Parents Need Webs of Support, Too
By Jonathan Zaff
Our recent report, Choices and Challenges, shows the essentiality of webs of support for parents and guardians navigating the educational challenges that their children face. Our team of researchers worked with families throughout Florida to understand how they navigated the confusing, complex educational choices for their children with disabilities. Too often, parents talked about a journey without a roadmap, navigating supports on their own. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have robust support networks around them; indeed, families talked about the right school, with the right resources, for the specific child’s need to be the missing piece in their web of support. Instead, parents talked about needing help in navigating these complexities; suggesting that although they had the opportunity to choose the schooling that they believed matched the needs of their children, the process to get there was at times overwhelming – “a full-time job”, as one parent described it – with few resources to help them navigate the process.
Education leaders are beginning to understand the power of relationships inside schools. During COVID, this understanding has been amplified as schools throughout the country had difficulty finding their students and engaging them in substantive, meaningful ways. Learning starts with connecting; building a relationship foundation can keep students connected even during the most trying times. Big Picture Learning, The BARR Center, and City Connects are just a few examples of relationship-focused efforts. What is less known and less appreciated, though, is how important relationships are for families as they seek out the best school and other supports for their children.
The idea that families need relational help to navigate the overwhelming choices for their children’s education probably makes sense to most people. Taking a more focused look at one family can illustrate how necessary these supports can be.
Consider Mary. Mary’s 8 year-old, Sam, has multiple learning challenges, including being on the Autism spectrum and having a language impairment. Diagnosed at 4-years-old, just a year after his father died, Sam received support from the school for speech and potty training, but his subsequent kindergarten experience was filled with emotional abuse from his teacher. A social worker at a community-based organization informed Mary of the McKay Scholarship program. After hits and misses (including a school with unlicensed, abusive teachers!), the social worker intervened to help guide Mary toward the school where Sam is currently happy and supported by caring teachers.
What does Mary and Sam’s journey teach us? For one, the social worker was Mary’s anchor, always there to support her and Sam, always there to provide guidance on the types of resources and school that would fit Sam’s needs. We also see a web that was not always fully supportive for her and for Sam. Through Mary and Sam’s journey, though, they developed the full constellation of relationships that they both need to thrive in school and in life. As we suggest in Choices and Challenges, states could design and fund a deeper set of resources and opportunities for relationships that could have resulted in Mary and Sam’s reaching their destination sooner.
Relationships are central to who we are, who we become, and how we travel through life. When thinking about the design and implementation of policies, decision-makers should consider more intentionally how relationships are implicated in the hoped for impacts.
— Jonathan Zaff is the Director of the CERES Institute for Children & Youth. Follow him @zaffjonathan.
Welcome to Episode One of Re-engaging & Re-connecting With Students: A conversation with researchers and administrators on successes in the face of adversity. This web series, co-presented...
In partnership with MENTOR (the National Mentoring Partnership), CERES Institute is working with a set of school districts on how they can develop a “relationships strategy” for their schools. CERES Institute will serve as a research and evaluation partner for MENTOR during this three-year initiative.
In Florida, thanks to a robust school choice environment, parents of students with disabilities have access to several educational options through two specific statewide scholarship programs. To shed light on how parents utilize these scholarships, a team of researchers from CERES Institute for Children and Youth, in partnership with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, share findings from a mixed-methods study, conducted between fall 2020 to spring 2021, as well as implications for policy and practice.
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The Center for Promise is the applied research institute of America’s Promise Alliance, housed at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Its mission is to develop a deep understanding of the conditions necessary for young people in the United States to succeed in school and life.