Parents of Students with Significant Needs and Their Perspectives of Effective School Collaboration


Collaboration between parents and school professionals is essential to meeting the academic needs of students with disabilities – and particularly those students with significant special needs. I conducted a study with parents of children with Down syndrome and autism and examined these major issues: (a) the perspectives of parents on shared decision making with school professionals for their children’s individualized education; (b) the role the professionals’ practices play in enhancing and hindering collaboration; and, most critically, (c) the steps that professionals can take to facilitate their collaborative efforts with parents, based on mutual understanding and empathy for the school’s specialized clientele.

Step 1: Have knowledge of the student’s disability and possible achievements.

Parents remarked that professionals often have insufficient knowledge of the child’s diagnosis.  One parent stated, “I would say that it is lacking unless they have a family member, a loved one, or a friend; they volunteered in camps, and then they came into the educational system.”

Parents were usually the ones responsible to impart pertinent information to professionals.  Staff should receive professional development training about the specific characteristics — and the possible academic achievements — of their unique students with significant disabilities.  School professionals can also become involved in local community activities that relate to their student’s disability and support their accomplishments.

Step 2: Communicate messages between school staff and parents regularly in a positive, understandable, and respectful manner.

One parent mentioned that she was often reminded by educators of her child’s “low” IQ and that the educators frequently expressed limitations regarding academic capabilities with a statement such as “your child has plateaued.” Effective communication implies both understanding and supportive behaviors that enhance communication, such as actively listening in a nonjudgmental manner — and responding positively and frequently to parental concerns.

Step 3: Encourage a strong commitment to child and family.

One factor that contributes to parents’ perceptions of lack of commitment is discrepant views of their children — or children’s needs.  Parents remarked that some school professionals would often describe their child from a “deficit perspective.” Professionals should affirm and reaffirm the strengths of the child.  To maintain constructive collaboration and decrease conflict, both parents and practitioners should attempt to narrow the gap between their views regarding the student’s needs.

Step 4: Acknowledge parental prerogatives.

Although parents of children with disabilities and school professionals have mutual responsibilities and partnerships in the shared decision-making required to plan and provide appropriate special education services, they are also the senior partners whose actions influence their children’s academic development.  When parents’ knowledge and preferences are not regarded — as well as stereotypical and biased responses to parental concerns are demonstrated — oftentimes conflict between home and school can occur. 

Step 5:  Engage in equality and shared decision-making with parents.

One parent said, “Well, they claim that I am an equal member of the team.  Sometimes I don’t feel that way, but most of the time I may not feel that—if they all make a decision, and I wasn’t really part of that process.”  Professionals should solicit parental input, and ensure that shared decision-making is enforced.


The onus is on the school professionals to create an educational community that fosters optimal parent and school collaboration and communication, and provides quality instruction for student success.  When professionals take the necessary steps to reflect critically on professional practices — and endeavor to facilitate successful partnerships, they can be more effective educators and caring empathetic supporters who positively improve the lives of students with significant disabilities, and help these families who serve as lifelong advocates.

Judith Harding, EdD, recently conducted a doctoral study with parents of child significant disabilities.  She has served families and students with special needs as an educator for more than three decades, nationally and internationally, and is an advocate for families of children with Down syndrome.  Presently, she is an online instructor for graduate students pursuing their degree in special education.