Picking the Pros: How Parents Really Feel About Professionals as Their Partners, Collaborative Teammates and Service Providers

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Susan H. Turben, Ph.D.

Rationale: Family and school research during the past three decades (Coleman, 1982) has perpetuated the concept that successful schools, agencies and community programs put family needs and support for parents and their children as their top priority. School intervention research also indicates that successfully educated children are best served by family-centered professionals who know how to access resources and deliver assistance that is practical and fits into day-to-day family life (Thousand, et al, 1996).

In spite of these family-centered findings, parents of children whose needs require special teaching or adaptations in order to learn, rarely feel like equals or experts in either educational or clinical settings. Further, parents report that they continue to feel obligated to adopt adversarial models of interaction with professionals and service providers in order to get what they feel are the same services other children receive.

The problem: The true feelings of family members are frequently masked by their need to advocate for their children and this concern prompted the present investigation. As an outcome of the research, a personnel preparation curriculum for the State of Ohio was written and field-tested. The main researcher wanted to know what future gains parents can expect as a result of recent attempts by professionals to shift from “Pros as the Expert” to “parents as partners” who possess expertise of their own.

The main investigator analyzed family conversations and interviews with professionals from twelve disciplines. These interviews were used to determine effective collaborative skills needed most by families.

Participants: A group of thirty families of children currently participating in Early Education and Intervention programs were recruited for the project as part of a partnership agreement with the main investigator. A work group of parents, special and regular educators and teachers attended weekly discussions to listen to the needs of families, identify skills and write activities based on daily interviews.

Method: A collection of family stories were written, reviewed and activities were designed by a work group composed of early childhood professionals, family members, therapists and educators from around the State of Ohio. A four-phased strategy for the study was used: (a) information gathering phase; (b) curriculum writing phase; (c) field testing phase; and (d) dissemination phase.

Four skills were found to occur repetitively in the stories. These were field tested with parents to verify their impact on family-professional partnerships: (a) conversational interaction; (b) mutual help; (c) shared expertise; and (d) collaborative consultation. Extensive field-testing followed over a two-month period, with a group of 240 professionals state-wide. Parents participated as co-trainers. The family stories and activities were written to include current state personnel competency standards identified by the Ohio Department of Health.

Results: The family story/activity method of presenting parental information, issues, priorities and concerns were successful in verifying that communication based skills are effective in working with families. Results show that parents have higher and more positive opinions of those professionals who practice the four collaborative consultative skills on a daily basis than those who were not competent in the four areas.

Field-testing showed parents prefer professionals who are willing to assist parents in writing IEPs and IFSPs, after listening to their personal story, and parental goals, needs and concerns, not their own. Family background and cultural similarity were additional major factors used by parents to “pick their pros.”

Parents and professionals seem to trust professionals who are able to “get the picture” of their lifestyle and who do not try to change their family routine. Families felt valued more often if their time was respected, and professionals did not expect them to “do too much” at home.

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