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Cooperative Advocacy: Bridging the Home/School Divide

written by Jeffrey J. Cohen & Mitchell J. Samet

This article originally appeared in SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGIST, New York Spring 2010, Volume XXVIII number 2

Much has been written about the relationship between public schools and the communities they serve, and in particular about the need for a positive working partnership between these two significant components of the child’s psycho-social environment (Christenson, 2004; National Association of School Psychologists, 2005; Seitsinger, Felner, Brand & Burns, 2008; Sheridan, Beebe-Frankenberger, Greff, Lasser, Lines, Miller, Woods, Mullaney & Magee, 2007). For example, it is a well accepted fact that when parents and the school interact in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust, the result is often a more constructive outcome for the student (Braden & Miller, 2007; Kellerer, 2000). Schools are typically more responsive to the concerns expressed by parents, and will join with them to address a child’s needs when advocacy on behalf of the child is conducted in a spirit of cooperation and with a shared sense of purpose. However, when the interaction between parent and school is characterized by acrimony, distrust and an expectation of disappointment, the outcome is more likely to be unsatisfying for all, and at worst destructive to the child’s best interests. The same is true when independent practitioners, acting on behalf of a student or parent, contact the school around issues such as academic performance, disability determination, social-emotional status or special education planning (Fischetti, 2008).

Most school psychologists and special education service providers can likely recount numerous times when they have worked collaboratively with parents, independent psychologists, lawyers, outside agencies and others to address student problems. In such instances, a previously developed or newly formed positive relationship among these stakeholders promotes a harmonious collaborative experience in which the child’s needs are identified in a timely manner, and home/school supports are implemented with minimal roadblocks. On the other hand, staff might also recall experiences in which they felt pressured to accept recommendations or utilize strategies they did not believe would help the student, or which were outside the ability of the school to implement. This pressure can be applied, despite the fact that the child described in the independent evaluation might bear little resemblance to the student observed daily in school, or that the recommendations presented in the report do not flow from or seem related to, the stated results. However, home/school interaction is by nature transactional; success or failure in the relationship is a “two-way street”, with good decisions or missteps occurring at both ends, and with consequences affecting all concerned. Thus, more than a few parents or professionals can probably describe their own “war stories”, in which they felt the need to battle with the school to try to obtain assistance they believed the child had the right to receive. In the final analysis, the issue is not who wins or loses, or who is right or wrong, but how the dynamics governing parent-school or professional-school contact influence the outcome for the student. In other words, what kind of interaction best helps the child? There is no doubt that the quality of this encounter can often spell the difference between quicker effective action on behalf of the student, or delay and conflict which can hamper the delivery of needed services.

The dictionary defines “advocacy” as speaking or acting on behalf of a person or a cause. More specifically, when one identifies with and speaks out in support of, the needs or wants of another person, one is advocating for that person. But the dictionary does not address the various ways in which advocacy can be pursued. In an educational context, the school and parent, together with independent practitioners, can function as partners and work in concert to support the student, or they can do battle, posturing and threatening while potential disabilities are neglected. Parents can be most effective with the school when they advocate for their child in a proactive, positive and constructive way early in their child’s school career, hopefully before problems arise. Actions such as attending school events and meetings, joining school committees, getting to know the teachers, monitoring their child’s academic and social progress, and getting to the right contact person if problems occur, all send a message which says, “I’m an involved, informed parent ready to work with the school on behalf of my child.” This cooperative advocacy establishes the foundation for a positive working relationship upon which the parent can capitalize if problems occur in the future, and should be encouraged by the school. Schools are more open to collaborative problem- solving with parents who raise an issue (involving their child or the larger system) not as an example of the school’s failure, but as an opportunity to work as partners, and with an understanding of the parameters within which the school functions. Similarly, an outside professional interacting with the school is more likely to achieve a satisfying (and less tension-filled) outcome through cooperative advocacy on behalf of his/her client. This could involve facilitating positive contact between parent and school, understanding special education law and the schools resources and limitations, working with the school to obtain, develop and/or provide relevant information about the student or a particular program or service, and collaboratively developing realistic recommendations which can actually be implemented and which generate achievable outcomes. No one can guarantee that a child’s journey through her or his school years will be problem free. But when parents or professionals advocate positively, the school should, and often will, respond in kind.

On the other hand, adversarial advocacy will likely result in the school “circling the wagons”, as it attempts to insulate itself from negative, intimidating or at times openly hostile efforts to force compliance. Unfortunately many schools have had the experience of being confronted by parents, legal advisors, outside providers and others who advocate for their child or client by attempting to coerce the school to act under direct or implied threat of administrative or legal action. This occurs at times because the parent or provider may have been advised to “get tough” in order to “win” needed support from a supposedly resistant school district. Perhaps the district has earned a reputation, fairly or unfairly, for withholding services unless pressed to provide them. Whatever the dynamics, the relationship is quickly established as adversarial and one-directional in the sense that the school is expected to implement what is demanded without discussion, negotiation, or review of the practical value of the ideas or strategies presented. When advocacy takes place in this atmosphere, tension is inevitable, sniping and defensive posturing is often unavoidable, and attacks on credibility and competence perhaps not far behind. While a school might feel coerced into providing the demanded services (even if it feels they are not justified by the evidence), it might also stand its ground, creating the possibility of an extended conflict if due process procedures are triggered. Whatever the eventual outcome, the real losers are the home/school relationship and ultimately the student. Among other consequences, the school and the home might develop a lingering mutual resentment that continues throughout the child’s school career; in fact, they might never again reestablish effective communication even in situations when communication could be most vital to the child’s welfare. In reaction to these damaged feelings, the student may internalize a mistrust of the school, the effects of which can only be counterproductive to academic and social/emotional progress.

In her presentation at the 2007 NASP convention, Carolyn McGuffog highlighted ten potential pitfalls that can lead to acrimony and adversarial interactions between outside professionals and school personnel:

  • Failure to fully understand the nature and scope of the district’s special education services, and what is available to support their client;
  • Failure to make recommendations that the district can routinely carry out;
  • Failure to understand the scope and nature of IDEA and the school’s obligations and restrictions as designated by law;
  • Failure to make recommendations for the school that are within the expertise of district personnel;
  • Failure to fully assess school history, past practice, and services and interventions already attempted by the school;
  • Failure to fully assess the home environment and its impact on the child;
  • Failure to fully assess the child in all areas of his/her functioning, including social and emotional factors;
  • Failure to consider the child’s functioning in settings outside the examiner’ s office;
  • Failure to integrate findings into a cohesive description of the child;
  • Failure to create a logical connection between the child’s history, evaluation results, home behavior and classroom performance, diagnostic formulations and recommendations.

While promoting a climate conducive to cooperative advocacy, schools have a right to expect that independent professionals evaluating
students and making recommendations to the school be informed about more than their client’s strengths, weaknesses, skills, abilities and psychological status; they should be equally knowledgeable about the impact of special education law on school-based programs and services, what schools are obligated to provide and what they are not so obligated, the meaning of “free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment”, and other basic tenets of IDEA. However, as noted earlier, the home/school relationship is transactional by nature, and if the school is to ask that its partners be prepared, then it must, in promoting a collaborative working relationship, fulfill its mandate as well. That means:

  • Maintaining a continuum of district special education options;
  • Communicating a willingness to examine and consider reasonable and suitable recommendations related to the student’s disability;
  • Developing a mechanism for providing information to outside providers about the CSE process, Section 504, school-based assessment and the meaning of an educationally-related disability; RTI, and the context within which the school provides programs and services.

As stated in points 6 to 10 above, conducting comprehensive, ecologically relevant evaluations that assess child-environment relationships, connect results to life outside the examiner’s office, integrate findings into a cohesive picture of the student, and present logically connected results and recommendations. Cooperative advocacy is a shared responsibility.

The point made by Dane (1985) is as true today as it was twenty-five years ago: “Children cannot flourish in an embattled atmosphere.
Collaboration between family and school to create a healthy, supportive environment for growth and learning is essential (p. 510).” The home-school relationship is as complex as it is important, and miscommunication is always possible when home and school (and independent practitioners) advocate at cross purposes in support of a child’s education. No parent or parent representative should refrain from advocating for a student who clearly demonstrates the need for support or assistance at school. However, schools also support and advocate for kids, and the overwhelming majority of school personnel strive to do the right thing by helping students grow academically, socially and emotionally. Cooperative advocacy furthers this goal by building a working relationship between home and school, fostering understanding and cooperation in developing mutually shared goals, minimizing adversarial interactions and yielding more realistic
recommendations. Conversely, adversarial advocacy hampers this effort by breeding animosity, hindering accommodation and flexibility, potentially compromising the child’s attitude toward the school, and damaging the home-school relationship, perhaps permanently. Dane’s concluding words still ring true when she stated: the environment of this era requires the cooperative advocacy of families with handicapped children and of professionals from all disciplines who work with these children (1985, p. 510).” In any era good relations and collaborative action benefits the student, the school, and the school community, while adversarial interaction ultimately undermines the primary objective of identifying and supporting the educational needs of students.

References
Braden, M. D., & Miller, J. A. (2007). Increasing parental involvement in education. NASP Communiqué, 36(1), 39-42.
Christenson, S. L. (2004). The family-school partnership: An opportunity to promote the learning competence of all students. School Psychology Review, 33, 83-104.
Dane, E. (1985). Professional and lay advocacy in the education of handicapped children. Social Work, 30, 505-510.
Fischetti, B. A. (2008). Improving relationships with community providers: The community psychologists workshop. NASP Communiqué, 37(2), 35.
Kellerer, D. (November, 2000). The value of parentteacher collaboration. Retrieved from collaboration.gs?content=692.
National Association of School Psychologists. (2005). Position statement on home-school collaboration: Establishing partnerships to enhance educational outcomes. Bethesda, MD.: Author.
Seitsinger, A.M., Felner, R.D., Brand, S., & Burns, A. (2008). A large-scale examination of the nature and efficacy of teachers’ practices to engage students: Assessment, parental contact, and student-level impact. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 477-505.
Sheridan, S., Beebe-Frankenberger, M., Greff, K., Lasser, J., Lines, C., Miller, G, Woods, K., Mullaney, L., & Magee, K. L. (2007). Back to the future: The futures task force on family/school partnerships. NASP Communiqué, 36(3), 17-18.