By Dr. Kathleen Kyzar
As I walk out of the office of my children’s school and up the stairs to the 5th grade hall, I take in my surroundings. It is mid-afternoon on a school day, but it is quiet inside the building. I check out the student council posters hanging on the walls outside of each classroom and smile at some of the clever slogans. When I approach my daughter’s classroom, I peek in to see if I can catch a glimpse of her. She is working quietly at her desk. I’m early so I decide to wait in the hall. It is not long before the door to the classroom flings open. The students file out to P.E. My daughter, Claire, is whispering with a friend as she walks out of the room. She does not see me. I decide not to interrupt her. I will see her at pickup in about an hour. I make eye contact with her teacher who smiles and motions me to the door.
My conference with Claire’s teacher that day went well. She is a good communicator, and she was respectful in how she addressed my questions and concerns. My husband and I feel fortunate this year because our partnerships with our children’s teachers are strong. This has not always been the case, though, and in years in which we struggled to build partnerships, we felt the stress at home.
Since starting my doctoral program at KU almost a decade ago, I have been interested in family-professional partnership—that is, the partnerships that teachers and families develop in order to best meet students’ learning and academic needs. Turnbull et al. (2015) define family-professional partnership as:
…a relationship in which families (not just parents) and professionals agree to build on each other’s expertise and resources, as appropriate, for the purpose of making and implementing decisions that will directly benefit students and indirectly benefit other family members and professionals. (p. 161)
In the early 2000s, prior to my doctoral work, I was an early intervention provider and itinerant deaf education teacher in urban Texas. Developing partnerships with professionals in school and community settings and with families of young children with hearing loss was at the center of my practice. Currently, I teach university coursework on partnership; I research partnership; and, as a parent of two school-age children, I also have personal experiences with partnership.
Recently, I have been interested in understanding partnership as it relates to families of children with deaf-blindness. Most children with deaf-blindness have multiple disabilities—that is, disabilities such as intellectual disability or physical disability that they experience in addition to their dual-sensory impairment. Therefore, on the whole, these children and their families have significant support needs. The research I have been conducting in collaboration with colleagues from my time at the Beach Center on Disability at KU (Ann Turnbull, Jean Ann Summers, and Shana Haines) indicates that when families of children with deaf-blindness are satisfied with the partnerships they have with professionals, they report greater satisfaction with their family quality of life. In the field of education, evidence-based practices are most often aimed at improving child outcomes. What our research suggests is that although educators may form relationships with families to benefit students, their reach is broader—the relationships they develop are linked to the outcomes families experience as well.
Our study is not unique in empirically documenting a connection between partnership and family outcomes. Burke and Hodapp (2014), for example, found that greater satisfaction with partnership was correlated with lower levels of stress for mothers of children with developmental disabilities. Eskow, Chasson, Mitchell, and Summers (2016) found that greater satisfaction with partnership was related to increased perceptions of child improvement and increased satisfaction with family quality of life for families of children with autism.
Our research, though, has pointed to new insight about partnership within education services—namely, that significant differences in family quality of life for families of children with deaf-blindness were not present unless families perceived both education services and partnership highly. Although more research is needed to confirm these findings, the take away is this: For these families, it seems that high quality partnership is just as important as high quality services. [To read more about these findings, see Kyzar, Brady, Summers, Haines, and Turnbull (in press).]
As I reflect on this research, I am struck by the disconnect between the knowledge available to the field about the importance of partnership for improving child and family outcomes and the lack of pre- and in-service partnership education opportunities for teachers. Chang, Early, and Winton (2005) found that a large number of early childhood special education teacher preparation programs nationwide (i.e., 42%) lack courses on the topic of working with families. Further, of the courses that do exist, important aspects of partnership (e.g., communication skills, knowledge of teamwork) may be missing (Rupiper & Mavin, 2004). The field of early childhood/special education has been the pioneer in promoting partnership-oriented practices. If early childhood practitioners are missing professional development opportunities on how to work with families, where does this leave teachers in middle and secondary settings?
But a sole focus on supporting teachers in learning how to develop trusting partnerships with families is, in my view, shortsighted. As a field, we must take a hard look at the systems that are in place so that we may determine if they are designed to support partnership-oriented practices. Almost three decades ago, Ann Turnbull and Jean Ann Summers called for a revolution in education in which families, not services, become the central focus of education. They wrote:
The term ‘parent involvement’ sums up the current perspective. It means we want parents involved with us. It means the service delivery system we helped create is at the center of the universe, and families are revolving around it. …. Visualize the concept: The family is the center of the universe and the service delivery system is one of the many planets revolving around it. Now visualize the service delivery system at the center and the family in orbit around it. Do you see the difference? Do you recognize the revolutionary change in perspective? We would move from an emphasis on parent involvement (i.e., parents participating in the program) to family support (i.e., programs providing a range of support services to families). This is not a semantic exercise—such a revolution leads us to a new set of assumptions and a new vista of options for service (Turnbull & Summers, 1987, pp. 295– 296).
Although there have been increases in family support practices and programs within pre-k through 12th grade settings over the last few decades and there are examples of schools that deliver family-centered services, on the whole, families of school-aged children today are far from being the central focus of educational service provision. The traditional parent involvement model, as described by Turnbull and Summers, continues to prevail. The revolution has not occurred.
As a parent, partnership researcher, teacher educator, and former special educator, my assessment of the breakdown within the traditional parent involvement model is as follows. First, educators (not parents) typically define what parent involvement means and how it is carried out. As a result, parent involvement may be defined somewhat narrowly. This narrow definition makes it difficult for educators to recognize involvement activities that fall outside of the pre-determined definition. For example, parents who insure that their child’s homework is completed every night may get credit for being involved. But parents who cook with their children in the evening, which, arguably, is as valuable for their child’s learning as completing homework, but do not check homework nightly, may not get credit for being involved.
Second, in the traditional model, the responsibility of involvement lies mostly with parents. Fulfilling this responsibility demonstrates parents’ commitment to their children’s education. Falling short of fulfilling this responsibility may, in some contexts, be a source of shame. Parents, who do not fulfill the responsibility of involvement, as the school defines it, may be deemed “hard to reach”—or worse: they may be labeled as a parent who “doesn’t care.”
In my view, partnership will not thrive within the parent involvement model I just described. Further, partnership practices are only successful if teachers and parents are educated about them and perceive that they are competent in carrying them out within school settings. Therefore, the barriers families and educators face in forming trusting partnerships are twofold—inadequate systemic support and inadequate teacher/family preparation.
As I have pointed out, the research my colleagues and I and others (e.g., Eskow et al., 2016) have conducted has suggested that families who are unsatisfied with partnership are more likely to be unsatisfied with their family quality of life. This implies that lack of partnership within schools may have real consequences for families. I am grateful that the parent-teacher conference I described at the outset of this blog went well. I am not sure, though, what next year will bring. Will the partnerships I form with my children’s teachers be strong? If they are not strong, how will my family be affected? As I move forward in my research, I will be seeking to understand the school conditions that best facilitate trusting partnerships between teachers and families of young children. I will also be working to identify evidence based partnership practices aimed at meeting child, family, and educator needs. I find meaning and value in this research because I believe it has the potential to positively impact students, teachers, and families.
For more reading, check out “Debunking the Myth of the Hard-to-Reach Parent” by Karen L. Mapp and Soo Hong in Christenson and Reschly’s edited Handbook of School-Family Partnerships (2010).
Burke, M.M., & Hodapp, R.M. (2014). Relating stress of mothers of children with developmental disabilities to family-school partnerships. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 52(1), 13-23. doi: 10.1352/1934-9556-52.1.13.
Chang, F., Early, D.M., & Winton, P.J. (2005). Early childhood teacher preparation in special education at 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education. Journal of Early Intervention, 27(2), 110-124.
Eskow, K., Chasson, G., Mitchell, R., & Summers, J.A. (2016). Association between parent-teacher partnership satisfaction and outcomes for children and families with autism. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Kyzar, K.B., Brady, S., Summers, J.A., Haines, S.J., & Turnbull, A.P. (in press). Services and supports, partnership, and FQOL for families of children with deaf-blindness. Exceptional Children.
Rupiper, M., & Marvin, C. (2004). Preparing teachers for family centered services: A survey of preservice curriculum content. Teacher Education and Special Education, 27(4), 384-395.
Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E.J., Soodak, L.C., & Shogren, K.A. (2015). Families, professionals, and exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Turnbull, A. P., & Summers, J. A. (1987). From parent involvement to family support: Evolution to revolution. In S. M. Pueschel, C. Tingey, J. W. Rynders, A. C. Crocker, & D. M. Crutcher (Eds.), New perspectives on Down syndrome (pp. 289–306). Baltimore: Brookes.
Dr. Kathleen Kyzar is a 2010 graduate of the KU Department of Special Education Ph.D. Program in Special Education. During her doctoral studies, she was a Graduate Research Fellow at the Beach Center on Disability. Her advisors were Dr. Ann Turnbull, Dr. Sally Roberts, and Professor Rud Turnbull. Kathleen is currently an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in the College of Education at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. She has two children, Claire, who just turned 11 this week, and Andrew, who is 5. Her husband, Chad, a tireless supporter of her career since their marriage in 2001, works at an architectural firm in Dallas, Texas.