Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 4
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Teacher training through a parent's perspective
Lisa M. Dimling, Bowling Green State University, OH
Mary M. Murray, Bowling Green State University, OH
Tabatha Arton-Titus, Bowling Green State University, OH
Leslie A. Straka, Bowling Green State University, OH
Dimling, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Special Education at Bowling Green State University, Murray, Ed.D., is Associate Professor of Special Education at Bowling Green State University, Arton-Titus, M.Ed. candidate, certified in Autism Spectrum Disorders from Bowling Green State University, Straka, M.Ed. candidate, certified in Autism Spectrum Disorders, from Bowling Green State University.
A positive attitude toward the relationship with parents of a child with a disability can positively influence a child’s achievement. However, students in teacher preparation programs may have negative attitudes and beliefs because of limited experiences with families and children with disabilities. This project sought to provide that experience for pre-service teachers by having parents of children with disabilities participate in “parent panels” in which they discussed their experience with them. The research found a positive connection between the use of parent panels and pre-service teachers’ attitudes toward working with families and children with disabilities. These findings further stress the need for more learning opportunities in which parents provide insight into raising a child with a disability.
Affecting pre-service teachers’ attitudes towards families and children with disabilities is paramount to building a collaborative and successful relationship. Researchers advocate for providing pre-service educators with a variety of experiences with families of children with disabilities, as they are found to have better chances of exhibiting positive working relationships with families of children with special needs, once they begin teaching (Murray & Curran, 2008; Sheldon & Van Voorhis, 2004). As such, experiences with parents of children with special needs impact how future educators work collaboratively with parents of children with exceptionalities (Murray & Curran, 2008).
Unfortunately, some research (Hornby & Lafaele, 2011) suggests that negative attitudes persist among many teachers about parents. Often perceived from a “deficit model,” parents can be viewed as “problems, vulnerable, or less able” (p. 45) to participate in their child’s education or make sound decisions about their child’s education. Educators have also reported perceptions of parents as uninterested in their child’s education and as weak, incompetent, and unable to take responsibility for the child’s education (Hornby & Lafaele, 2011; Murray, Curran, & Zellers, 2008).
Successful collaborative partnerships between parents and educators lead to overall positive student achievement (Hornby & Lafaele, 2011;Trussell, Hammond, & Ingalls, 2008; Turnbull, Turnbull, Erwin & Soodak, 2006). That successful partnership is critical for families and children. However, some pre-service educators may not be receiving enough training to effectively partner with families of children with special needs (Brownlee & Carrington, 2000; Forlin, Loreman, Sharma, Earle, 2009; Tussell et al., 2008). Therefore, the need to prepare emerging educators to collaborate with parents is paramount.
Influencing positive teacher attitudes towards parents and children with disabilities can be effectively addressed by trainings building awareness (Sze, 2009). An event such as: hearing the story of a parent whose child has a disability can have the power to change students’ attitudes and beliefs (Forlin & Hopewell, 2006). When parents tell their stories, it is an empowering event for them (Dunst, 2002; McWilliam, Snyder, Harbin, Porter, & Munn, 2000; Summers, Hoffman, Marquis, Turnbull, & Poston, 2005). When students hear those stories, preconceived notions and perceptions can begin to be changed (Murray et al., 2008; Forlin & Hopewell, 2006). This can be particularly poignant for pre-service teachers in general education programs who may have limited experience with families or children with disabilities (Forlin, et al., 2009). In response, the purpose of this project was to enhance pre-service teacher training by providing undergraduate and graduate students an opportunity to meet with and learn from parents who have children with disabilities. The parent panels presented in this study allowed parents to share their experiences, challenges, and successes of having a child with a disability with future educators. This paper will therefore present the results gained from student questionnaires (i.e., likert scale and open ended) evaluating the parent panels. Findings indicate a connection between the use of parent panels and pre-service teachers’ attitudes working with families and children with disabilities, as well as the need to provide additional learning opportunities for pre-service teachers.
Panels of 3 to 4 parents of children with disabilities participated as guest speakers in teacher preparation classes at Bowling Green State University during the 2009-2010 academic year. Panels were available for general education, special education, school psychology, educational leadership and administration, and physical education departments to impart strategies for successful parent/professional partnership interactions. Over the course of 3 semesters (fall 2009, spring 2010, and summer 2010), parent panels visited 17 undergraduate (n=10) and graduate (n=7) courses across the College of Education. During the panel presentation, the parents were asked to “tell their family’s story.” Many of the families told emotional stories about how they learned their child had a disability, their reaction, their family’s reaction, how they went about getting services early on, struggles they had with obtaining services, as well as the struggles and successes they had with teachers and the education system. The parents also told about the good, the bad (highs and lows), and the special moments that come with having a child with special needs. After the parent presentation, students were given the opportunity to ask questions of the parents and completed a short questionnaire about their impressions of the panel.
This study utilized both quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection to determine if the use of parent panels was an effective method to change pre-service students’ perspectives, beliefs, and attitudes. Following the panels, each student in the class was asked to complete a short questionnaire evaluating the panel. The questionnaire asked the following questions and rated each one on a five-point likert scale, from excellent (5) to poor (1). Two additional open-ended questions were also asked.
Likert scale question:
1. Quality of presenters.
2. New information gained.
3. Depth of coverage.
4. Relevance to my future practice as an educator.
5. Amount of time spent on this activity.
6. Please rate the overall session in terms of how well it met its objectives.
7. Is there a need for more lectures on this topic?
8. Please provide any additional comments or suggestions.
A total of 392 pre-service teachers from Bowling Green State University’s College of Education and Human Development took part in this study. Students were undergraduates and graduates who were enrolled in the special education or general education teacher preparation. In addition, graduate student classes from the school psychology program and students within the educational leadership degree program (e.g., students seeking licensure as principals) were also involved in the study.
Parent participants were recruited through a local hospital program that trained parents of children with disabilities to talk with resident physicians about their experiences having a child with a disability. These participants had previously attended an eight-hour training through the hospital program highlighting how to present their story and experiences. Twenty-six parents were recruited from 50 of the initial hospital program group. Participants were then asked to speak on a panel at the university about their family and their experiences of having a child or children with disabilities. Prior to participating in the panels, a workshop organized by the authors was required for all twenty-six participating parents to address strategies and ideas for presenting their family stories.
Data from the questionnaires was analyzed by frequency counts for each question and likert scale response. Percents for each question were then calculated and are presented in graphic format (see Figure 1). Overall students’ responses were very positive about the panels. The majority of responses for all six likert scale questions were rated as excellent by the students 59-78% of the time. The students rated the quality of the presenters the highest, with 78% agreeing that the quality was excellent. One of the primary goals of this project was to provide pre-service students who have had limited contact with families, an experience with parents of children with disabilities for. Data analysis supported this result with 89% of the students stating that they gained new information (rated as excellent or very good). In addition, the project also hoped that the parent panels would provide information that was relevant to the pre-service educators who would most likely be working with a child or children with a disability in the inclusion setting, as well as their parents. Student responses were positive, stating that 96% of respondents felt that the panels and the information presented were relevant to their future practice as an educator, and rated them as either excellent or very good. Finally, from the student responses, it was clear that the parent panels met the objectives set forth at the beginning of each panel, by a rating of 97% at excellent or very good.
In addition, the two open-ended questions (i.e., “Is there a need for more lectures on this topic,” and “Please provide any additional comments or suggestions”) posed to the students were also analyzed qualitatively for themes that would represent that data. From the students comments four themes emerged and are discussed below:
Theme One: Overall, students felt there was a need for more lectures on this topic, as this was a first-time experience for pre-service teachers (i.e., we’ve never heard of this before).
Students in the general education teacher preparation program (K-12) were only required to take one course addressing the needs of students with disabilities. The researchers purposefully chose courses where students were not likely to have had contact with parents of children with special needs, for the intent of positively introducing students to this new experience. As such, seventy-one students from the general education program did note that this was their first experience with parents of children with special needs; “this was my first time hearing from a parent, I learned a lot and it opened my eyes to disabilities.” In addition, many of these general education students (n= 43) had not yet taken their required course in special education. Therefore, hearing from a panel of parents was an entirely new experience for the majority of students in the general education program. When asked if they felt there was a need for more lectures on this topic, a resounding “Yes,” came from the majority of students, with more than 300 comments stating there should be more lectures on this topic. Further, sentiments such as the following from students confirmed the need to continue parent panels: “The speakers provided me with new information…I learned things I never new about and it was nice to hear things from a parent’s perspective.”
Theme Two: Students wanted more information about how they could help children with disabilities succeed in school.
Across all of the courses, there were an overwhelming number of comments that supported the need for additional information. Students from the general education program and graduate students in the administration programs were the most vocal in their need for classroom strategies, adaptations, techniques, advice, and ultimately, ideas that could be used with a variety of children with special needs. “I would like more information about what we can do as teachers (strategies, new techniques) for all kids with special needs,” A number of students (n= 92) wrote similar comments such as, “I’d like to see more sessions that provide advice and ideas for us as teachers that would be useful,” and “providing clear and helpful information for aspiring administrators would make an impact.”
The scope of the parent panels was to provide a forum for parents to tell their story and provide some advice to aspiring teachers about what worked for their children. Many of student’s concerns and questions were addressed during the question and answer portion of the panel presentations. However, it should be noted that students still felt that there was a great need for additional lectures or presentations with an emphasis on strategies to support students with special needs during their remaining coursework.
Theme Three: The parent panels provided new insights about a parent’s perspective or created a new point of view for students.
As previously noted, this was a first-time experience with parents of children with disabilities for some students (n=71). For these students, this panel experience was especially poignant because it helped to “humanize” the disability, as noted by one student. Another reflected, “[the panel] helped me see the human side [of disabilities].” Respondents suggested that they felt more comfortable with parents of children with disabilities and the children themselves after hearing the panels.
New insights were gained for the students that helped to create an understanding of family dynamics for parents that have a child with a disability. Lessons were learned about the difficulties of raising a child with a disability and the struggles that often come with navigating the educational system and inclusion. “These panels helped us to really understand what parents are experiencing and what life is like for families.” These new points of view offered the students a perspective from the parents, which they had not been privy to prior to the panels. “The panel gave us a different view. We always see the viewpoint as educators, not much as parents. The parents gave us tips on how to be better teachers!” Students who witnessed the parents’ first-hand and personal experiences received new information that personified the lecture and book content and provided invaluable experience, which is not traditionally provided in class. Feedback from one student illustrates this point. “Textbooks can’t demonstrate what a parent or guardian can. It seemed much more authentic.” Another student’s reflection on the panels revealed, “Personally, I could never get enough parent insight- it is the single most important thing I can get as an educator.”
Theme Four: Teamwork and communication are the keys to success.
The final theme observed from the students’ comments may represent one of the most important lesson learned from the parent panels. It is also a lesson that all parent participants heralded during the panel discussion as the keys to success for good partnerships: teamwork and communication. There was an overwhelming sense from the students that one of the best ways to help children with disabilities become successful is to form a partnership with their parents and communicate often. “I feel it’s important to know how vital teamwork and collaboration is between teachers, parents, and student.” From the students’ point of view, the presentations demonstrated “…the importance of communicating with parents as well as students.” Parents discussed how important communication and collaboration with teachers is key to their child’s success. The students echoed this sentiment, “communicating with parents regularly about their child and issues that arise can help me as an educator stay on the same page as parents.”
It has been suggested that any one positive experience can have an impact on the attitudes and dispositions of teacher candidates (Curran & Murray, 2008). Sze (2009) also suggests that teacher trainings can positively contribute to building awareness. Unfortunately, research indicates that many teachers have a negative perception of parents (Hornby & Lafaele, 2011). These attitudinal changes are even more instrumental for pre-service teachers who may have limited experience with children with disabilities or their parents (Forlin & Hopewell, 2006). The purpose of this project was to determine if the use of parent panels in pre-service teacher education programs could provide that positive impact and aid in changing attitudes. In providing opportunities for pre-service teachers to hear from parents of children with disabilities, we hoped to positively contribute to their own awareness of the experiences these parents have had. From student responses to panel evaluations, it appears that the use of parent panels provided a new awareness and valuable perspective for students. This newfound awareness could ultimately have a positive impact on how the emerging educator approaches the parent-teacher partnership and the child with a disability. Thus, having a parent in your corner (as a partner) can provide dividends for positive student achievement (Keyes, 2002) and relationships between parents and educators.
The students in this study identified two major needs: (1) More lectures or information is needed on the topic of children with disabilities and their parents, and (2) Classroom strategies are needed to meet the needs of children with disabilities in the classroom.
Given the resounding cry from students needing more lectures about students with disabilities, faculty from multiple departments across the College of Education requested supplemental panels to provide additional experiences requested by their students. Faculty members were therefore provided with a list of parent panel participants who could be used as guest speakers. To date, there have been 19 parent panel participants who were asked to provide additional experiences within the teacher preparation courses.
To further address the needs addressed by the students for additional information and classroom strategies to assist students with disabilities, the first two authors created a summer graduate workshop for pre-service teachers and teachers (general and special education) currently in the field, to gain new knowledge and learn strategies to assist the students with disabilities in their classrooms. The focus of this week-long (40 hour) workshop was to specifically address these requests for information and strategies. Experts in special education were brought in as guest speakers, additional parent panels were utilized, and a wide variety of classroom strategies were learned to assist teachers with helping students with disabilities become successful in the classroom.
Finally, the local education service center in Ohio has further supported this project and the need to provide pre-service teachers with additional experiences by agreeing to continue the program and provide a stipend to parents for their continued participation. With the financial assistance and support from this agency, the parent panel project was provided with sustainability to ensure that future pre-service teachers would continue to experience and learn from parents of children with disabilities.
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