Measuring the Quality of Family-Professional Partnerships in Special Education Services

By Summers, Jean Ann; Hoffman, Lesa et al. | Exceptional Children, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Measuring the Quality of Family-Professional Partnerships in Special Education Services


Summers, Jean Ann, Hoffman, Lesa, Marquis, Janet, Turnbull, Ann, Poston, Denise, Nelson, Louise Lord, Exceptional Children


The importance of establishing positive partnerships between families and professionals in education has long been recognized (Summers, Gavin, Hall, & Nelson, 2003). Parent involvement has been consistently related to students' cognitive development and academic achievement (Desimone, 1999; Halle, Kurtz-Costes, & Mahoney, 1997; Simon, 2001; Trusty, 1999). In special education, the importance of positive partnerships is further reinforced in federal policy, which mandates parental involvement in educational decision making through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; Turnbull & Turnbull, 2001).

We use the term partnerships to encompass overlapping concepts described in the literature: collaboration, service integration, multidisciplinary teams, family or parent involvement, and, to some extent, family-centered services. We define partnerships as mutually supportive interactions between families and professionals, focused on meeting the needs of children and families, and characterized by a sense of competence, commitment, equality, positive communication, respect, and trust (Blue-Banning, Summers, Frankland, Nelson, & Beegle, 2004). Dunst and Paget (1991) listed six similar characteristics of partnerships: mutual contributions, shared responsibility, desire to work together, loyalty and trust, full disclosure, and agreement that parents are the final decision makers. The literature on parent involvement (e.g., Epstein & Lee, 1995) describes family or parental responsibilities toward partnerships with professionals. Less well understood are the attitudes or behaviors of professionals, characterized as a "collaborative helping style" (Dunst, Trivette, & Johanson, 1994, p. 198) needed to establish a positive partnership with families. That is the focus of the current work.

UNDERSTANDING PARTNERSHIPS

Too often partnerships between families and professionals fall short of recommended practice. Partnerships are often a source of stress and concern for both parents and professionals (Summers et al., 2003). For example, parents describe problems communicating with their child's teacher (Blue-Banning et al., 2004), believe that professionals fail to understand and respect cultural differences (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999), perceive that getting appropriate and inclusive services for their child is a "forever and ongoing struggle" (Soodak & Erwin, 2000, p. 36; Soodak et al., 2002), and feel blamed and judged for their child's problems (Osher & Osher, 2002). Professionals report they are not adequately prepared to work with families, are not comfortable working with families, and/or are not supported by the school administration in their relationships with families (Brand, 1996; Katz & Bauch, 1999; Tichenor, 1997).

Two important steps toward addressing these issues are (a) a better understanding of the skills and behaviors professionals need for a collaborative helping style leading to partnerships with families (Dunst et al., 1994), and (b) the development of appropriate measures to evaluate these skills and behaviors. A better understanding of needed skills and behaviors would enhance training and practice, and appropriate measures would ensure effective evaluation of various intervention models provided within the context of a partnership.

PROFESSIONAL BEHAVIORS RELATED TO PARTNERSHIPS

Much of the available literature about partnership skills for professionals is qualitative and identifies relational or interpersonal factors, such as respect, commitment, and open communication (Dinnebeil & Rule, 1994). Dinnebeil, Hale, and Rule (1996) identified personal characteristics and beliefs considered central to successful collaboration, such as friendliness, family-centered beliefs, integrity, commitment, and communication skills. Summers et al. (2001) found interpersonal factors such as sensitivity to parents, clarity, and respect were valued by parents and staff involved in collaborations between early intervention (Part C of IDEA) programs and Early Head Start. …

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