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Must we collaborate? Examining cultural contexts.


Given the significant role that collaboration plays in special education, educators must examine the model of collaboration they adopt when establishing and sustaining relationships with diverse families. A "one size fits all" model of collaboration embodied by the increasingly favored "teaming model" is not culturally responsive and does not support a family centered approach to establishing meaningful collaborative relationships. The concept of cultural reciprocity is revisited within a framework of collaborative practices with diverse families.


"The switch from consultation to collaboration came when the role of the special educator evolved from that of the expert to one of a collaborator, or joint problem solver" (Cramer, 1998, p. 28). But what if some parents don't want to be a part of a joint problem solving system?

A central feature in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the notion that parents and educators need to seek meaningful collaborations in order to produce more effective and relevant programs for students with disabilities. Friend and Cook (2003) emphasize that IDEA, in fact, mandates collaboration in the form of parental participation at multiple stages including all eligibility, placement and service decisions as well as their right to be regularly informed about their child's progress. This was recently highlighted in the National Education Association's IDEA Reauthorization Recommendations which emphasized that IDEA should: "Ensure that parents are full partners in their child's education" and specifically:

NEA considers active parent participation as critical for student success. When parents, teachers, administrators and related service providers work and plan together, focused on matching the educational environment and appropriate supports with the learning needs of students with disabilities and those without, the IEP process yields programs and services that maximize the success of every child (NEA, 2003)

Fishbaugh (1997) offers a number of definitions for collaboration including the consultative model (expert informs novice), the coaching model (dual advising among peers), and the teaming model (equal ownership of the problems and solutions). The teaming model, however, appears to be the favored and expected approach to collaboration under National Education Association's IDEA Re-authorization Recommendations and from our own observations, across many special education communities. Given this call to increase parental participation in their children's educational programs, it is imperative that we examine the impact of culture and parental views on the collaborative and participation. Specifically, what if parents don't want to be a part of a joint problem solving system? Is this an acceptable level of participation respected by the IEP team?

"No, No, No, Lo Que Ustedes Digan Como Maestros"

Last year, Fausto and his mother immigrated from the Oaxaca region of Southern Mexico. As an infant living in Mexico, Fausto was identified as having moderate cognitive delays and other developmental disabilities. As a result of these disabilities, Fausto did not participate in any formal educational opportunities while in Mexico and was kept with his maternal grandparents while his mother worked various jobs to support her son. Seeking greater opportunities for her son, Fausto's mother immigrated to the United States where he was quickly assessed and found eligible for special education services. The IEP team suggested an inclusive educational placement in a traditional kindergarten setting with support services as the least restrictive environment. Upon entering kindergarten, Fausto began to exhibit a variety of challenging behaviors including a tendency to wander and periodic screaming with no immediately observable antecedents. His general education teacher quickly reconvened his IEP team to discuss these concerns with his mother.

In the spirit of collaboration, the IEP team sat down with Fausto's mother to discuss these behaviors and seek her support in developing a coordinated home/school behavioral program to replace these behaviors with more appropriate ones that would enable his continued participation in his current classroom. When her opinion was solicited or when the team sought consensus, Fausto's mother would repeatedly respond by saying, "No, no, no, lo que ustedes digan como maestros" [No, no, no, whatever you say as teachers."] After the meeting, Fausto's kindergarten teacher commented to the team that Fausto's mother did not appear to be "vested" in helping her son and that any behavioral change was simply going to be the school's responsibility. If we evaluate this scenario using the teaming model for collaboration as the standard, this "collaboration" was clearly not successful.

Given this example, and other similar scenarios garnered from our work with beginning teachers and families in the IEP process, we feel that a re-examination of collaborative models is needed, using a cross-cultural lens. We challenge the notion that the teaming approach to collaboration is a "one size fits all" model for all of our families. We feel that families may not want to be equal partners "participating fully" at the table, yet this in no way reflects upon their level of caring and commitment towards their children (Ayala, 2000). Fausto's mother left her family and support systems in Mexico and immigrated to a foreign country to seek better educational opportunities for her son. It would appear, at some level, that she clearly is "vested" in her son's education. Unfortunately, the general education teacher's comments reflect a perspective that successful collaboration only occurs when everyone "participates fully" in the development of the IEP and this perspective seems to mirror the intent of collaboration as implied in the National Education Association's IDEA Re-authorization Recommendations.

The examination of parent-professional collaborative partnerships is not new to our field and, indeed, has been the subject of a wide array of articles touting the multiple benefits of these relationships (Turnbull & Turnbull, 1997). Researchers have also addressed the idea of collaboration within cross-cultural contexts including an examination of the variables that may account for Fausto's mother's "reluctance" or "resistance" to collaborate, including:

1. Parents may lack the necessary skills and/or knowledge about the programs and services offered (Bailey, Buysse, Edmonson, & Smith, 1992).

2. Parents may sense intimidation and alienation because of the systems structure and use of jargon embedded in the process (Zetlin, Padron, & Wilson, 1996).

3. Limited English proficiency and/or lack of interpreters may limit their access to the decision making process (Sileo, Sileo, & Prater, 1996).

4. A personal history of negative school experiences may also challenge their participation (Thorp, 1997).

5. Parents may choose to defer all school-based decisions to the appropriate school personnel given their expertise in education (Correa & Tulbert, 1993).

6. Parents may have alternative priorities including socioeconomics and/or varied levels of cultural proximity to their ethnic origins which may influence how they see their role within the school system (DeGangi & Wietlisbach, 1994; Harry, 1992).

Given these studies and related research, educators are beginning to understand the complex interaction of how culture, language, socioeconomic status, and previous school experiences may influence parental participation. Yet the notion that the underlying principles of collaboration may also be culturally irrelevant has not been thoroughly examined and considered in the context of our re-authorization debates surrounding the IDEA. Indeed, Voltz (1993) reminds us that parent participation was created by our school systems' conceptualization of collaboration and a "one size fits all" approach to family involvement may not be appropriate.

Must We Collaborate?: A Paraprofessional Perspective

During a recent Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) training workshop in the San Francisco Bay area of California, several paraprofessionals were gathered for a breakout session focusing on the establishment of collaborative relationships with the families of children enrolled in their programs. Participants were told that given the priority for developing collaborative relationships established by the IDEA, the intent of this session was to have the participants reflect upon their own collaborative practices with the families they serve. By examining the physical arrangement, daily schedule, and communication systems they currently have in place, participants could determine if any of these practices were barriers or benefits to facilitating family involvement in the program. Xiang, an ECSE paraprofessional from San Francisco, was among the participants at this workshop and provided a unique cross-cultural perspective to the discussion. When the topic of collaboration in ECSE programs was introduced, Xiang raised her hand and simply asked: "Must we collaborate?"

Intrigued by this statement, I (first author) approached Xiang after the workshop to identify the basis for her comments in relation to our discussion of collaborative practices in special education. Her response marked a dramatic challenge to the foundation of collaboration itself, namely, that everyone does not necessarily want to be involved in the decision making process. "Well, maybe not all of the Chinese families I work with want to make decisions about their children. Maybe they feel it's more important that someone else make them. I think, maybe, I would be the same way."

The role of "equal and active partner" may be a foreign concept to some of our families from diverse cultural backgrounds (Correa & Tulbert, 1993). The notion that cultural values, beliefs, and behaviors may influence a person's worldview (including their perception of collaboration) is captured by Lynch and Hanson (1998). They provide guidelines that support professionals in establishing cross-cultural competency when working with families from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Cross-cultural competency is achieved by: (1) having professionals first develop an awareness about their own cultural perspective; (2) having professionals then develop an awareness of other's cultural values, beliefs, and behaviors; (3) having professionals then seek to understand culturally generic values and how they vary across and among cultures; and (4) having professionals seek specific information about cultural practices to child rearing, health and disability, and seeking of help/support systems. A key principle in this model is the examination of culturally specific information about how a family will seek help, and we believe this should include their role in the collaborative process. In contrast, the "teaming approach" to collaboration specifies what the family's role will be, namely "equal and active partners." We question if this is a valid expectation within a cross-cultural framework.

This and other models of culturally responsive practices (Chen, Brekken, & Chan, 1997) allow professionals to question the unique cultural or individual basis for how the family seeks relevant services and thus, their role in the process as well. Clearly, Xiang's comments describe how the families she works with seek help and make decisions, yet these appear to contradict the demand for the increased participation model stated in the IDEA. The irony in Xiang's case is that even the support staff we hire to "bridge the gap" between ourselves and the diverse families we serve may also experience this cross-cultural conflict with respect to the concept of collaboration. How, then, does this model support Xiang's view that from within her cultural framework, collaboration in the form of "full participation in the decision-making process" simply does not make sense from her cultural standpoint?

The answer may lie in revisiting the idea of collaboration from within a "posture of cultural reciprocity" (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999). Cultural reciprocity is a two-way process of information sharing that leads to a shared understanding and respect of each other's values and assumptions. It also offers a framework from which to build culturally responsive working relationships. There are four recommended steps in this model: (1) examine the cultural values within which your professional decisions and recommendations are embedded; (2) find out whether or not the family you are working with understands and accepts these assumptions, and if they do not, how their values differ from your own; (3) acknowledge and respect any differences identified, and fully explain your values and assumptions; and (4) through discussion, examine ways of adapting your professional decisions or recommendations to the values of this family. While the teaming model does establish a method for collaboration based upon shared decision-making, it also retains the expectation that everyone will participate "equally," which may contradict the values and assumptions each person brings to the collaborative relationship. A culturally responsive model of collaboration jointly establishes the nature of the collaborative relationship and may or may not include a teaming approach.

We cannot neglect the research supporting the positive outcomes of parent involvement in their child's educational process and the need for parents to be informed of the decisions made on behalf of their children (Friend & Cook, 2003). For many families, this is important and relevant. Yet in our effort to (1) understand families unique needs (2) offer information they need to support their family in raising a child with special needs, and (3) facilitate their full participation in the decision making process, are we making a leap of faith that the third step is necessarily relevant for them? A culturally responsive model clearly supports the first two steps, but we question if it is our obligation to facilitate families' engagement in a decision-making model. Instead, we believe that we need to re-examine our conceptualization of parent participation within the framework if IDEA.

This does not imply a return the consultative model of collaboration, that is, one that encourages the expert (educator) advising the novice (parent). Rather, we should seek a broader definition of collaboration, one that is flexible and establishes meaningful relationships with all families and values their understanding and definition of participation. As we seek re-authorization of IDEA, and more importantly, our relationships with diverse families, we need to closely examine the notion of "collaborative relationships" and who defines our respective roles. Are shared decision-making and seeking consensus a meaningful model for all our families? Perhaps we should ask Fausto's mother.


Ayala, E.C. (2000). Hispanic families perspectives on severe disabilities. Unpublished manuscript. San Diego State University.

Bailey, D.B., Buysse, V., Edmonson, R., & Smith, T.M. (1992). Creating family centered services in early intervention: Perceptions of professionals in four states. Exceptional Children, 58 (4), 298-309.

Chen, D., Brekken, L.J., & Chan, S. (1997). Project CRAFT: Culturally responsive and family focused training. Infants and Young Children, 10, 61-73.

Correa, V.I., & Tulbert, B. (1993). Collaboration between school personnel in special education and Hispanic families. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 4 (3), 253-265.

Cramer, S.F. (1998). Collaboration: A success strategy for special educators. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

DeGangi, G.A., & Wietlisbach, S. (1994). The impact of culture and socioeconomic status on family-professional collaboration: Challenges and solutions. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 14 (4), 503-520.

Fishbaugh, M.S.E. (1997). Models of collaboration. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2003). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals (4th ed.). Needham, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Harry, B. (1992). Cultural diversity, families and the special education system: Communication and empowerment. New York: Teachers College.

Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B. (1999). Culture in special education: Building reciprocal family-professional relationships. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Lynch, E.W., & Hanson, M.J. (1998). Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with young children and their families (2nd ed.) Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

National Education Association. (March, 2003). NEA's priorities for IDEA reauthorization,

Sileo, T.W., Sileo, A.P., & Prater, M.A.(1996). Parent and professional partnerships in special education: Multicultural considerations. Intervention in School and Clinic, 31, 145-153.

Thorp, E.K. (1997). Increasing opportunities for partnership with culturally and linguistically diverse families. Intervention in School and Clinic, 32, 261-269.

Turnbull, A.P., & Turnbull III, H.R. (1997). Families, professionals and exceptionality: A special partnership (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Voltz, D.L. (1993). "Collaboration: Just what do you mean, 'Collaborate'?". L.D. Forum, 17 (4), 32-34.

Zetlin, A.G., Padron, A., & Wilson, S. (1996). The experience of five Latin American families with the special education system. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 31 (1), 22-28.

Emiliano C. Ayala, Ph.D., Sonoma State University, CA Mary Dingle, Ph.D., Sonoma State University, CA

Ayala and Dingle are Assistant Professors of Special Education. Their collaborative research efforts include examining parental participation in the special education process.
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Author:Dingle, Mary
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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