divorced parents, or other siblings? Are there cultural or ethnic factors to consider? Fine and Gardner (1994) point out that, while the cultural background of a family is important to know about, it should be factored in only after the family is considered as individuals themselves. This will help to avoid overgeneralization.
IEP meetings often reflect just how collaborative a relationship is between educators and parents. Fine and Gardner (1994) describe 6 characteristics of meetings that demonstrate effective collaboration. These are:
- Participation is voluntary
- There is parity among participants
- Members share common goals
- All members share in discussion and decision making
- There are shared resources
- There is shared accountability
Discord in any of these characteristics can compromise a partnership.
Fine and Gardner go on to say that only those professionals considered central to the student’s plan should be in attendance at IEP meetings. This will encourage greater participation on the part of the parents and reduce the chances that parents will feel intimidated. The use of professional terminology should be kept simple and care should be taken to avoid language that could be construed as putting blame on others. The careful choosing of words should also be practiced when discussing a student’s case with involved colleagues outside of the IEP meeting.
Mediation and Due Process
Even in a healthy parent-educator relationship, divergent opinions and conflicts are likely to occur. If an atmosphere of mutual respect has been established then it is more likely that participants will feel safe to express different or unpopular viewpoints (Fine & Gardner, 1994). This is beneficial to the team and, ultimately, to the student with special needs because it allows more ideas to be shared, even those considered to be “out of the box”.
What steps should be taken when disputes arise between parents and educators that compromise the progress of the student’s IEP? Depending on what the dispute entails, educators should sincerely try to understand and respect the wishes of the parent if they lie within the parameters of what the school and district can accommodate. Parents may wish to invite a family member, friend, or other advocate to attend the IEP meeting with them in order to further clarify their viewpoint. Schools can also bring in a district representative with specialized skills and a talent for effective communication to provide support for parents and educators both (PACER Center, 2004).
If these attempts to resolve the conflict are unsuccessful, IEP teams may opt to have a specially trained, independent party mediate the process. Mediation is provided through the U.S. Department of Education (2004) and is at no cost to either the family or the school. The process must be voluntary on the part of both parties, must not be used to deny or delay a parent’s right to due process, be mediated by a trained facilitator, and any resolution must be written out, signed by both parties, and legally binding.
If none of the above options are successful, the dispute may necessitate a due process hearing as provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. Other options to resolve the conflict should be exhausted by this point as due process involves legal expenses, considerable time, as well as additional stress.
There is extensive training available that prepares teachers to effectively plan and deliver instruction as well as to assess student progress. There seems to be very little teacher training, however, in effective parent-teacher collaboration and communication, especially as it pertains to parents and teachers of children with special needs. As stated earlier in this paper, current research supports that student progress is enhanced when effective parent-educator collaboration is in place (Seligman, 2000). It would make sense, then, that teacher preparation programs and professional development opportunities would reflect this trend. I anticipate that this will soon be the case.
As the title indicates, this paper is focused on what we, as educators, can do to enhance the parent-educator partnership. I feel both heartened and empowered as I realize that we have much to offer in this process. I do not, however, believe that it all rests in the hands of the teacher. The notion that parents play an equal and reciprocal role in promoting effective collaboration certainly is worthy of further investigation and research. Such a notion is at the very heart of a partnership, after all.
Fine, M. J., & Gardner, A. (1994). Collaborative consultation with families of children with
special needs: why bother? Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 5(4), 283-308.
McCloskey, E. (2010). What Do I Know? Parental positioning in special education. International Journal of Special Education, v25 n1 p 162-170 .
PACER Center. (2004). Facilitated IEP Meetings. Retrieved from
Reynolds-Ward, J. (2012, February 15). Re: Building better relationships between schools and
parents of special needs students [Blog message]. Retrieved from http://childswork.com/blog/2012/02/building-better-relationships-between-schools-and-parents-of-special-needs-students/
Seligman, M. (2000). Conducting effective conferences with parents of children with disabilities.
New York, New York: The Guilford Press
U.S. Department of Education. (2004) Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004. (Part 300, sections D
and E). Retrieved from http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view/p/%2Croot%2Cregs%2C300%2C
As I research the topic of effective parent-teacher collaboration, I realize it is so much more than just good communication. It is a genuine attempt to connect with the families of students, honor their input and vast experience, and recognize that all members of the team have the same goal in mind – that is to bring students to their full potential. It is also recognizing that the knowledge and resources of the group together is much more productive than the knowledge and resources of each person individually.