Special Education: Parent–Professional Collaboration

Collaboration Between Families and Special Education Professionals

Collaboration can be understood as the process of combining efforts and working together to achieve a certain aim (Adams, Harris, & Jones, 2016, p. 59). Consequently, collaboration between parents of children with special educational needs and professionals delivering such education is the process of supportive interaction between these parents and professionals aimed at delivering special education to children to achieve better educational outcomes (Adams et al., 2016; Murray, Curran, & Zellers, 2008; Staples & Diliberto, 2010). For instance, educators may collaborate with parents and teach the latter how to behave with their children while accounting for their special needs (Angell, Stoner, & Shelden, 2009; Staples & Diliberto, 2010). Such collaboration might be rather effective–for example, because many people on their own may not know how to parent children with special needs (Bearss et al., 2015).

It is also important to provide definitions for several key terms. Families of young children with disabilities (FYCD) comprise individuals who play the roles of parents, guardians or similar caretakers for young children (aged 6 years or less; Golya & McIntyre, 2017) who have special educational needs. Simultaneously, special education professionals (SEP) are persons who are certified specialists within the sphere of special education, and have the right to provide special education services for children with disabilities or other special educational needs (Alzahrani & Brigham, 2017; Angell et al., 2009; Hodge & Runswick-Cole, 2008). For instance, biological parents of a 4-year-old child with autism who care after that child are a FYCD; a person who has a M.A. in special education and the necessary documents to provide special education services is a SEP. FYCD and SEP share a common goal of delivering adequate education to children with disabilities.

Multiple studies have investigated collaboration between FYCD and SEP (Bearss et al., 2015; Hsiao, Higgins, Pierce, Whitby, & Tandy, 2017; Šukys, Dumčienė, & Lapėnienė, 2015; Wetherby et al., 2014). More specifically, there is evidence that such collaboration may improve the outcomes of children with disabilities, e.g., when special education professionals instruct parents on how to better care for their offspring. For instance, Bearss et al. (2015) tested an intervention and found collaboration between special educators and parents in the form of parent training and parent education to be effective in lowering disruptive behaviors on part of their children with autism (pp. 1529-1531). Another study by Wetherby et al. (2014) has shown that implementing individual Early Social Interaction interventions aimed at teaching parents to better care for their children with autism may be effective in improving such child outcomes as receptive language skills, communication, etc. Therefore, when parents and SEP work together, this allows for helping parents better care for their children.

Nevertheless, various difficulties might hinder collaboration between FYCD and SEP. Thus, in certain circumstances, there might be barriers to successful FYCD-SEP collaboration. For instance, Šukys et al. (2015) discovered that lower educational level of parents may be associated with lower parental involvement in children education in inclusive education settings, which may be caused by parents’ lacking the needed knowledge to help children with homework, as well as by the possible opinions that teachers know more about educating children, which causes parents to doubt that they can communicate with educators as equals (p. 334). In addition, a study by Pickard, Kilgore, and Ingersoll (2016) shows that such issues as overall complexity of printed or written materials provided for the parents, inflexibility of the manner in which programs are delivered, or difficulties with involving the extended family may also hinder the collaboration between SEP and FYCD. It is paramount to be aware of such barriers if the degree to which they hinder parent-educator collaboration is to be minimized.

The Attitudes of Families of Young Children with Disabilities and Special Education Professionals Towards Collaboration

Attitudes of Parents / FYCD Towards Collaboration

When speaking of parental attitudes towards collaboration with SEP, it should be observed that parents face additional problems and stress when they have children with disabilities (Miodrag, Burke, Tanner‐Smith, & Hodapp, 2014; Woodman, 2014). Such stress may be due to a variety of reasons. For instance, FYCD might be unsure how to properly parent their children, how to care for them; or they may be worried that their offspring will face multiple additional difficulties in their life, and will not become full-fledged members of the community (Šukys et al., 2015). In addition, these parents simply face greater demands from their children when it comes to providing care (Woodman, 2014). Consequently, such parents often face significantly greater stress and sometimes even more health problems when compared to parents of children without disabilities (Miodrag et al., 2014; Woodman, 2014). Consequently, collaboration with special education professional may be pivotal for FYCD also because it may help relieve the stress of parents or other caretakers of the children.

Several studies report that multiple issues pertaining to collaboration between parents and SEP exist (Bitterman, Daley, Misra, Carlson, & Markowitz, 2008; Hodge & Runswick-Cole, 2008; Kayama, 2010; Tucker & Schwartz, 2013). Many of these issues are related to institutional or organizational nuances of providing special education and/or collaborating with SEP. For example, some FYCD might experience problems with the manner in which special education is supplied–for instance, some parents may view the special education services as impersonal, while others may have trouble due to the complexity of the special education services provided, which negatively affects the parents’ attitudes towards their collaboration with SEP (Kayama, 2010, p. 121).

Also, it is stated that parents may be unsatisfied with the time at which the provision of education services often begins (i.e., they believe that these services should have been provided at a younger age; Bitterman et al., 2008). This is especially true for African Americans, in whose families early detection of a disability rarely takes place (Pearson & Meadan, 2018). It is also interesting that, according to Hodge and Runswick-Cole (2008), parents of children with disabilities often experience stress primarily not due to the need to additionally care for their children, because providing adequate education and care for these children involves going through the process of interacting with officials, obtaining the disability status, and collaborating with special educators; it is stressed that such collaboration may be viewed as rather complex by some parents (p. 640). Thus, it is believed that institutional problems may often hinder collaboration between parents and SEP.

There exist some more problems with FYCD-SEP collaboration that are less related to institutional functioning; nevertheless, parents, on the whole, seem to be satisfied with the services that SEP provide. For instance, some parents feel that SEP often have little specific knowledge pertaining to the disability of their children (such as autism; Starr & Foy, 2012; Tucker & Schwartz, 2013). Interestingly, educators themselves sometimes express their concern regarding their level of preparedness to teach children with autism (Alzahrani & Brigham, 2017; Ruppar, Neeper, & Dalsen, 2016).

It is also a problem that SEP often fail to include the parents and FYCD into the process of special education (Tucker & Schwartz, 2013). On the other hand, an interesting finding made by Bitterman et al. (2008) is that children with autism spend significantly more time in special education setting than children with other disabilities, which sometimes becomes a cause for concern for parents, who, although satisfied with the service, may wish their children to spend more time in the general education setting (p. 1515). And yet, when preschool special education services are provided directly for children, parents were found to tend to be satisfied with these services, often rating them as good or excellent (Bitterman et al., 2008; Fish, 2008). Thus, it can be concluded that, while FYCD may be generally satisfied with the education provided by SEP for their children, they might experience multiple additional problems and worries when it comes to organizational issues, as well as to directly collaborating with SEP.

Attitudes of SEP Towards Collaboration

As for the attitudes of SEP towards collaboration with FYCD in special education, these specialists often experience difficulties while attempting to engage in mutual work with families. It is apparent that in many cases, there exist a wide variety of factors that hinder collaboration. For instance, for SEP, school policies and poor strategies for communication might be significant barriers for such mutual work (Soutullo, Smith-Bonahue, Sanders-Smith, & Navia, 2016). When it comes to immigrant families, the latter may often be non-responsive to the communication initiated by the school staff, may not attend various school functions, or simply experience a dearth of resources needed for engagement in schools (Soutullo et al., 2016). In addition, culturally and linguistically diverse families may experience problems with SEP when it comes to culturally-based perceptions on disability, difference in views on the roles of disabled individuals, etc. (Harry, 2008). Also, according to Schultz, Sreckovic, Able, and White, 2016, many parents are not involved enough when it comes to collaboration for educating children with autism, whereas many other parents are too involved in this process, which is a problem for SEP. Thus, it is averred that parental collaboration with the school team, as well as parental advocacy, are needed (Schultz et al., 2016).

Generally speaking, although collaboration between SEP and FYCD is viewed as a highly effective tool that might allow for considerably improving children outcomes, little information is available on the attitudes of SEP towards such collaboration, especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Rather few studies investigating the perceptions of SEP were found. However, it was discovered that some teachers feel underprepared when it comes to collaborating with both general education teachers and with parents of children with disabilities (Hernandez, 2013; Oyler, 2011; Zagona, Kurth, & MacFarland, 2017). Therefore, it is apparent that there is a gap in the current literature when it comes to exploring the perceptions of SEP towards collaboration with FYCD.

It should also be observed that the attitudes of SEP towards collaboration with FYCD may be of great importance with respect to the effectiveness of such collaboration. Although virtually no studies that investigate the importance of SEP’s views on collaboration with families were found, the claim about the importance of such views might be supported indirectly. For instance, Goddard, Goddard, Kim, and Miller (2015) assert that appropriate school leadership may motivate teachers to collaborate, which enhances the outcomes of such collaboration. Generally speaking, the more important collaboration is according to the teachers’ views, the more motivated these teachers will be to collaborate with FYCD (Adams et al., 2016). Therefore, realizing the potential positive impacts of such collaboration on children’s outcomes might serve as a strong motivation for SEP to collaborate with FYCD.

Theoretical Perspectives

Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Systems Theory and Bowen’s Family Systems Theory

This investigation uses the perspectives of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory and of Bowen’s family systems theory. According to Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory, the development of a person is impacted by their interaction with the environment; the latter is conceptualized via employing five different terms to refer to various parts of the environment. These include the microsystem (relationships between individuals, as well as interactions with the immediate surroundings), the mesosystem (interactions between different parts of the microsystem, e.g. between one’s parents and educators), the exosystem (relationships between that parts of the microsystem which do not have a direct impact on a person, but may have an indirect one), the macrosystem (the cultural and social norms and beliefs), and the chronosystem (the events and transitions in one’s environment which take place throughout one’s life; Jaeger, 2016; Vélez-Agosto, Soto-Crespo, Vizcarrondo-Oppenheimer, Vega-Molina, & Coll, 2017). From this perspective, it is apparent that collaboration between SEP and FYCD should be viewed as ones occurring in the mesosystem, which may help to better understand how such collaboration might influence children’s outcomes in Saudi Arabia.

As for the Bowen’s family systems theory, it perceives the family as a single unit the members of which have strong emotional ties to one another, which results in their emotional interdependence (Brown, 2016; Haefner, 2014). This allows family members to better cooperate and aid each other (Brown, 2016; Haefner, 2014). Therefore, it is apparent that collaborating with FYCD may help these families to better interact with their children and assist them, for the ties between different family members and these children might be altered to achieve better child outcomes.


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