Collaboration. It should call to mind a harmonious image of people working easily and effectively together to achieve a common goal. However the reality of collaboration for children with special needs and their families can be far bleaker. Fragmented and disconnected service delivery has been well documented. Some barriers to this process can include: agency rigidity, lack of leadership, protection of turf, competition for financial resources, as well as conflicting understanding and policies. However, a child’s functioning cannot be completely compartmentalised and no one professional discipline can adequately serve the needs of all disability groups. Families can often be negotiating education placements, government support packages, medical appointments, educational settings, as well as intervention from a myriad of therapists and specialists. Each agency also has a unique language of terms and acronyms to describe what they do and how they do it, meaning families and other agencies often require a metaphoric map (and dictionary) to navigate murky waters. Sound familiar?
For those of us working with children with special needs and their families it is important to frequently ask ourselves, why and how do we collaborate? Collaboration does take a little time and work, however the benefits far outweigh the challenges. It enables children to learn in their best environment and achieve their individual outcomes. In order for collaboration to occur, decision makers must be willing to take a risk. In order for these autonomous agencies to develop a coordinated system, a concerted effort is needed in many areas. In particular: a shared mission and vision, involvement of all decision makers, skilful leadership, a positive climate, joint planning, appropriate resourcing and willingness to change. However, start slowly and do not force the issue, otherwise your best of intentions could be met with resistance or even hostility. Introduce the idea of collaboration and set up procedures and goals for key decision makers to review. Listen to feedback and be open to suggestions and changes to ensure everyone feels a part of the process.
Parents, your involvement is crucial to the collaborative process and its ultimate success. You know your child best and seeking well-coordinated support will benefit your child in the long run. Always remember you are the key point of communication from one agency to another. This can be achieved by encouraging greater direct communication or carrying and sharing the information yourself (or a combination of both). If you are feeling bombarded by endless letters and phone calls, do not hesitate to speak up and ask questions. These agencies are there to help you in your journey, so make sure you utilise their support as best you can.
Collaboration depends on cooperation between all agencies and the family to achieve desired goals for the child. If we all work together, the children we support will be better off in the long run. It’s as easy and as difficult as that.
By Shaun Ziegenfusz
Fink, D.B. & Fowler, S.A. (1997). Inclusion, One Step at a Time: A Case Study of Communication and Decision Making Across Program Boundaries. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 17(3), 337-362.
Harbin, G.L. (1996). The Challenge of Coordination. Infants and Young Children, 8(3), 68-76.
O’Connor, B. (1995). Challenges of Interagency Collaboration: Serving a Young Child with Severe Disabilities. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 15(2), 89-109.