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Collaboration across Early Childhood Special Education.


This paper discusses a graduate personnel preparation program in Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) and how it has been sustained by fostering collaborative relationships with university personnel and the community. This paper defines collaboration and discusses the field of ECSE and how service delivery in ECSE is based on developing effective collaborative partnerships with a variety of individuals. It also outlines the vision and purpose of the ECSE program, collaborative efforts with partners, lessons learned, and future directions.


Collaboration is a complex and multidimensional process that has been increasingly advocated in the field of education, particularly within the branch of special education. It has been defined as "cooperation among two or more people concerning a particular undertaking" (Dunst & Paget, 1991, p. 28); "a style of interaction" (Montague & Warger, 2001, p. 22); "the exchange of different forms of expertise" (Risko & Bromley, 2001, p. 14); and a "means of finding ways to work through the barriers that define our daily work and keep us from working together effectively" (Zimpher, Fallon, Szymanski, & Vogel, 2002, p. 34). This style of working together (Dinnebeil, Hale, & Rule, 1999; Pugach & Johnson, 2002) assumes each member of the collaborative team can make a contribution, is a decision maker, and is part of a valued and committed partnership. According to Cornwell and Korteland (1997), the major components of a true collaborative partnership include: 1) mutual acceptance, 2) respect, 3) openness, 4) trust, and 5) a shared sense of responsibility. Furthermore, each partner should be an effective communicator, negotiator, and problem-solver who supports, facilitates, informs, and prescribes possible solutions and/or actions (Pugach & Johnson, 2002) through a voluntary partnership (Warger & Rutherford, 1996).

A challenge facing schools of higher education today is how to form effective partnerships that mutually benefit both the university and the local school community. This is necessary in order to enhance personnel preparation programs and establish effective teaching and learning processes for graduates and the Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) to 12 grade students they will eventually instruct. Universities have often been criticized for not preparing educators for the realities of the classroom environment (Winton & McCollum, 1997) which often times leads to problems with teacher attrition and retention. Until recently, the types of relationships that have existed between universities' schools of education and schools can be characterized as "episodic" (Pugach & Johnson, 2002, p. 200). Typically, universities seek schools for associate teacher placement sites, and schools call upon universities for assistance with professional development. However, this relationship has undergone changes since educators have become aware that both the university community as well as the local public school system ultimately shares in the responsibility of teaching and learning for all students.

Early Childhood Special Education

ECSE is commonly viewed as a dynamic and complex system of coordination and services to young children with disabilities and their families (Thurman, 1997). Due to the nature of this system and the amount of individuals, agencies, and services involved, coordination works best when delivery of services occurs within the context of collaborative partnerships between families, service providers, and educators.

Our vision of a graduate personnel preparation program in ECSE is one shared by Winton (2000), which is to prepare a "well-paid, well-educated early childhood intervention workforce ... whereby parents, practitioners, administrators, consultants, and university and community college faculty are mutually accountable for creating quality early environments for all children" (p. 3). This vision implies that "ownership" of the program belongs to all. We share in the responsibility of making sure ECSE teachers are prepared to enter the field and "improve conditions to enable more effective teaching and learning" (Zimpher, Fallon, Szymanski, & Vogel, 2002, p. 28).

The ECSE program is built on interagency collaboration through joint efforts of the University, Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS), state of Florida Department of Education, and several local private and public agencies serving young children with disabilities and their families. The program's collaborative relationship with the local school system initially began with a need--the need for both entities to communicate about how a teacher preparation program in ECSE should look and what specific competencies, courses, activities, and experiences would benefit graduate students and ultimately young children with disabilities. One of the Co-Directors of the program was commissioned to develop the competencies required for the state of Florida's Pre-K Handicapped Endorsement (now referred to as the Pre-K Disabilities Endorsement). The development of the competencies led to the need for collaboration with multiple partners to ensure that the vision of a teacher preparation program in ECSE was an inclusive one meeting the needs of all. Through this process, "mutual benefits" (Borthwick, 2001, p. 32) were being exchanged among the partners--the state was developing a new set of competencies, the university was beginning a teacher preparation program, the local school system could hire a pool of prepared ECSE teachers, and ultimately young children with disabilities would be served.

Collaboration and Consultation Across Disciplines

The ECSE program offers opportunities through a cooperative preparation program between a variety of program areas (e.g., special education, TESOL, pediatrics). Faculty members from these disciplines have collaborated with the program in teaching core courses, developing and revising core competencies and professional portfolio assignments, participating as reviewers on students' professional portfolios, conducting review sessions for students preparing for written comprehensive exams, being members of the students' oral exam committee, and serving as advisory board members. A TESOL professor shared, "Collaborating with the ECSE Program has helped me to understand TESOL in a different way. This new understanding comes about by way of interacting with faculty and students with different perspectives about issues common to both ECSE and TESOL" (M. Avalos, personal communication, April 18, 2003).

Higher Education and Public School Partnerships

The University and M-DCPS have a long-standing collaborative partnership that has included the co-development of the ECSE program. Besides hiring graduates from the program, school administrators have participated as advisory board members, presented at professional development seminars, and lectured in relevant courses. As advisory board members, they have provided a bank of oral exam questions that are application based to balance the theoretical questions posed by faculty during exams; they have outlined key experiences graduate students need in the areas of curriculum development and working with medically fragile children; and they have stressed areas of weaknesses within the program specifically in early literacy, assessment, and research skills. The program has responded by facilitating needed experiences and requiring courses in early reading instruction and an overview seminar in quantitative and qualitative statistics.

Seminars are scheduled for graduate students and taught by school personnel to extend professional development and learning beyond courses in the program. This provides graduate students with an opportunity to learn, implement, and reflect more on specific topics of interest in the areas of early childhood curriculum, positive discipline/management, and autism. Our school partners have been involved in teaching courses in the program. Specifically, the course on working with families of young children with disabilities is co-taught by a university faculty member and the Pre-K ESE parent educator. While the faculty member provides the theoretical knowledge base graduate students need in understanding family and cultural dynamics, the parent educator provides rich narratives from an experience base. The ECSE program "puts a high emphasis on family involvement, helps students understand family perspectives, and promotes strength-based and proactive teachers" (L. Katz, advisory board member questionnaire, March 18, 2003).

Higher Education and Community Partnerships

The administrators of early intervention agency programs and community partners were intricately involved in identifying their agency's and community's needs and brainstorming ideas for future grants that would target these needs. For example, ECSE program personnel along with key community partners identified that the program needed to address not just how to serve young children with high-incidence disabilities, but that our local community was witnessing an increase in low-incidence disabilities that also needed attention. The program responded by writing a federal grant to work specifically with young children with low-incidence disabilities and collaboratively partnered with one of the early intervention agencies, the local school system, the university's medical school, and the department of pediatrics to provide a series of six clinic rotations in audiology, behavioral pediatrics, cleft lip/palate and craniofacial anomalies, and pediatric oncology.

ECSE Practicum Experience

The ECSE program recognizes the importance of hands-on experiences that synthesize the realities of the professional development program. Through these experiences, graduate students have the opportunity to work collaboratively with professionals in other areas of expertise as part of a multidisciplinary team and become aware of problems and factors in teaching situations. A key component of the practicum experience is the reflective photo journal developed by each practicum student. The journal analytically documents the experiences and/or activities the practicum students engage in with children of diverse backgrounds, ages, and abilities. This activity targets direct observation of developmentally appropriate practices that are seen as strengths, as well as those that the practicum students feel need further development in order to appropriately meet the needs of young children with disabilities. Through the use of a reflective photo journal, practicum students identify "evidence" of practices within the classroom setting.

Collaboration between Supervisors

University and Clinical Supervisors provide each practicum student with their complementary expertise. The University Supervisor, a working teacher, assists practicum students with a smooth transition from educational theory to practical experience, and in identifying and reflecting upon evidence of culturally and developmentally appropriate practices within the classroom setting. Throughout the practicum experience, the University Supervisor arranges conferences to help the practicum student gain new information about himself/herself as an educator and for assistance in analyzing the professional thoughts behind their instruction.

The responsibility of the Clinical Supervisor, an on-site teacher, is to assist the practicum student in achieving a primary and authentic commitment to the intellectual, emotional, and physical development of children. One benefit a practicum student receives from the Clinical Supervisor is the understanding that effective teaching is more than performance. A "performance only" concern does not help the practicum student see that teaching involves an integrated series of thought and value judgments which are used in the "what" of teaching and in the "how" it is being taught. Clinical Supervisors frequently use a videotape recorder as an impetus for change in teaching behavior as the student sees the need for change. This activity has powerful potential when viewed by the student alone and discussed with the Clinical Supervisor. Conferences between the practicum student, the University Supervisor, and the Clinical Supervisor are held throughout the student's experience to discuss progress, monitor professional development, and provide critical and constructive feedback for improvement. The final assessment of the practicum student is a collaborative undertaking between the University Supervisor and the Clinical Supervisor.

Collaboration with Our Students

The supportive dimensions of collaboration (Pugach & Johnson, 2002) we provide to our graduate students are both professional and interpersonal so they can successfully complete their program of study. Professional support comes in several forms. First, professional development seminars are planned based on the self-identified needs of students in the program Second, professional support is given to students via advising, incentives, and frequent opportunities to review professional portfolio assignments and provide constructive feedback before final submission. Interpersonal support comes in the form of close, ongoing, and frequent contact and accessibility with graduate students via meetings, electronic communication, and telephone conversations.

Each semester, graduate students complete surveys that inform project personnel of the strengths and limitations of different aspects of the program. Project personnel meet regularly to review the recommendations and consistently revisit, reflect, and revise the requirements in order to augment the program. For example, students in the program identified that program requirements needed to be more specifically outlined. The program responded by designing a checklist of student responsibilities that is reviewed at initial advising with each student and at scheduled informational meetings each semester. Items on the checklist include how and when to apply for teacher candidacy, the professional portfolio, and oral exam. Furthermore, students wanted to see evidence of more flexibility for working professionals in the program. The ECSE program responded by continuing to offer evening courses, in addition, to scheduling many program activities (i.e., professional development seminars) on weekends or during teacher planning days.

Challenges, Lessons Learned, and Looking Forward

The ECSE program is an example of a graduate personnel preparation program that works diligently in establishing effective collaborative partnerships with key stakeholders. However, the program and its key project personnel still face challenges. First, the program, the local public school system, and community agencies need to develop a better plan for the practicum experience that is not limited in scope and only offered during the summer months. The critical challenge here is for all partners to jointly develop an experience of high-quality and with sufficient breadth and depth in working with young children with disabilities and their families. Recommended options included designing a full-time program whereby the practicum experience is moved to a regular semester (fall or spring) or allowing graduate students who are working teachers to complete the practicum experience in their own classrooms under the guidance of a University Supervisor and an experienced mentor teacher.

Another challenge is redefining course objectives to meet state certification requirements. Changes from disability-specific certification to non-categorical certification is a transformation the ECSE program is undertaking to be in compliance with new state requirements. The ECSE Co-Directors are working collaboratively with professors who teach ECSE core courses. Professors are reviewing and revising their course syllabi to reflect the new state certification competencies and to ensure ECSE students are receiving the most current and appropriate information. This collaboration with professors will be further enhanced as the program transitions to an electronic professional portfolio and professors will be engaged in more formative evaluations of students. We have learned valuable lessons over the years. Our program's success is not the result of one individual, but of a group of dedicated university professionals and the community whose main objective is to prepare individuals to serve young children with disabilities and their families. Each partner in the group brings a unique perspective that is valued, appreciated, and respected. Partners are active contributors and truly believe in the importance of the program and its goal. Over time, partners have developed high levels of trust with each other, which allows for true openness and negotiation to take place in a non-threatening way.

All of us are invested in preparing exemplary ECSE teachers who can create the most effective, positive, safe, and caring early environments for our youngest students with disabilities and their families. Our ultimate aim for the ECSE graduates is to help them extend their wealth of acquired knowledge back into the community. Their preparation in early intervention, assessment, cultural diversity, etc. will enable them to collaborate and consult with families, schools, and community members in order to provide young children with disabilities with the most innovative educational opportunities. As a program, we will continue to collaborate on a regular basis, share ownership of decisions made, reflect on students' recommendations, develop strategies jointly, and continue to take action together to ensure the most current and effective ECSE program.


Borthwick, A. C. (2001). Dancing in the dark? Learning more about what makes partnerships work. In R. Ravid & M. G. Handler (Eds.), The many faces of school-university collaboration: Characteristics of successful partnerships (pp. 23-41). Englewood: Teacher Ideas.

Cornwell, J. R., & Korteland, C. (1997). The family as a system and a context of early intervention. In S. K. Thurman, J. R. Cornwell, & S. R. Gottwald (Eds.), Contexts of early intervention: Systems and settings (pp. 93-110). Baltimore: Brookes.

Dinnebeil, L. A., Hale, L., & Rule, S. (1999). Early intervention program practices that support collaboration. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 19(4), 225-235.

Dunst, C. J., & Paget, K. D. (1991). Parent-professional partnerships and family empowerment. In M. J. Fine (Ed.), Collaboration with parents of exceptional children (pp. 25-44). Brandon, VT: Clinical Psychology.

Montague, M., & Warger, C. (2001). Getting started with collaboration. In V. J. Risko & K. Bromley (Eds.), Collaboration for diverse learners: Viewpoints and practices (pp. 20-31). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Pugach, M. C., & Johnson, L. J. (2002). Collaborative practitioners, collaborative schools. Denver: Love.

Risko, V. J., & Bromley, K. (2001). Collaboration for diverse learners: Viewpoints and practices. Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Thurman, S. K. (1997). Systems, ecologies, and the context of early intervention. In S. K. Thurman, J. R. Cornwell, & S. R. Gottwald (Eds.), Contexts of early intervention: Systems and settings (pp. 3-18). Baltimore: Brookes.

Warger, C. L., & Rutherford, R. (1996). Social skills instruction: A collaborative approach. Ann Arbor, MI: Foundation for Exceptional Innovations.

Winton, P. J. (2000). Early childhood intervention personnel preparation: Backward mapping for future planning. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 20 (2), 87-94.

Winton, P.J., & McCollum, J. A. (1997). Ecological perspectives on personnel preparation: Rationale, framework and guidelines for change. In P.J. Winton, J. A. McCollum, & C. Catlett (Eds.), Reforming personnel preparation in early intervention: Issues, models and practical strategies (pp. 3-25). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Zimpher, N. L., Fallon, D., Szymanski, E. M., & Vogel, M. (2002). Connecting the dots to improved teacher education. The Presidency, 5 (2), 28-36.

Diana Martinez Valle-Riestra, University of Miami, FL

Robin Shane, University of Miami, FL

Liz Rothlein, University of Miami, FL

Dr. Valle-Riestra is Co-Director of the ECSE graduate program and a research assistant professor in TAL. Ms. Shane is ECSE Program Assistant. She has a master's degree in computer education-application. Dr. Rothlein is Co-Director of the ECSE graduate program, full professor of education, and the associate dean of the SOE.
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Author:Rothlein, Liz
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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