Collaboration in Education – Working Together for Positive Outcomes
In the educational setting, in order for families of autistic children to feel understood, supported, and experience success, they need a village around them. They need to collaborate with teachers, educational assistants, school based teams and community partners. Think of the TEAM acronym:
T – Together E – Everyone A – Achieves M – More
For collaboration to happen, people have to feel that by working together they will achieve a better outcome than if they worked alone, even if the outcome is different than what they originally originally imagined.
Why is collaboration so important? This quote from Ted Wachtel from the International Institute for Collaborative Practices says it best:
“Human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them rather than to them or for them.”
No one person knows all of the information. Everyone relies on different perspectives and expertise to support autistic students and their families. Autistic students need autonomy and the opportunity to make their own choices so that they feel they are making decisions, to the best of their ability, that are meaningful to them. Students voices should be heard and respected.
The Difference Between Advocacy and Collaboration
Advocacy and collaboration are two different things. Advocacy is spending time defending the rights of children to receive services and accommodations. For example, a parent may enlist the support for an agency or representative for an IEP or school placement. I had to do this for my daughter in elementary school and again in high school which removed me from the chance to be an active partner in her education. I was put in a defensive role in order to get her needs met.
Collaboration is child centered, giving parents a voice on placement and services. Parents and children are active in decision making. Parents know their children best and can contribute to a partnership by sharing information about their children, but they need to feel that they can trust the team before they will open up.
A parent can’t be both an advocate and a collaborator. Advocacy will interfere with a partnership.
Schools can take on the advocacy role on a student’s behalf. Well-informed schools:
- Spot potential issues effectively.
- Create increased acceptance between peers and educators.
- Create innovative teaching opportunities.
- Prepare students for the adult world.
- Provide family support services.
Schools should also be thinking of long-term outcomes such as:
- Transitioning from school to adulthood
- Building independence
- Extending relationships beyond the school. (My adult son’s current tutor went to high school with him.)
- Making community connections – How can a person get known in the community so that community members care about them and their well-being?
When students graduate, they may still interact with their autistic classmates out in the community. How have we treated them in school – with dignity and respect? Did students care about other students? Was there a culture of inclusion for all students?
Putting the Collaborative Pieces Together
The first step in giving students a voice is creating student agency which refers to the level of control, autonomy and power that a student experiences in the educational situation. Student agency can be demonstrated in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace. Students should have the opportunity to communicate their needs, set goals, and be invited to IEP meetings.
While there may be barriers for students to be heard such as behavior of concern, social skills deficits, difficult expressing themselves, struggles with change, not able to understand, and sensory issues, we have to find ways around these barriers. Some ideas for respecting student voice are:
- providing choices
- teaching how to choose
- accessing learning material in several ways – ex. talking books, computer-based learning, taking the pencil out of the process
- multiple ways to speak
- family engagement
Here are a couple of autistic perspectives on the school experience:
My teachers did many different things that were helpful in supporting me. A big one is listening to me, following my lead.
What I myself and others who have benefited from inclusion have gained is more self-determination and a confidence boost with being included in the classroom, campus, and community.
Relationships with Parents
The foundation of a partnerships is built on an open and trusting relationship with parents. Parents may feel fearful at the start of a partnership because of past negative experiences or having to always be in the advocacy role. We need to understand the parent’s feelings and experiences about:
- Denial – Parents may fear the change that comes with a diagnosis or their child looking and being treated differently from others.
- Fear -Parents fear being judged or not measuring up despite their best efforts. It’s important to let parents know professionals are there to help and support. Explore ways to work together in the best interest of the child.
- Life at home – what does the child eat, how do they sleep at night, medications, home routines, visual supports used, activities outside of school, interests, cultural differences.
Knowing about life at home helps to build an understanding of behavior, situations that increase stress, physiological factors that affect learning, and strategies and experiences that relieve stress. For example, a child that wakes up throughout the night may have a hard time staying awake all day.
How does a parent feel? Mothers, in particular, may experience high levels of psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and social isolation. Research has found that nearly 40% of mothers reported clinically significant levels of parenting stress and between 33% and 59% experienced significant depressive symptoms following their child’s diagnosis of ASD.
Autistic students may not be able to talk about their day, yet parents will want to know what happened at school. Think about the impact of sharing positive information. The staff should meet with parents to establish what home/school communication will look like (email, a folder that gets sent home daily). If using a communication book, ask yourself if the book fell on to the street and someone picked it up, would there be information that might compromise the child? When significant behavioral incidents occur, they must be reported to parents; however, the communication book is not the forum for sharing this kind of information. Report positive information as often as possible because this can have a significant impact on the quality of the family’s evening or weekend.
Parents usually want to know about the activities their child participated in during the day. Things of interest are:
- Any new or particular skills that were demonstrated
- How they played with friends and classmates
- Songs and stories of the day
- New themes or areas of learning
- Upcoming activities, special events, trips, or snack days
School is an important part of a child’s life. We know it takes a village to support an autistic person and to help them feel included and belong. Working collaboratively to create positive relationships will stay with a family for their lifetime. It takes time to have confidence and be able to trust the people around you. Build a strong family, classmates, teachers, friends and community and it will support well-being for an autistic person.
Catholic Principals Leadership Development Ontario, 2020. https://www.principals.ca/en/professional-learning/resources/ASD-Webinar3-Working_With_Partners_EN_final_package.pdf
How Schools Can Advocate for Students With ASD. Autism Center for Kids. https://autismcenterforkids.com/how-schools-can-advocate-for-students-with-asd/
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