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Parental Positioning in Special Education March 12, 2012

Parental Positioning in Special Education

I have always paid particular attention to how the ebb and flow of instruction is directly affected by the quality of collaboration and participation with and by the parents of our students. This is especially evident in the educating of children with special needs. There seems to be an elevated level of anxiety and urgency from each participant when parents, teachers, educators and specialists first gather to plan interventions for a child with special needs. I believe it is critical that, at this early juncture, the parent is made to feel valued, respected and knowledgeable when it comes to the well being of their child.  This will set the tone for future interactions and will establish an environment of trust which will be important – especially if an issue must be discussed that is not popular with all parties.

One article I am featuring in this writing, What Do I Know? Parental Positioning in Special Education by Erin McCloskey (2010), sheds light on the efforts parents put forth to advocate for their children with special needs when dealing with the professionals involved, such as physicians, therapists, teachers and administrators. This article points out that parents, as they interact with the various entities that are involved with their children’s well being, frequently position themselves in such a way as to be active participants as team members.  This was referred to in the article as “reflexive positioning” and is often accepted and supported by the providers.

Conversely, positioning may need to be negotiated when the parent encounters resistance or a conflict of ideas. This is called “interactive positioning” because each party actively negotiates his/her position. An example was given in the article when a parent encountered a physician who did not share her enthusiasm for a particular researcher and his therapy techniques and stated as such in a condescending manner. The parent went in to the appointment in “reflexive positioning” mode, but the doctor’s callous comments turned their interaction in to “interactive positioning”.

McCloskey (2010) goes on to say that defining and understanding this theory of positioning has implications on the training of teachers and other professionals who interact with parents of special needs children. It is important for the aforementioned professionals to know that their choice of words and how they conduct a conversation can enable the positioning efforts of parents, or it can render it ineffective and cause the parent to feel belittled and insignificant.

McCloskey’s (2010) research was conducted in a preschool setting. She determined that when parents are empowered at this stage of their child’s education through successful positioning, they are more likely to continue their efforts to be effective collaborators throughout their child’s education. Ultimately, the child benefits from this positive relationship.

The IDEA Parent Guide, put out by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), states that a parent “can become an informed and effective partner with school personnel in supporting your child’s special learning and behavioral needs.” (2006) Additionally, a parent quote in this guide emphasizes that parents of disabled children must know the law, have good communication skills, and be part of a team. I state this here because parents know that they must be effective advocates for their children. They must, therefore, invest themselves in a way that gives them knowledge and position themselves so that they are heard and respected. This is a tall order for a parent who, at the same time, is anxious, uncertain and scared for their children. We, as teachers, can empathize with these parents and engage in conversations that enable parents positioning rather than stifle it.


McCloskey, E. (2010). What Do I Know? Parental Positioning in Special Education. International Journal of Special Education, v25 n1 p 162-170 .

National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2006). IDEA Parent Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to your Rights and Responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Retrieved  from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED495879.pdf


When I consider the fear and uncertainty parents of children with disabilities must endure, especially in the beginning of the process, I am saddened by the realization that they must sometimes feel like it is “my child and me against the world”. I am also impressed with the strength and fortitude many parents project as they advocate for their children. The more insight I gain regarding the struggles and celebrations experienced by parents in the world of special education, the more value I place on promoting a collaborative partnership with these parents.


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