Developing Partnerships with Families of Children with Disabilities: Seven Principles for Success
“Partnerships are not hard work, but heart work. They are not more work – they are the work.”
(Joyce Epstein and Associates)
Deep, meaningful partnerships between professionals and families of children with disabilities are central to creating positive outcomes for everyone involved. Turnbull, Turnbull, Erwin, Soodak, and Shogren (2015) define it this way:
Partnership refers to a relationship in which families (not just parents) and professionals agree to build on each other’s expertise and resources, as appropriate, for the purpose of making and implementing decisions that will directly benefit students and indirectly benefits other family members and professionals. (p. 161)
While the roles and responsibilities of each individual in this equation vary, partnership occurs when we share a common vision. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) outlines parental rights for participation in the Individualized Family Services Plan (IFSP) and the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process; but when enacted, true partnership is about more than allowing family members to participate. It is about establishing honest forms of mutual respect and commitment to what each partner brings to all of the decisions involved in raising and educating a child with special needs.
If we find ourselves committed to this idea of partnership, then the question becomes: What can we do to build these effective partnerships? One need not look far for examples of broken-down relationships between families and professionals. Conversely, many of us who have served as practitioners carry heartfelt success stories of relationships with children and families who have enriched our lives and served as our conviction to continue doing this work. But what is the essence behind why some partnerships seem to work and others don’t? In this article, we’ll explore the seven principles of partnerships with families outlined by Turnbull et al. (2015) in order to answer this question.
Ann and Rud Turnbull present seven principles for partnerships with families, which are based on their experience as parents of a child with an intellectual disability and their research in special education. These principles include communication, professional competence, respect, commitment, equality, advocacy, and trust (Turnbull et al., 2015). Figure 1 below displays these principles and their relationship in a mobile. Each principle plays its own important role in holding up the mobile, but the cornerstone to its entire foundation is trust. Without trust, every other facet of the partnership is compromised. We’ll come back to that final and important component of trust later, at the end of this article. For now, let’s explore each of the other important aspects of partnership.
Figure 1. The seven principles of partnership. Adapted from Families, Professionals and Exceptionality: Positive Outcomes Through Partnership and Trust, by A. Turnbull, H. R. Turnbull, E. J. Erwin, L. C. Soodak, and K. A. Shogren. Copyright 2015 by Pearson.
Communication is the primary vehicle by which we make our thoughts, feelings, and intentions understood to others. It is also the mechanism we use to listen, understand, and interpret the fears, hopes, beliefs, and expectations of others. As professionals, we can improve our communication by taking a close look inward and self-assessing our communicative strengths and areas for growth. Turnbull et al. (2015) suggest that effective communication stems from the professionals’ ability to listen, to be friendly, to be honest, to be clear, and to take responsibility for providing and coordinating information for families.
Effective partners take steps to become professionally competent and remain committed to learning throughout their careers (Turnbull et al., 2015). Professionally competent educators are those who take responsibility for knowing the provisions of IDEA and seeks to understand the implications of these provisions in their daily work. Following a school or district’s individual policies and procedures is a start, but it’s not the sole measure of competence. Professionals must also master the content of their respective discipline, set high expectations for students, and ensure they are meeting their individual responsibilities to provide an appropriate education to every student they serve. The most competent among us are the professionals who distinguish themselves by going above and beyond to search for answers to questions and dilemmas posed to them in their practice.
Partners who demonstrate mutual respect are those who hold one another in high esteem and model this in their interactions (Turnbull et al., 2015). The ways that professionals earn respect from others is a direct result of their willingness to first treat students and their families with dignity, to acknowledge the strengths of a family even in their times of struggle, and to honor cultural diversity. These are accomplished by taking the time to learn about preferences, attributes, and values. Mistakes are sure to be made along with the way, but the professional worthy of respect is one who learns from these mistakes and who uses these as opportunities to refine their approach.
Commitment means going above and beyond the call of professional duty. Those professionals who exude the deepest levels of commitment to children and families are those who not only accept the occasional invitation to do this but those who seek ways to reach out to families in ways that demonstrate care, compassion, concern, and expertise. While professionals lead their own complex lives, just as families of their students do, those who show true commitment are the ones who view their role as more than a professional obligation. These individuals exemplify this by making themselves available and accessible, by being sensitive to families’ needs, and by simply going that extra mile (Turnbull et al., 2015).
Partnerships that include professionals can sometimes be challenging because we make hierarchical presumptions about who holds the power in making decisions (Turnbull et al., 2015). Professionals who exemplify equality are those who balance this dynamic by fostering consensus-based decisions through shared power. This can be accomplished by providing options to families and by finding ways to empower and support families to share power when necessary.
When difficulties arise, professionals who choose to advocate for solutions are (a) more likely to support the team in solving the problem, and (b) have demonstrated a level of commitment to the family that will support the entire partnership process (Turnbull et al., 2015). Above all, advocacy takes courage and conviction. Some forms of advocacy may be proactive, such as advocating to prevent potential issues. Regardless of the nature of the issue, skilled advocates are ones who can temper their indignation by steadying themselves to respond in a way that makes their voice heard. Turnbull et al. (2015) suggest advocacy that pursues win-win situations where each participant sees value in the solution rather than pursuing problem-solving approaches that pit one side against another.
Trust: The Cornerstone of Partnership
Trust means “having confidence in someone else’s reliability, judgment, word, and action to care for and not harm the entrusted person” (Turnbull et al., 2015, p. 180). This is the cornerstone upon which every other partnership principle is built. For instance, if a professional demonstrates competence through knowledge and expertise but does not follow through on his word to provide this knowledge in a reliable way, this has a negative impact on the partnership. Professionals worthy of trust are those who keep their word because they are committed to doing so, use sound judgment when making decisions, respect the privacy and confidentiality of families, and ultimately build self-efficacy by learning to trust in themselves.
Each of us possess strengths and areas for growth, no matter the stage of our professional journey. Those committed to establishing successful partnerships with families of children with disabilities have the humility to be introspective about pinpointing these areas for growth. Forming and maintaining effective partnerships between professionals and families is work that lies at the ethical core of our profession. While this requires consistent and sustained effort, the outcomes produced by these successful partnerships are always worthy of our time and our energy.
Turnbull, A., Turnbull, H. R., Erwin, E. J., Soodak, L. C., & Shogren, K. A. (2015). Families, professionals and exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnership and trust. (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.