By Dr. Grace Francis
Alice Johnson and her family were thrilled when she was accepted into a postsecondary education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (PSE) at a big college campus about 50 miles away from her home. Alice’s first few weeks on campus, unfortunately, proved to be extremely stressful for the Johnson family. Alice experienced a difficult time adjusting to living without her family, with a roommate who was a stranger to her and whose behavior sometimes made her uncomfortable. She felt extremely uneasy navigating a large campus with so many people and did not know how to get help. Alice called her parents several times a day in tears, upset, lonely, bored, and confused. Alice’s parents, who had been so excited about this opportunity for Alice, were exhausted, anxious, and utterly despondent.
Alice’s parents had been tirelessly advocating for Alice’s well-being for the past 19 years, and they didn’t stop when she enrolled in college. They encouraged Alice to contact her teachers and the director of residential life to resolve some of her problems, and were unsure if she was not following through or if staff were just unresponsive to her needs. They spoke with the PSE director several times to discuss needed accommodations and social concerns, but were dismayed by the director’s resolute expectations for Alice to resolve her problems independently by using university resources. They felt ignored and shamed. They also left several messages for the director of residential life to try to resolve the issues with her roommate and felt extremely frustrated when they finally received a call back stating that “FERPA prevents us from discussing student matters with parents.” They have decided to bring Alice home during weekends to avoid some of the issues and, despite the benefits they think Alice would experience by staying, are about to withdraw Alice from the program.
Most people are familiar with the term “helicopter parent,” or parents who are overprotective and over-involved in their child’s life. There is emerging research indicating negative outcomes associated with helicopter parenting, including increased levels of depression, as well as disrupted self-regulation and decision-making skills among children (Schiffrin et al., 2013). Sending children to college can bring out the “helicopter” in many parents, as students are granted with the autonomy to make independent decisions, in many cases, for the first time. For all young adults, college is a time of profound uncertainty and magnificent growth. It is a time when students begin to solidify their identities as adults by transitioning from being a dependent to a self-advocate. As such, it is also a time when parents of college students must transition from caregivers to advisors for their sons and daughters. These transitions are difficult, especially for parents whose college-bound students have disabilities.
There is no doubt that the expectations for students and parents are drastically different in college when compared to high school. The dramatic changes in roles, policies, rights, and responsibilities of students and their parents often leave parents uncertain of how to support their college student, leading to frustration and anxiety – especially among parents of students with disabilities who may have had fewer independent decision-making experiences or may be perceived as vulnerable. Further, parents of students with disabilities have often spent decades protecting, supporting, and advocating for their children. These negative feelings can lead to hyper-vigilance among parents. One parent of a college student with a disability described the experience of her son with autism going to college as “someone filling her mama helicopter with nitrous fuel.” While helicopter parenting may be damaging, university staff can direct parental commitment to their children’s success toward efforts that will maximize student outcomes.
The value of parental input and emotional needs of parents are significantly overlooked in college settings for all students, not just those who have disabilities. While parents should never be ignored or shamed, allowing hyper-vigilant parents to stymie the development of all students is an unacceptable course of action. All parents would likely benefit from strategies to engage their students in supported decision-making as well coping strategies to deal with anxiety and stress. Decision-making and coping strategies could be provided through parent workshops during university orientations and through ongoing methods such as online follow-up sessions or parent meet-up groups. PSE staff could provide additional support to parents of students in PSE programs by collaborating with university departments and research centers (e.g., counseling department, center for wellness and mindfulness), community partners (e.g. parent training and information centers), and even alumni parents with experience transitioning from a caregiver to an advisor for their children to provide information and support to parents (and students) about effective strategies.
The experiences of the Johnson family are not unique. Parenting is hard (turns out way harder than I gave my parents credit for!). Navigating the rough waters of young adulthood is as exciting as it is uncertain. Given the amount of resources and focus on student development and professional stewardship at institutions of higher education, there exists a great opportunity to reconsider efforts to “ground the helicopter parent,” “tame the tiger mom,” and “cut the umbilical cord,” by making the most of the investment and desire of parents to see their young adults succeed. Universities serve as an ideal setting to build stronger communities by collaborating with students and parents to develop decision-making skills and coping strategies so that families may transition from dependents and caregivers to self-advocates and advisors.
Schiffrin, H. H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H., Geary, K. A., Erchull, M. J., & Tashner, T. (2014). Helping or hovering? The effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23, 548-557.
Dr. Grace “Frankie” Francis is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. She graduated in 2013 from the University of Kansas under the advisement of Dr. Ann and Professor Rud Turnbull. Her research interests include transition to adulthood and family-professional partnerships policies and practices.
By Dr. Jean Kang
If you have been following KU Hawk Blog postings like me, you may have noticed that there are several core values shared by the authors of the postings. One of those values is ‘partnership’ or ‘collaboration’. In particular, I have read many postings on building strong relationships with families and always have been inspired by them. The most recent one I enjoyed reading was “A case for partnership – A promising practice’ by Dr. Kathleen Kyzar. She discussed the problem of the traditional parent involvement model and identified the barriers that prevent families and professionals from building equal partnerships.
As Dr. Kyzar pointed out, I also believe one of the major reasons for professionals struggling with building trusting relationships with families is because of the way they were prepared. As Brownell and colleagues (2005) reported in their literature review on special education teacher preparation programs, over 70% of them emphasized the importance of collaborating with families and other professionals but only a very few of them had specific pedagogy used to develop key skills for collaboration. Examples of ways to teach collaboration skills included faculty modeling and using projects.
For the past 5 years, I have been teaching a course on ‘family-professional partnership’. When I was first asked to teach the course, what I had in my mind was probably what many people may think – combinations of lectures, some class discussions and perhaps a family panel or a project that requires students to interact with families for a few hours. It sounded like a good plan and the expectations seemed reasonable. However, I soon discovered a major tweak to that picture. It was a co-taught course! What was even more interesting was that I will have to teach the course with a ‘parent co-instructor’. Co-teaching often refers to two or more professionals (e.g.,special and general educators) teaching together to address diverse needs of students (Cook & Friend, 1995). Where does a parent fit into this picture of co-teaching? Is it possible for parents to teach professionals without the training I received? What will it look like? At that moment, I was pushed out of my comfort zone.
Ever since my journey of co-teaching with a parent began, I found that my experience wasn’t much different from Cook and Friend’s definition. The parent and I shared most of the responsibilities such as revising the syllabus, developing assignments, designing in-class activities, leading sessions, and providing feedback on students’ work. Like other teams, it took more time to plan and it required clear communication. There were few times when we didn’t agree on certain things and we had to learn how to find a happy medium. We have learned about each other and ultimately became colleagues. For the past 5 years, teaching with parents has been my favorite part of my teaching responsibilities and this experience has forced me to reflect on my ways of working with families. I have always said that families are the experts of their child and we must treat them as equal partners. To be honest, I found that I didn’t understand what ‘families are experts’ and ‘equal partners’ truly meant until this experience. They may not have the content knowledge or research basis (which is critical in teaching) like I did but I found that they hold different expertise than I do and can be great teachers. The perspectives they share during class sessions were very unique which only someone who has lived the life of having a child with disability can have.
To understand the specific impact of this unique co-teaching model, my colleague and I have been collecting data via survey and focus groups. The study revealed that students benefit from listening to multiple perspectives presented in the classroom. Students have shared that the content discussed during lectures become more meaningful when it is connected with real life stories shared by the parents. The students appreciated the opportunities to listen to different voices and motivated to reassess their views on ways to form strong relationships with families. The study is still ongoing and aims to find out more on the long-term impact of the course. However, it is clear that students appreciate having a parent co-instructor who is deeply involved in their learning experience.
I am not trying to say every pre-service professional preparation program needs to adopt this model. It is a model that still needs more fine tuning. Studies on different aspects of the model and long-term impact must be carried out. This model requires time investment, open communication, flexibility, and a willingness to question the ways we have been teaching the topic. However, I would like to encourage everyone to step back and reflect on our current approach of preparing future educators. Simply saying partnering with families is imperative to our work and children’s development is not enough. Are we really walking the walk or just simply talking the talk? If we want professionals to be able to form trusting relationship with families, the programs preparing professionals must first demonstrate the relationship we want our professionals to build. We must think of more creative ways to invite families into our world of teacher preparation and let their voice be heard more frequently.
Brownell, M. T., Ross, D. D., Colón, E. P., & McCallum, C. L. (2005). Critical features of special education teacher preparation: A comparison with general teacher education. The Journal of Special Education, 38 (4), 242-252.
Cook, L., & Friend, M. (1995). Co-teaching: Guidelines for creating effective practices. Focus on Exceptional Children, 26(3), 1-16.
Dr. Jean Kang is originally from South Korea and has worked as a special educator in Korea before she joined KU Department of Special Education where she earned PhD. in unified early childhood education in 2010. After graduating from the program, she has served as a visiting scholar at the same department till 2011. She is currently an assistant professor at the Department of Specialized Education Services at UNC-Greensboro. Her area of interest includes family-professional partnership, school readiness of young children with and without disabilities, and Universal Design for Learning. Lately, Dr.Kang is also interested in facilitating relationship between South Korea and the U.S. and has coordinated short-term student study abroad projects and conducted research projects in collaboration with her colleagues in Korea. She lives with her husband Michael who is a Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist and with an energetic 2.5 years old daughter Hannah.