Collaborating with families is an important part of the job responsibilities of school professionals working with students with disabilities. Parent and family rights are specified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and must be adhered to by all school personnel. But collaborating with families is not only a requirement, it is the right thing to do. "Over 20 years of research and experience [have] demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by strengthening the role of parents and ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home..." [IDEA 97, Findings of Congress, section 601(c) (5) (B)]. As professionals consider developing and enhancing collaborative relationships with parents and families of students with disabilities, the following guidelines should be considered.
Use effective communication strategies in working with families. The use of effective communication skills will facilitate positive working relationships between families and educators. By consciously practicing active listening skills such as paraphrasing, summarizing, and clarifying, educators gain valuable information from family members and validate the importance of family participation in the educational process. Educators must also be aware of the words that they use, avoiding jargon and explaining unfamiliar terms when they sense uncertainty on the part of parents or family members.
Collaborate with families in the development of the IEP. The development of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is an important yearly event in the education of students with disabilities. The goals and objectives agreed upon by the IEP team provide the foundation for the student's educational program for the student for the current year. By seeking verbal and written input from parents or family members, scheduling IEP conferences at times that are convenient for them, and helping them understand the IEP process and their rights, a solid foundation for collaboration can be established.
Value the contributions of parents and family members. While educators may enter the relationship with more formal training and experience than most parents or family members, parents and family members have knowledge and experience gained from living with their child. They want what they believe is best for their child and have developed unique insights and coping skills. By providing opportunities for parents and extended family members to be involved in meaningful ways, the school and the student can benefit.
Take the initiative to develop a truly collaborative relationship with parents and families. Several characteristics of collaborative relationships as described by Friend and Cook (1992) apply particularly to developing collaborative relationships with families of students with disabilities. While schools and families may not agree on all areas, the existence of at least one common goal will facilitate the development of a collaborative relationship (Simpson, 1996). That goal may be helping the student pass the Standards of Learning (SOL) assessment, complete a project, or develop appropriate peer relationships. The recognition that school and home share responsibility for attainment of that goal furthers the collaborative relationship. For example, parents may follow up at home by assisting with homework or providing opportunities for students to meet with peers outside the school setting.
Demonstrate caring and concern for the student and his/her family. Consider the golden rule of parent involvement: Treat parents (and family members) as you would want your child's teacher to treat you (Canter, 1994). How would you want to be spoken to? How would you want to be listened to? In talking with parents of students with disabilities, school personnel might be surprised to find that even highly educated parents find the special education process overwhelming, frustrating, and intimidating. To paraphrase a common saying, parents and family members don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.
By initiating and nurturing collaborative relationships with families of students with disabilities, educators can increase the likelihood of successful outcomes for students. Valuing family contributions, providing opportunities for meaningful involvement, and demonstrating caring and concern for students and families are small actions that can pay big dividends in teacher, student, and family satisfaction with the school program.
Canter, L, & Canter, M. (1994). The high performing teacher: Avoiding burnout and increasing your motivation. Santa Monica, CA: Lee Canter and Associates.
Friend, M., & Cook, L. (1992). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals. New York, NY: Longman.
Simpson, R.L. (1996). Working with parents and families of exceptional children and youth: Techniques for successful conferencing and collaboration (3rd ed). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.