Family Involvement in Special Education Research Paper Starter

Family Involvement in Special Education

The effects of parental involvement, aspects that outline parental involvement, and strategies to improve parental involvement in public school special education are discussed. As a primary lens, special education law will be used as a framework for understanding the requirements for parent involvement and strategies for success. Further discussed are potential effects on groups and roles of individuals that include students, teachers, and administrators. Viewpoints from multiple theorists coupled with specific integration strategies are also offered. The overall purpose of this article is designed to promote advocacy and understanding for parental involvement while communicating appropriate guidelines for familial inclusion.

Keywords Collaborators; Ecological Theory of Child Development; Independent Family Service Plans; Intervention Agents; Parent Involvement; Positive Behavior Support Involvement (PBS)


Philosophically, parent involvement in public schools has been viewed as a key component for building success for children in general education environments. For special education students especially, the law mandates parental involvement. Historically, parent involvement has been viewed by educators from diametrically opposed standpoints. The first view held by educators of parents in educational environments is one of support; the second view is one of potential contention depending upon variable factors. This article purposes to provide an overview of multiple viewpoints related to parent involvement.

Studies Support Involvement

One research study conducted by Mahoney and Wiggers (2007) indicated that there are at least three major reasons why parents are mandated to play a more active role in the developmental services their children receive. First, the federal legislation authorizing early intervention services (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, PL. 108-446) is based on two theories derived from the ecological theory of child development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The first part of the theory indicates that parents are the most important influence on their child's early development and that children's learning occurs throughout the course of their daily routine activities in their natural environments. Both of these theories maintain the consistent indicators that early intervention must be focused on maximizing the routine learning opportunities expressed between children and their parents and other caregivers in their home environment. The second reason is related to opportunities parents have to influence their children's learning and development, particularly when compared with preschool and related educational service professionals. This effect is accentuated by the fact that most parents are typically a constant presence in their children's lives throughout the early childhood years. The third most important reason involves the potential of parents improving child success in early intervention programs.

For the past several years, researchers have been investigating whether the effectiveness of early intervention services is based on an evaluation of the way in which parents form relationships with their children. One study looked at the developmental outcomes of 637 children involved in early intervention research projects with a focus on how the programs affected parent's relationships with the children (Mahoney, Boyce, Fewell, Spiker, & Wheeden, 1998). In two of the projects investigated in this study-the Longitudinal Studies (Casto & White, 1993) and the Infant Health and Development Program [IHDP] (1990)-children received intervention services, with professionals focused on working directly with children. In the other two projects-Family-Centered Outcomes (Mahoney & Bella, 1998)] and the Play and Learning Strategies Program [PALS] (Fewell & Wheeden, 1998)- the interventions focused on parents either by improving parent-child interaction or providing family support services. In general, research from the study conducted by Mahoney and Wiggers (2007) suggested that early intervention seemed to be the most successful way of promoting child development, especially when programs supported parents in interacting more responsively with their children (p. 10).

Another earlier study indicated that family involvement in schools increased student academic achievement (Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995). Increased student academic achievement included:

• Improved test scores,

• Better grades,

• Increased attendance,

• Higher homework accountability, and

• Positive student motivation and attitudes about schoolwork (Darch, Miao, & Shippen, 2004, p. 25).

Educating Autistic Children

In addition to the positive benefits of parent interaction for special education students, positive parent involvement is a key component contributing to effective intervention with children with autism. Autism interventions that included a parent appeared to increase positive outcomes by “influencing the magnitude of child outcomes. For example, in the area of challenging behavior, children with autism whose parents were directly involved in implementing behavior management displayed a significant reduction in problem behaviors” (Levy, Kim & Olive, 2006, p. 59).

Levy, Kim and Olive (2006) conclude that,

Researchers have demonstrated the ability of parents to implement a variety of interventions, including a focus on areas such as language and behavior. Parents serve as effective intervention agents for three specific reasons(Ozonoff & Cathcart, 1998). First, parents can increase the number of hours of intervention children receive without increasing costs to service providers. Secondly, parents should be able to intervene throughout the autistic child's life span. Finally, parents who directly serve their children by providing intervention in educational environments often report increased feelings of competence and support with decreased feelings of depression and stress (Ozonoff & Cathcart, 1998) (Levy, Kim & Olive, 2006, p. 59).

These are all reasons that support parental involvement in providing productive and positive outcomes for special education students in general education environments.

Facilitating Family Involvement

Spann, Kohler and Soenkse (2003) indicate that parent participation leads to a multitude of positive outcomes for special needs children. These positive outcomes include

• Greater generalization and maintenance of treatment gains (Koegel et al., 1991),

• Increased continuity in intervention programs (Bailey & Wolery, 1989),

• Improved levels of parent satisfaction (Stancin, Reuter, Dunn, & Bickett, 1984), and

• More effective strategies for resolving problems in school (Newmann & Wehlage, 1995).

Along with these research findings, Spann, Kohler and Soenkse (2003) make multiple recommendations for “how schools can develop partnerships with families, including engaging in quality communication, inviting parents to participate in school activities, soliciting parents' input on decisions about their child's education, and empowering parents to take action that addresses their own needs” (p. 228).


Trust was named as one of the central agents in promoting appropriate and positive relationships between teachers and parents. One strategy for facilitating family involvement in special education services is trust building. Parents interviewed by Soodak and Erwin (2000) stressed the importance of promoting trust in relationships between educational staff and parents. Parents interviewed for this study indicated that trusting relationships were “developed from interactions characterized by honesty, openness, and mutual respect.” Specifically, parents reported feeling welcomed in educational environments through “an open-door policy, ongoing opportunities for involvement in school settings, and informal and open communication with professionals.” Parents that reported higher levels of trust also reported that they “felt less of a need to be present in schools when relationships were based on trust and respect” (Soodak, 2003, p. 329).


Another strategy for improving relationships between home and school is to increase appropriate communication between teachers and parents. Spann, Kohler, and Soenksen (2003) conducted a study that examined the home-school relationship and ways that communication impacted this relationship. The researchers found that the most functional home-school communication occurred on a regular basis and typically consisted of communication that involved the child's teacher or paraprofessional. Parents reported that correspondence included various media, including “face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, and written notes. The most common reason for communication was to exchange information related to the child's needs and performance. For example, several parents reported that they exchanged notes with the teacher to stay informed about the child's performance” (p. 234). Another typical form of communication between parents and school involved brainstorming to solve problems that came up, at either place. Within this framework, researchers reported that several parents indicated that teachers called them when children experienced difficulties with a school routine.

Conflicts were also reported.

“These disagreements centered on a variety of issues, including differences in opinion on how to address a behavior problem and the school's failure to reply to a parent's question or request on the same day" (Spann, Kohler, and Soenksen, 2003, p. 235). According to the researchers, several parents reported that they did most of the work to maintain correspondence with school personnel. One parent reportedly lamented that the "only time she communicated with her child's teacher was at quarterly IEP meetings." However, despite these and similar concerns, more than 80% of families expressed high to moderate satisfaction with the...

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