CYC-Online 133 MARCH 2010
ListenListen to this


From polarization to partnership: Learning to listen to families

David Osher and Sandra Keenan

The authors report on a school system’s successful bid to integrate families into decision-making processes that affect students” progress through school and, eventually, through life.

“What was the most important thing you did that changed things around for children with emotional and behavioral disorders?” This was the question we asked school social worker Bill Barney after he had delineated many changes in how the Westerly, Rhode Island, schools did business. His answer was clear and simple: “We started to listen to and work with families.”

Clear, simple, but not easy to realize when educators face multiple pressures, are pressed for time, and work in professional bureaucracies (Mintzberg, 1983) that are organized around administrative and professional needs rather than those of children and families. Collaborating with families is particularly difficult for educators who have been trained under parent-blaming paradigms, which view parents as the source of academic and behavioral problems and pay less attention to the contribution that schools make to these problems.

Deep roots
The tensions between schools and families have roots that reach back to the early 19th century (Cutler, 2000). In those early days of public education there was disagreement about who should determine how the child is educated. Should it be the parents and their community, or the teacher and school administrators? There was also disagreement about the role of formal schooling in the education of the child. Was it to teach skills and to credential, or to teach values and to “Americanize”? These tensions were particularly striking when educators interacted with parents who were economically disadvantaged or socially marginalized (e.g., Irish families in the 1840s; Puerto Rican families in the 1940s) (Tyack, 1974; Osher, 1998). School staff often viewed “their” curriculum as appropriate and neutral, while parents often perceived the same curricula as biased (e.g., when 19th-century schools employed the Protestant Bible). Similarly, teachers often saw themselves as saving (or salvaging) children who, because of their families” poor parenting or inappropriate values, constituted a threat to the nation's future. The bureaucratization of schools provided a way of controlling relationships between schools and families (Cutler, 2000). Bureaucracy, as historian Michael Katz (1992) notes, “served the aspirations and convenience of schoolmen far better than the needs of children and their families, and they defended it for more than a century as not only appropriate but inescapable” (p. 58).

Tensions between schools and families have always been particularly strong for parents of children with disabilities. Darling (1991) describes this problem: “Although the parent sees the child in many different contexts ... the professional looks at the child only within the context of a particular specialty, such as medicine or education” (p. 129). The tension involves a lack of empathy. Parents in one study reported being “forced to interact continually with professionals who do not realize how it feels to be a parent or who view parents as unable to understand what the problems are and yet, nevertheless, expect parents to be understanding and cooperative, passive, and appreciative” (Fewell, 1991, pp. 213-214).

Parents of children with emotional and behavioral disorders (E/BD) must often deal with social service providers whose training encourages them to see problem behaviors as attributable to “flawed parenting” (Ladd-Taylor, 2000). Such training has roots in 19th-century conflicts. For example, in an 1889 report on corporal punishment, the Boston School Committee spoke of immigrant children who came “from homes of vice and crime. In their blood are generations of iniquity. ... They hate restraint or any obedience to law. They know nothing of the feelings which are inherited by those who were born on our shores” (Boston School Documents, 1889, as cited in Lazerson, 1971, p. 33). These attitudes took on a scientific and clinical coloration in the 20th century as many psychologists and social workers identified “dysfunctional families” as the root of emotional and behavioral problems (Osher & Hanley, 1996).

Lately, parent-blaming has lost some of its edge in education and mental health circles as government policy promotes collaboration with families (e.g., Osher and Hanley, 1997; Osher, in press). For example, Goal 8 of the U. S. Department of Education Goals 2000 is that “every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement in promoting the social, educational and academic growth of children” (U.S. Department of Education 1999). This turnaround reflects research findings indicating that family involvement can contribute to increased student motivation, better school attendance, improved academic performance, and improved outcomes (Henderson & Berla, 1994; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999).

In the case of children with E/BD, research findings challenge parent-blaming approaches, and government policies help bridge the disconnect between families and schools. Prevention research provides a more nuanced understanding of behavioral problems and suggests the dynamic interaction among biology, environment (school, community, as well as family), and individual (e.g., Cairns and Cairns, 1995), and government policy mandates on parental participation (e.g., The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act). Still, research and policy alone are insufficient to change behavior when other government policies” such as high-stakes testing and welfare reform” create new pressures for schools and families. This is particularly the case when most schools remain ill-equipped to address the needs of students with E/BD, and when the professional orientations of some mental health care providers, as well as the work culture of some school staffs, may reinforce family-blaming practices (Johnson et al., 2000).

The case for collaboration
According to the National Agenda for Improving Results for Children and Youth With Serious Emotional Disturbance, collaboration with families is central to improving outcomes for students with E/BD (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). Two studies of promising practices within systems of care for children with E/BD highlight the importance of collaboration. One, which examined the role of schools in systems of care, identified collaboration with families as the key to improving school outcomes (Woodruff et al., 1999). The second, which examined collaboration, concluded that “true collaboration” depended upon families having full and equitable involvement in the system of care (Hodges, Nesman and Hernandez, 1999). Because families are able to help identify their children's strengths and because they experience their children holistically, families drive collaboration and provide information about their children that is critical to improving outcomes (Osher and Osher, in press).

We can now point to several examples of schools, communities, and families working together to turn schools around and build systems of care that enable children with E/BD to succeed at home, at school, and in the community (Quinn, Osher, Hoffman and Hanley, 1998; Woodruff et al., 1999). These successes, however, require links between school and community resources as well as between schools and families. This, in turn, requires a changed orientation among school and community service providers. Westerly, Rhode Island, provides an example. This 2,800-student school district was able to build upon research findings in special education and make use of government initiatives such as the Department of Education's National Agenda for Improving Results for Children and Youth With Serious Emotional Disturbance (1994) and The Center for Mental Health Service’s (CMHS) Comprehensive Mental Health Services for Children and Their Families Program to develop a school and community capacity to serve all students (Keenan, 1997; Woodruff et al., 1999).

Communities that have been funded through this program with CMHS have experienced significant changes in the way services are delivered for children and families. Westerly is one
of those communities. The change process in Westerly exemplifies a paradigm shift to true collaboration with families (Osher and Osher, in press).

The paradigm shift in action
The following discussion deals with observed results in the Westerly schools. Our interest in following activities over a period of 10 years is to examine differences between the old paradigm and the new, and to consider the strategies that made such a change possible.

Source of solutions. Who is expected to provide the solutions when dealing with students with emotional and behavioral challenges? In the 1980s the Westerly school district was a professional bureaucracy. In some situations professionals made decisions about problem solving, while in other situations a principal, a teacher, or a district-level administrator determined solutions. During the 1990s, however, this hierarchical model shifted so that collaboration is now the rule. The family, child, and professionals work as a team with the best interests of the child and family at the center of the solution.

Several strategies made this change possible. First, families had to become more actively involved in all aspects of their child's education. At the same time, political and community support was engaged to sustain the change process and to provide leadership and financial support through budgets and the acquisition of grants. Collaboration also required a philosophical shift within the community. Community members had to become more accepting of all children and commit to taking responsibility for their children's futures.

Relationships. We all know how important relationships are in the delivery of services. In the 1980s, district practices and services were the subject of many parent complaints. A lack of trust existed between families and the school system. Discussions at meetings were polarized. There was very much a feeling of “us against them.” During the 1990s a shift was achieved from polarization to partnership. Parents and professionals worked together to make decisions, to provide and receive services, and to act jointly as advocates for the children.

This strategy leaned heavily on inclusion. All the players began to trust one another, but this happened only after families, professionals, and administrators began to listen, to understand one another, and to treat one another differently. Families were included in all staff development activities. If they were unable to come during the day, the same content was offered in the evenings. Meetings ran differently also. For example, parents received information in advance. They were given the opportunity to know about what was going to be discussed. Teachers or program facilitators called or met with families prior to meetings to go over the items that would be discussed, and to listen for any questions families might have. The same respect was given to professionals. Many families began to call teachers in advance to let them know what they were looking for at the meeting or whom they were bringing with them. This is how trust develops” out of mutual respect.

During this same time, the majority of faculty and staff participated in staff development training in shared decision making, which included instruction in consensus-building processes. This training actually carried over into other aspects of the school program and demonstrated that conflict resolution and the reaching of some agreement was the common goal. Power and control were replaced by mediation and consensus. There were also fewer absolute long-term decisions. These were replaced by creative assessment. Supportive strategies were tried, evaluated, and changed if necessary.

Orientation. How do providers and community members view problems? This question frames the delivery of services. Historically, the professional was oriented toward isolating and fixing a problem. Professionals had been trained to be the “experts.” They were expected to have all the answers, which implied that the environments they managed were the appropriate ones, and that the “problem” must be outside of the school, most likely within the child or the family. This view was deeply ingrained not just in the professionals themselves, but in the setup of services they provided. What was needed, in achieving the change we are documenting here, was a major shift in how the professionals viewed their roles. They had to change their job description from “expert” to “facilitator.” As it turned out, this shift offered a great deal of relief to many professionals who did not like always having to have the answers” responsibility for outcomes shifts dramatically when individuals share in the decision making. There is less blaming and, concomitantly, increased partnership in working toward the best outcomes.

In addition, there was a philosophical shift within the community to a “zero failure” policy” that is, to including all students in all activities, and doing whatever it took to ensure success. A strong culture evolved, committed to a school- and community-wide system of care. Partnerships developed, bringing together schools, families, physicians, therapists, probation officers, police, child welfare workers, and other social service agencies. Not only was there a change in philosophy, but daily teaching practices changed as well. In addition, the emerging school-wide capacity to serve all students was enhanced through training, development, and the restructuring of school policies and programming. A strengths-based model for instruction was also put into place. Collaborative team-teaching, where a general education teacher and a special education teacher were paired for instruction, became an exciting teaching experience (Keenan, 1997). One facilitator was the expert on content, while the other facilitator was the expert on process and learning styles.

Assessment. Many students with E/BD have not entered the special education system. If they have done so, they have been identified as having a learning disability. Therefore, assessments for emotional and behavioral needs have not always been administered. The IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act) now requires a functional behavioral assessment for any student in special education who exhibits inappropriate behaviors. The IDEA also requires the delineation of specific goals and outcomes related to behavioral needs.

Assessments historically completed for students within the school system were similar to those done in many other places. They were deficit oriented. They were limited in quantity and scope, and were not necessarily individualized. There was little data collection even after instructional and therapeutic practices were in place. Hence there was no sound basis for changing instruction, or for making therapeutic interventions. A shift occurred when the expectations changed. The school system became a self-conscious learning community striving for continuous improvement. Teachers and service providers, as well as families, began to ask better questions. Assessment was more focused, and the results or answers were functional. Like other successful school systems, Westerly developed “a strategic problem-solving approach to problem behavior” (Quinn et al., 1998, p. 27). Westerly schools began to improve student learning by addressing the unique needs of each student. This included the student’s behavioral, emotional, and social needs, as well as those needs strictly related to academics.

Westerly staff implemented this new orientation through a variety of research-based instructional strategies such as peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and fast-paced instruction with supports for all learning styles. They also practiced data collection. Data collection supported ongoing assessment that allowed service providers to make appropriate instructional decisions in a timely manner. In addition, the school system actively sought out new clinical evaluators and developed relationships with community-based therapists and hospitals in order to broaden the array of assessments and qualified evaluators available.

Expectations. It was not encouraging to hear the results of the special education effectiveness studies that were conducted as part of the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA. The outcomes for students with disabilities had not systematically improved over 20 years. Special education has historically had low to modest expectations for students, especially students with EB/D behavioral needs. They often received instruction grounded in practices that were outdated or were not research based. The goal seemed to be a fairly modest one: stabilization. If things did not get any worse, then things were good. Westerly in the 1980s was no different from other school systems in this respect.

As the relationships between participants changed, and as Westerly changed its orientation, the school system developed policies that reflected clear expectations and a commitment to the needs of each individual student. Expectations increased for all students, and all students were expected to participate in standardized testing. The results were striking: Students with special needs, including students with E/BD, did very well on state testing. Twice as many special-needs 8th graders scored in the middle to high range in reading and math, as compared to the state average of students with special needs.

Westerly improved test scores by raising the standards for all students, including students with special needs, and providing them with the behavioral, emotional, social, and academic supports they needed in order to succeed (e.g., team teaching). Westerly’s educators shifted their assumptions to a belief that all children can learn. Clear visible messages about high behavioral and academic expectations were posted in all schools, to remind students and teachers of their commitment to this view.

Planning. Historically, individual plans for student programs were based on existing resources. Students” needs were discussed, and then a decision was made as to which program within the existing program menu provided the closest fit. And, as with special education during that time, it was assumed that separate was better. As the team process began to change the way business was done, and as parents played a more active role in the planning process, decisions were made based on the individual needs of each student, and programs began to change. Many more options along the continuum of services were created. Flexibility was built into Individual Education Plans so that students could access services as needed, instead of being forced to opt for all or nothing. Further, as attitudes toward inclusive approaches developed in education (inclusion) and mental health (systems of care), segregated programs were considered only as a last resort, after many other options with multiple resources had been tried (Woodruff et al., 1999).

The precedent for this change was built into the team meeting. One change involved roles. Education providers or program facilitators had usually chaired meetings. They had made all decisions about scheduling and content, simply sending out notifications as to time and place. As part of the change, though, they began contacting families in advance. They would discuss the meeting’s purpose, arrange for a convenient time and place, and review the list of attendees. Pre-meeting contact provided an opportunity for each party to raise questions or issues in advance, so the appropriate staff or support personnel could be invited. The general education teachers
were also notified of meetings. If they chose to attend they were offered coverage for classes and suggestions about what materials would be helpful to review. Parents and teachers now felt included as team members, and had the same opportunity ahead of time to frame the issues and bring any necessary resources or supports to the meeting.

The second major shift involved individualization. The focus of discussions changed. Whereas once participants had been asked to choose from a limited menu of options that had already been written out, now they were encouraged to start with a blank piece of paper and create the most appropriate plan. Obviously this is harder” individualization demands thought, creativity, and risk taking. It also requires reliable assessment information, which the teams were now getting, thanks to the improved assessment process. More essentials that permitted this change were facilitators with good conflict-resolution skills and the ability to bring about consensus, and a school and community-wide commitment to providing the resources required for every child to succeed.

Access to services. Commitment is one thing, providing resources is another. Westerly’s regular educators, like those in many communities, had felt that special education was too costly and that general education programs suffered because of it. Services were (and still are) closely scrutinized and limited by the schools” resources and staffing schedules. In addition, because of a dearth of alternative options and qualified personnel in Westerly, students were placed out of the community” removed from their peers, their community, and in some cases their families. This was all done in good faith, because a different way of doing things had not been visualized or experienced. Once new approaches were conceptualized and costs were projected, planning teams began to realize that better approaches existed. Services became comprehensive, and were provided when and where the child and family needed them. Structures were put into place to support a school- and community-wide system of care. Services were directed at prevention as well as intervention. Students were provided with meaningful supports that were child-focused, not system-focused. They were educated in their neighborhood schools and, in most cases, in regular classes.

Westerly established district-wide prevention programs that provided interventions, when needed, for all students, including those already identified for special education services. Early interventions and more intensive targeted interventions were developed for students with more severe needs. Well-developed transition plans were incorporated into individual programs in order to ensure successful transitions to and from more restrictive alternative placements. Collaboration with multiple agencies and providers became routine within this school-based system of care. For example, quarterly meetings were held with a representative from each child-serving agency to discuss Westerly’s collaborative structure and systems issues, and to make improvements as needed. This was extremely beneficial in building relationships and solving communication problems.

Outcomes. It is easy for professionals to be caught up in the day-to-day delivery of service and not engage in reflective practice. At a time when the school staff’s only focus was immediate school outcomes, and when professionals neither thought about nor had much information about children's strengths, “our” outcomes seemed mostly acceptable. The catalysts for changing this were the financial stress and family discontent generated by out-of-district placements. However, once the changes began, Westerly staff began to see that part of the problem was seeing outcomes as “our” outcomes rather than “student or family” outcomes. When they started to listen to families and to base planning and decisions on the quality of life and desires of the child and family, they increased their expectations for the scope of student success.

Among desirable school-related outcomes we observed were strong collegial relationships between providers, within both school and community; successful transitions for students to and from school placements or service providers; successful inclusion of students in their neighborhood schools; and students” improved academic achievement through mastery learning and academic supports. Other factors more typically measured, such as school attendance, suspensions, and retentions, all showed positive changes. The schools adopted a more proactive approach by instituting homework clubs, Saturday Academy, and in-school suspension programs. This communicated a different message to students, a change from the mistrustful, punishment-oriented message of the past. The old message was one of exclusion. The new message was the opposite: We want you in our schools, where you can learn and be successful, even if that means after school or on Saturdays.

For the child there were several desirable outcomes” more positive feelings about school; a sense of belonging to a community, to a school, and to a class just like all the other kids; being invited to birthday parties; staying in the same school, the same class, and with the same teacher for a whole year; bringing home a report card to parents who already know its content because they have been informed of their child's progress on a weekly basis. These events were now the norm, not the exceptions.

How it happened
Collaboration with families is now known to be central to improving outcomes for students with E/BD. But creating collaboration is not easy” both the structure of schools and the perspectives of professionals often work against such efforts. Westerly’s schools improved their capacity (adding planning centers, for example), employed research-based interventions and instructional strategies, provided intensive staff development and ongoing support for teachers, and collaborated with other agencies” all as called for in the National Agenda for Improving Results for Children and Youth With Serious Emotional Disturbance. Furthermore, professionals began to view the family as an integral part of the team, as a partner. Whereas once professionals felt comfortable and legitimate in making decisions alone, they now made sure that families were at the table whenever decisions were being made.

Also playing a major role in changing the outcomes for children and families were the children themselves. As the system, individual schools, and classrooms became more inclusive, students began to copy those accepting behaviors they witnessed in the adults. They too became more accepting of one another and began to practice inclusion. As an effect of these changes” changes in the approach to youngsters and in their approaches to each other” students began to be included in discussions that related to their behavior and choices. As some students learned ways to control their own behavior, others learned ways to discourage inappropriate behaviors in their peers while reinforcing positive behaviors. While changes in Westerly began when “we started to listen to and work with families,” they continued to expand when the community started to listen to and work with children, families, and providers to create a responsive learning community dedicated to providing a system of prevention and care for all children.

How to make it happen
Of course, not every school district is like every other, or even like any other, but our observations have led us to believe that these results can” and should” be replicated elsewhere. For systems interested in making changes, here are a few steps to follow:

Work as a team. That is the lesson we have learned. Collaboration really does work!


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This feature: Osher, D. and Keenan, S. (2001). From polarization to partnership: Learning to listen to families. Reaching Today’s Youth, 5, 3. pp. 9-15.

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