July 2, 2008

Forging Collaborative Relationships to Meet the Demands of Inclusion

By Cahill, Susan M Mitra, Sue

Though school districts across the United States are responding to special education legislation by embracing inclusive practices, many classroom teachers are struggling with inclusion. Teachers have reported that their understanding of how learning disabilities impact the acquisition of news skills is limited and that they feel inadequately prepared to meet the demands of inclusive education (DeSimone and Parmar 2006). To make matters worse, general education teachers are charged not only with providing instruction to students with special needs, but also with navigating an unfamiliar system of rules and regulations. To support the learning and achievement of students with special needs as well as the needs of the general education teachers, collaboration with special education colleagues may offer a solution. Yet, general education teachers may be hesitant to enter into collaborative relationships with special education providers. Their lack of preservice special education coursework may cause them to feel anxious and resentful when working with special education teachers and related service providers (Shippen et al. 2005). Understanding the benefits of collaborative relationships, as well as the roles of different service providers, may allow general education teachers to maintain good working relationships and, ultimately, better support students with special needs.

Collaboration has been identified as the most useful and accessible resource available to general educators (DeSimone and Parmar 2006). Building relationships with special education teachers and related service personnel provides general educators with a basis for understanding their inclusion students' strengths and limitations, as well as an opportunity to develop clear expectations about their performance in the classroom (Kluth and Darmody-Latham 2003; Diehl, Ford, and Federico 2005).

Goals of Collaboration

Reluctant teachers can rest assured that the payoffs for engaging in collaborative endeavors can be substantial. Collaboration has been recognized for its ability to improve school climate and raise student achievement (Flowers, (viertens, and Mulhall 1999). Teachers working in schools that emphasize collaboration perceive their buildings as positive and rewarding places to work (Mertens, Flowers, and Mulhall 1998). When the school culture provides opportunities for staff to develop relationships, individuals feel supported and are more likely to experiment with new ways to reach students. Moreover, students with special needs who receive interventions as a result of collaboration are more likely to experience success in general education classrooms (Mastropieri et al. 2005).

Zigmond and Magiera (2001) reported three goals for collaboration that lead to building strong working relationships and improving achievement for students with special needs. The first goal is using varied instructional methods that meet the unique needs of the student. Many of the suggestions offered by resource teachers or related service staff to address the needs of students on their caseloads are sound techniques that are practical as well as beneficial for the improvement of all students' achievement. It is critical that staff members work together in brainstorming, sharing, implementing, and evaluating ideas for specific students and classrooms. This sharing of ideas will build on the teacher's existing knowledge of disability-specific teaching adaptations, as well as the related service provider's knowledge of curriculum and typical instructional methods (Mastropieri et al. 2005).

The second goal is to support the participation of students with special needs in the general education classroom. This can be accomplished through accommodations, modifications, or a change in the teacher's behavior through the use of various classroom management techniques appropriate to the student's specific needs. Strategies such as developing a routine of reviewing previously mastered skills prior to the presentation of new information, as well as offering students guided and independent practice, have been found to be effective practices for delivering instruction to students with disabilities (Mastropieri et al. 2005). General education teachers may find that employing such strategies and adaptations ultimately benefits all their students.

The third goal is to improve the achievement of students with disabilities overall. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (section 101 ) requires that all students meet or exceed grade-level expectations, and students with special needs are no exception. Collaborating provides teachers and related service personnel opportunities to build on their existing knowledge of best practices and incorporate developmentally appropriate approaches to improve the quality of instruction. Emphasis on the student's learning processes helps teams to modify learning experiences so that student achievement is realized (Barnes 1999).

Types of Collaboration

Collaboration requires a willingness to share power and invest in the process. Successful teaming is based on mutual respect, trust, commitment to planning, and a common philosophy (Friend, Reising, and Cook 1993; Barnes 1999; Mastropieri et al. 2005). Friend et al. (1993) identified a continuum of co-teaching that illustrates different levels of shared control. Table 1 describes these levels and provides examples of different levels of shared control.

Barriers to Collaboration

At the onset of the collaborative relationship, special education teachers and related service providers appear to have a leg up on general education teachers. They are experts in their area of specialty and typically understand many of the rules and regulations of special education. However, they lack the experience of managing and providing instruction to an entire class day in and day out. Yet these professionals are seen as highly influential. At times, their suggestions are understood as orders, and they are viewed as leaders rather than resources when implementing IEPs. However, as general education teachers begin to understand the roles of special educators and related service providers, the benefits of collaborative relationships, and how to collaborate, they can grow and maintain good working relationships with numerous providers and better support students with special needs.

Another barrier to collaborative relationships is time. Time is an essential issue in collaboration (Friend and Cook 1990). General educators have the increased responsibility of managing a classroom with limited planning time. In addition, scheduling does not always allow for special educators, related service providers, and general educators to have common planning times. In fact, time is cited as a primary reason for lack of collaboration (Daane, Beirne-Smith, and Latham 2000). Staff members can advocate for common planning periods and establish regular meeting times. Administrators can support collaborative relationships by scheduling time for teams to work together.

Table 1. Shared Control

Yet another barrier is that teachers and related service providers often are required to work in teaming models that they did not choose (Barnes 1999). Lack of investment can lead to team members working in isolation. When resource teachers or related service providers conduct "pull-out" services, teachers are not privy to the interventions being used. Additionally, without the opportunity to experience the classroom for any significant length of time, special education staff members may be forced to speculate on the curriculum needs of students in that environment. Fortunately, as collaboration structures increasingly are perceived as essential, the practice of "pull-out" services is becoming the exception instead of the norm (Darling-Hammond 1996; Zigmond and Magiera 2001; Mastropieri et al. 2005).

Closing Thoughts

As increasing numbers of students with special needs are being included in general education classrooms, the need for collaboration between general educators, special educators, and related service providers has intensified. Understanding how best to develop collaborative relationships paves the way for general education teachers to meet the needs of students with special needs. Through collaboration, teachers and related service personnel will gain new skills in teaming, instruction, and intervention.


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Susan M. Cahill is a Clinical Professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has experience in school-based occupational therapy and special education administration.

Sue Mitra is an Assistant Principal in Cicero (IL) School District 99 and an Ed. D. student at Northern Illinois University in the Department of Teaching and Learning. She has experience teaching in early childhood and administration at the elementary school level. She is a member of the Delta Epsilon Chapter of KDP.

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