Collaboration with Families

There are best practices for collaboration with families that use an inclusive approach, reframing disability as diversity and honoring what families bring to the collaboration.

Parents as Co-Equals of the Team

First and foremost, parents must be treated as and believed to be co-equals in the collaborative process. In a study of guardians’ perceptions of the IEP process, Fish (2010) found that guardians had positive perceptions when they were treated as co-equals in the decision making. To position guardians as co-equals, professionals must honor the knowledge and approach that families bring to the table. This often requires acknowledging that certain knowledge and ways of knowing have been constructed in ways that uphold white hegemony (the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group), and actively pushing back. When we apply this to disability, we must recognize that families may have different understandings of disability than those that have been presented here and are in our current repertoire. We must also recognize that as we work to reframe disability, parents will most likely be most familiar with the medical model of disability, as it is the dominant approach in the US and is often what families of individuals must learn to navigate for survival. We need to work to understand how families approach disability and honor that in our collaboration with them. When we value family contributions and treat them as equals in the collaborative process, many of the other best practices we present will fall into place because they will be necessary to carry out an equal and equitable process.

Prioritizing Family Involvement

In order for families of individuals with disabilities to be valuable and co-equal members of the collaborative team, their involvement in all aspects of the process and decision-making has to be prioritized. As Rosetti et al. (2017) explain, although family involvement in the IEP process has been federally mandated for over 40 years, “many families have indicated a lack of collaboration during the IEP process” (Rosetti et al., 2017, p. 329). The collaborative process must prioritize and ensure parental involvement in their children’s education. There are several best practices that may prioritize family involvement.

Plain Language Documents and Communication

In order to be involved in the collaborative process and “make informed educational decisions, families must be able to read and comprehend the information that is given to them by their school” (Fitzgerald & Watkins, 2006). Fitzgerald and Watkins conducted a study that looked at the readability of the documents given to families going through the K-12 public school IEP process and found that only four to eight percent of the documents examined were at the recommended reading level and as much as half of the documents were written at the college reading level or higher (2006). In order to ensure families can be co-equals of the team and can be informed about the process and what it will mean for their children, it is crucial that we provide documents and communicate in plain language that does not require specific training and knowledge of professional jargon. When background knowledge is necessary, this should also be offered for families in order to ensure they are being supported and informed in the collaboration process.

Appropriate Translation

When necessary, it is imperative that families are offered appropriate translation for ALL planned collaborative interactions. If families are seen  as co-equals on the team, then it makes sense they should have the supports necessary to fully participate. Per federal guidance, “schools must communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand about any program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of parents who are proficient in English” (Rosetti et al., 2017). Rosetti et al. (2017) focus on research-based strategies for improving collaboration with families who are culturally and linguistically diverse and emphasize the importance of offering proper translation services to ensure the ability to foster collaboration in all interactions within the IEP process.

Flexible Scheduling

Another practice that is required in order to prioritize family involvement is flexible scheduling that takes into account family work schedules and other responsibilities. “Teachers should ask families about their preferred meeting times and comfort level with the special education process. This conveys willingness to be flexible and supportive within the collaboration” (Rosetti et al, 2017). As we outline above, it is a privilege to have either a work and responsibilities schedule that aligns with the K-12 schedule, or to have the flexibility to adjust work schedule around meetings with the school team.

Parental Barriers to Participation

Our final suggestion for best practice when collaborating with families with children who have disabilities is to look for and be aware of any additional barriers families are facing with regard to collaboration with the team in support of their children. Barriers may be limited available transportation causing an inability to attend in-person meetings, events, etc. There may also be cultural differences in expectations for communication and who should and should not be a part of the decision-making process. It is not enough to be aware of these barriers;  we must work together to mitigate these.

Pause to Reflect!

Discuss the following questions.

  1. Visit a school or early childhood center.
  2. Gather information about how families with children with disabilities collaborate with and are included in communications, translation, scheduling, etc.
  3. Identify best practices and challenges that need to be addressed.
  4. Identify at least two additional recommendations to foster inclusive and collaborative relationships with families with children with disabilities.



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