When parents and the professionals who work with their children come together, children with disabilities benefit. The concept of a collaborative partnership between parents and schools in the design and implementation of special education is one of the six principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) established by Congress (Turnbull & Turnbull, 2000). A collaborative partnership may lead to conversations and resolutions, preventing the need for mediation or litigation.
A partnership can be defined as two or more parties working together toward a goal. In order for partnerships to be effective, parties must understand and respect each others’ roles. Both parents and professionals share some roles as providers of information about the child’s strengths and needs and his or her disability. Both parents and professionals are decision makers, observers, project managers and quality control experts.
Blue-Banning, Summers, Frankland, Nelson and Beegle (2004) found that there were six themes of collaborative family-professional partnerships. With an over-arching principle of cultural sensitivity, these themes include: communication, commitment, equality, skills, trust and respect.
Communication should be clear, honest and tactful. Employing strategies such as active listening, where the listener paraphrases what was just said and repeats it back (“So, what you are saying is…”) can be effective in clarifying topics. Another technique called neutral phrasing can create open-ended discussions (“Let’s talk about options…”) while using “I” statements can diminish defensiveness (“I feel…”). All of these options set the stage for brainstorming to occur. From there, practical choices can be made that satisfy everyone’s needs.
Commitment reflects each member’s sense of assurance about each other’s loyalty to the child and belief in the importance of the pursued goals. (Blue-Banning et al, 2004).
Parents are to be equal members of the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) team. Parents can describe what goals are most important to them and their child, share their concerns and suggestions for enhancing their child’s education and give insights into their son’s or daughter’s interests, likes and dislikes, and learning styles. By being an active IEP team member, parents also can add to the IEP planning process with thoughts about long-term needs for the child’s successful adult life.
As equal members of the IEP team, parents can be seen as “experts in the field of their child” just as the team relies on other professionals to be skillful in their areas of expertise. Demonstrating competence and skills deemed as best practices enhance the family-professional collaborative partnership.
When parties respect what each person says and does, as well as how he or she makes decisions, they build confidence in each other. Trust depicts the confidence we feel in placing a situation in another’s hands and hoping that our expectations will be met. Reliability and dependability contribute to a sense of trust.
Respect encompasses the thought that members of the partnership regard each other with esteem and demonstrate that esteem through their actions and communications. (Blue-Banning et al., 2004).
Despite the best laid plans, at times, things can and do go awry. Unfortunately parents and professionals are all too aware of what happens when trust is lost between parties. It is understandable that the expectation of a “free and appropriate public education” varies between parents and professionals. Parents and professionals are at times pitted against each other as competitors. One may ask, “How much can we get out of them?” The other may ask, “What can we get by with?” What parent would settle for second best for his or her child despite the provision of an appropriate education? Competition has its place in being an effective technique in dealing with conflict. Competition is a way to approach conflict knowing that eventually someone wins and someone loses. Competition often is about power. Acknowledging that parents and professionals start off on unequal footing to begin with, and that professionals often are viewed as the ones with all of the power, illustrates that competition will not enhance a group’s ability to work together. It reduces cooperation.
Parents who may not have chosen the path that they are on, and professionals who did choose this path, should remember the words of the late Henry Ford regarding collaborative partnerships, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”