Family Involvement at School (page 3)
Ideally, families will cooperate with teachers, psychologists, and other educators to share information about a student's abilities in the home and nonschool social environments and jointly formulate an effective learning program for students with learning disabilities (Voltz, 1994). Parents know their children much better than teachers are likely to because parents typically spend much more time with them and see the children interact with others in a wider variety of environments than do teachers. Thus, parents have a great deal to contribute to the educational and social development of children, and this knowledge can be put to very good use in planning the individualized educational program for children with learning disabilities.
Unfortunately, this potential is realized much less frequently than most educators desire (Bjorck-Akesson & Granlund, 1995), and research has suggested that both school personnel and family members are responsible when the school-family relationship does not progress well. School responsibilities typically involve both systemic and professional barriers that tend to mitigate against parents becoming actively involved in planning with the special education teacher (Falik, 1995; Harry et al., 1995). Systemic barriers may be as simple as the fact that schoolteachers want to hold planning meetings after school hours, but most parents work until 5:00 p.m., and getting to school at 3:30 may be highly problematic for some parents, particularly single parents. Professional barriers may involve overuse of highly technical language, which parents may not understand, or the unintentional intimidation of the parent when confronted by a room full of professional teachers, psychologists, school administrators, and others.
In a recent naturalistic study, Harry and colleagues (1995) compiled data on participation of minority parents of 24 preschoolers with disabilities. A naturalistic study involves in-depth and systematic observations of family dynamics in the setting in which they occur. Rather than a preassigned list of measurement instruments and/or variables to study, the observations of the individuals in the natural environment result in establishing variables for study after the fact, and researchers are not limited by their preconceptions of what might be found. In this study, the researchers interviewed minority parents over a three-year period and observed interactions between those parents and schoolteachers at various meetings at the school. The researchers identified five deterrents to parental involvement of minority parents: late notices and inflexible scheduling of meetings, limited time for parental conferences, emphasis on documents rather than actual parental participation, use of jargon, and the structure of power (i.e., professionals' reading reports while parents listened established the experts and teachers as the knowledgeable participants and the parents as passive listeners). These researchers showed that, over time, these deterrents lead to decreasing advocacy by these minority parents for their children.
In addition to these school-based barriers to effective collaboration, the families of students with learning disabilities bear some responsibility for fostering effective collaboration with school personnel, and some families do not adequately meet this challenge to build effective communication mechanisms. In an effort to better understand what goes wrong in some families that include an individual with learning disabilities, Falik (1995) presented four prototypical patterns of negative family responses to a learning disability. According to Falik, some families may take an adversarial family stance and allow only limited involvement of the teacher or other professional in the family dynamics. Hence, these parents may be reluctant to consider instructional efforts that involve their time, such as a homework checkoff sheet for parents to review each night.
In a second scenario, one parent may become the outspoken advocate for the child with the school system, and sometimes even with the other parent. The advocacy-oriented parent may champion his or her child in ways that do not lead to effective communication with either school personnel or the other spouse. This can result in the other parent becoming somewhat resistant to any and all suggestions involving management of the learning disability. These families may become almost totally organized around the problems of one child—the child with the learning disability (Falik, 1995)—with one parent as the champion of the child and the other parent denying the existence of the learning disability.
In a third scenario, the family may willingly accept the learning difficulties, but become passively resistant to suggestions made by teachers (Falik, 1995). The parents' attitudes seem to convey that little is seriously wrong and, with the appropriate assistance, everything would be all right.
Finally, some families act out overt compliance with the expert's instructional treatment recommendations, but fail to carry through on any of the suggestions or requests for assistance (Falik, 1995). Of course, over time, this type of covert resistance will be transformed into more overt resistance, such as that demonstrated by the adversarial families previously described.
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