Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs

Publication Details

The purpose of this review is to outline international trends in the education of students with special educational needs, with the aim of informing the Ministry of Education’s current review of special education.

Author(s): David Mitchell PhD, College of Education, University of Canterbury, for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Chapter 15: Parent involvement

33Parents34 play important, if not critical, roles in educating and supporting SWSEN. They are first and foremost parents, with all the rights and responsibilities of that role, but they are also sources of information, partners in designing and implementing programmes for their children, and 'consumers' of education (Hornby, 2000). Parents have played and continue to play a critical role in advocating on behalf of their children for better educational services. One of the earliest advocates of family involvement in rehabilitation and special education, Dybwad (1982) recounted how parents of children with mental retardation banded together in many countries during the 1940s and 1950s to demand justice for their children and an end to discriminatory practices.

15.1 The Story So Far

So far in this review, parents have been mentioned in a range of contexts. In brief, the following comments have been made:

  • Educators should create collaborative relationships with students and their families, by recognising parents/family members as valuable partners in promoting academic progress and by working with them from a posture of cultural reciprocity (Chapter Four).
  • The strong focus on disability, difference and deficit is upsetting for parents and has deleterious effects on inclusive culture and practice (Chapter Seven).
  • Parents should be involved in the decision-making processes in Response to Intervention (Chapter Five and Chapter Fifteen).
  • Many parents of SWSEN do not have the knowledge, skills and contacts to comprehend an increasingly deregulated system (Chapter Six).
  • The coexistence of inclusive education provisions and special schools (which is the case in almost every country) suggests that choices must be exercised as to where SWSEN are ‘placed’. In this process, the relative weight given to the preferences of SWSEN and their parents and those who administer education systems constitutes a major point of tension (Chapter Six).
  • Subsidiary issues centre on how parents negotiate any choices that are at least nominally available to them and how they can be assisted to make informed choices (Chapter Six).
  • In countries where funds are tied to individual children, there is more evidence of strategic behaviour by parents and teachers to secure resources (Chapter Seven).
  • Voucher-based funding models provide a direct public payment to parents to cover their child’s public or private school costs. The payment can be made either directly to the parents or to a school on behalf of the parents. The aim of these models is to increase parental choice and to promote competition between schools in order to increase the quality of educational services (Chapter Seven)
  • A 1996 meta-analysis of the effects of behavioural parent training on anti-social behaviours of children yielded a significant effect size of 0.86 for behaviours in the home. There was also evidence that the effects generalised to classroom behaviour and to parents’ personal adjustment (Chapter Ten).
  • In the UK, the SEN and Disability Act 2001 made it clear that where parents want a mainstream place for their child, everything possible should be done to provide it (Chapter Eleven).
  • Countries with more segregated provision report parental pressure for inclusion and there is positive parental support in countries with inclusive education policies. However, parents whose children have more severe special needs are said to prefer segregated settings for their children (Chapter Twelve).
  • Developing school support networks has been identified as an important facilitator of inclusive education, as has encouraging a strong sense of community with professionals and paraprofessionals working collaboratively with parents (Chapter Fourteen).
  • Parents play a critical role in bestowing social validity on inclusion and in facilitating its implementation (Chapter Eleven).
  • Research indicates that parents of children with disabilities believe that inclusion promoted acceptance by non-disabled peers and helped their children’s social, emotional and academic development. Concerns include a loss of access to specialised personnel (Chapter Eleven).
  • Parents of children without disabilities value their children’s greater awareness of others’ needs and their enhanced acceptance of human diversity through inclusion. Some, however, were concerned that their children would not receive sufficient assistance from their teachers and they might emulate inappropriate behaviours of children with disabilities (Chapter Eleven).
  • Australian parents continue to want more special units in primary and secondary schools, not fewer and strongly support a continuum of services (Chapter Twelve).
  • One of the roles of SENCOs in the UK is ‘Consulting, engaging and communicating with colleagues, parents and carers and pupils to enhance pupils’ learning and achievement’ (Chapter Fourteen).

15.2 Levels of Parental Involvement

Five different levels of parent involvement have been identified (Department of Education 1988):

Level I: Being informed. At this most basic level, the school informs parents about its programmes and, in turn, is asked for information.
Level 2: Taking part in activities. At this level, parents are involved in activities, but to a limited extent. For example, they may be invited to attend various functions.
Level 3: Participating in dialogue and exchange of views. Here, parents are invited to examine school or classroom goals and needs.
Level 4: Taking part in decision-making. At this level, parents are asked about their views when decisions affecting their child are being made. A clear case of this level of involvement is the IEP conference and when parents exercise choice as to their child’s placement.
Level 5: Having responsibility to act. This is the highest level, with parents making decisions in partnership with the school and being involved in both planning and evaluating parts of the school programme. A good example of this would be involving the parents of children with special educational needs in formulating and evaluating school policies. Another example of involvement at this level is the role that parents may play as tutors for their own children.

As well, as we shall see in a later section of this chapter, many parents of SWSEN benefit from behavioural parent training, parent-child interaction therapy and the Triple P Positive Parenting programme.

15.3 Policies on Parent Involvement

Many countries have legislation and/or policies on parent involvement in the education of SWSEN, at a minimum their participation in decisions regarding their children’s placements and their IEPs. In this section, consideration will be given to just one country: the UK.

In the UK, there are quite explicit prescribed statutory duties and guidance about various roles and responsibilities concerning parents’ involvement in the education of their children with special educational needs. The former are expressed in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 and the Education Act 1996, and the latter in the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice of 2001 (hereafter referred to as the Code).

One of the fundamental principles underpinning the Code is stated as ‘parents have a vital role to play in supporting their child’s education’ (p.8). Similarly, critical success factors include ‘special education professionals and parents work in partnership’ and ‘special education professionals take into account the views of individual parents in respect of their child’s particular needs’ (ibid., emphasis in original).

Key principles in communicating and working in partnership with parents included the following guidance for professionals:

  • acknowledge and draw on parental knowledge and expertise in relation to their child
  • focus on the children’s strengths as well as areas of additional need
  • recognise the personal and emotional investment of parents and be aware of their feelings
  • ensure that parents understand procedures, are aware of how to access support in preparing their contributions, and are given documents to be discussed well before meetings
  • respect the validity of differing perspectives and seek constructive ways of reconciling different viewpoints
  • respect the differing needs parents themselves may have, such as a disability, or communication and linguistic barriers
  • recognise the need for flexibility in the timing and structure of meetings.

The different roles and responsibilities of local education authorities (LEAs) and schools include the following, as outlined in Chapter 2 of the Code:


  • have a statutory duty to provide parent partnership services;
  • should ensure that parents and schools receive clear information about services and providers (including where relevant the involvement of voluntary groups);
  • have responsibility for the provision of a wide range of information material for parents;
  • should inform all parents that all maintained schools are required to publish their SEN policy; and
  • have a statutory duty to provide disagreement resolution arrangements that can demonstrate independence and credibility in working towards early and informal dispute resolution.


  • should recognise that teachers, SENCOs, pastoral and other staff all have an important role in developing positive and constructive relationships with parents;
  • should accept and value the contribution of parents and encourage their participation;
  • make every effort to identify how parents prefer to work with schools, with the recognition that some families will require both practical help and emotional support if they are to play a key role in the education of their children;
  • should seek to develop partnerships with local parent support groups or voluntary organizations;
  • have a statutory duty to publish their SEN policy;
  • should have a clear and flexible strategy for working with and encouraging parents to play an active role in the education of their children; and
  • in publishing their SEN policy, should seek to ensure it is presented in parent friendly formats.

The Parent Partnership Service35 should

  • provide flexible services for parents, including access to other agencies and organisations, and, for all parents who want one, access to an Independent Parental Supporter;
  • provide accurate, neutral information on parents’ rights, roles and responsibilities within the SEN process, and on the wide range of options available, to enable them to make informed decisions;
  • provide training for parents, Independent Parental Supporters and school staff;
  • work with schools, LEA officers and other agencies to help them develop positive relationships with parents;
  • establish and maintain links with voluntary organisations; and
  • ensure that parents’ views inform and influence the development of local SEN policy and practice.

Despite these policies, a recent UK survey found that 72% of parents wanted more involvement in their children’s schooling (Department for Education & Skills, 2007).

15.4 Parents’ Participation on the IEP Process

The writer and his colleagues at the University of Canterbury (Mitchell et al., 2010) recently completed a review of the literature on IEPs, which contained a section on parental involvement. In summary, the following points were made from the international literature:

  • Professionals need to build a partnership with family members based on mutual respect, open communication, shared responsibility, and collaboration (Zhang & Bennett, 2003).
  • Effect sizes for the impact of parent involvement on children’s academic achievement have been calculated from meta-analyses to be 0.51 (Hattie, 2009).
  • There is an extensive research literature on parental participation in the IEP process, which indicates that the reality of parental participation is problematic (e.g., Garriott et al., 2000; Harry et al., 1995).
  • The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of parent involvement is considered to be because there are various barriers to the meaningful participation of parents, both generically and those specifically related to IEPs (Hornby & Lafaele, in press).
  • Strategies for overcoming barriers and facilitating the participation of parents in the IEP process are summarised, but no studies could be located which evaluated whether implementing such strategies has led to increased participation of parents in the IEP process.

15.5 Parent Training Programmes

As well as participating in decisions regarding their child’s placement and in the design of IEPs, parents of SWSEN may be offered various types of programmes aimed at increasing their skills in working with their children. Three stand out:

Behavioural parent training. In this programme (sometimes referred to as parent management training), parents are typically helped to use effective behavioural management strategies in their homes. This strategy is often based on the assumption that children’s conduct problems result from maladaptive parent-child interactions, such as paying attention to deviant behaviour, ineffective use of commands, and harsh punishments. Thus, parents are trained to define and monitor their child's behaviour, avoid coercive interchanges and positively reinforce acceptable behaviour by implementing developmentally appropriate consequences for their child’s defiance. Such parent training is typically conducted in the context of group or individual therapy. It includes a mixture of didactic instruction, live or videotaped modeling, and role-plays. As its name implies, an important element of behavioural parent training is the effective administration of reinforcement. This involves reinforcement being administered contingently (i.e., after the target behaviour), immediately, frequently and with a variety of high quality reinforcers that are meaningful to the child. As well, such techniques as shaping and prompting are used. For reviews of some of the vast literature on parent management training, see, for example, Kazdin & Weisz (1998) and McCart et al. (2006).

Parent-child interaction therapy. This strategy is closely related to behavioural parent training, but without the close adherence to behavioural principles. It is usually a short-term intervention programme aimed at parents of children with a broad range of behavioural, emotional or developmental problems. Its main aim is to help parents develop warm and responsive relationships with their children and develop acceptable behaviours. It includes non-directive play, along with more directive guidance on interactions, sometimes using an ear microphone.

Triple P-Positive Parenting Programme. This is a multi-level parenting and family support strategy aimed at reducing children’s behavioural and emotional problems. It includes five levels of intervention of increasing strength:

  1. a universal media information campaign targeting all parents: e.g., promoting the use of positive parenting practices in the community, destigmatising the process of seeking help for children with behaviour problems, and countering parent-blaming messages in the media; 
  2. two levels of brief primary care consultations targeting mild behaviour problems: (i) delivering selective intervention through primary care services such as maternal and child health agencies and schools, using videotaped training programmes to train staff;  and (ii) targeting parents who have mild, specific concerns about their child’s behaviour or development and providing four 20-minute information-based sessions with active skills training;
  3. two more intensive parent training programmes for children at risk for more severe behaviour problems: (i) running a 10-session programme which includes sessions on children’s behaviour problems, strategies for encouraging children’s development and managing misbehaviour;  and (ii) carrying out intervention with families with additional risk factors that have not changed after lower levels of intervention (Sanders, 1999).

15.6 The Evidence on Parental Involvement

As outlined in Mitchell (2008), there is quite an extensive international literature on the efficacy of parental involvement in their children’s education:

A 1998 review of treatments of children and adolescents with conduct disorders, covering the period from 1966 to 1995, found 29 well-designed studies. Parent training was one of two treatments that were identified as being ‘well-established’ (Brestan & Eyberg, 1998).

A 1996 meta-analysis of the effects of behavioural parent training on anti-social behaviours of children yielded a significant effect size of 0.86 for behaviours in the home. There was also evidence that the effects generalised to classroom behaviour and to parents’ personal adjustment. It was noted, however, that these studies compared parent management training with no training, and not with other strategies (Serketich &Dumas, 1996).

However, a recent meta-analysis did compare the effectiveness of two different strategies: behavioural parent-training (30 studies) and cognitive-behavioural therapy (41 studies) for children and adolescents with antisocial behaviour problems. The effect size for behavioural parent training was 0.46 for child outcomes (and 0.33 for parent adjustment) compared with 0.35 for child outcomes with cognitive-behavioural therapy. Age was found to influence the outcomes of the two interventions, with behavioural parent training having a stronger effect for preschool and elementary school-aged children, while cognitive behavioural training had a stronger effect for adolescents (McCart et al., 2006).

Another study combined parent involvement and cognitive behavioural therapy. Three groups were compared: (a) those receiving cognitive behavioural therapy with parent involvement (N=17), (b) those receiving cognitive behavioural therapy without parent involvement (N=19), and (c) a waiting list control group (N=14). The children involved in the study were aged from seven to 14 years and all were diagnosed with school phobia. Both treatment conditions resulted in reductions in the children’s social and general anxiety at the end of the treatment and on follow-up after six and 12 months, with no corresponding improvements for the waiting list group. These results do appear, however, to favour cognitive behavioural therapy, as the parental involvement had no additional positive effect (Spence et al., 2000).

A US study examined changes in parent functioning as a result of participating in a behavioural parent training programme designed for children aged 6 to 11 with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The programme comprised nine sessions conducted over a two-month period, The content included (a) an overview of ADHD, (b) a review of a model for understanding child behaviour problems, (c) positive reinforcement skills (e.g., positive attending, ignoring, compliance with requests, and a home token/point system), (d) the use of punishment strategies (e.g., response cost, and time out), (e) modifying strategies for use in public places, and (f) working cooperatively with school personnel, including setting up daily report card systems. Compared with equivalent families on the waiting list for the treatment, those receiving the behavioural parent training showed significant changes in their children’s psychosocial functioning, including improvements in their ADHD symptoms. As well, the parents showed less stress and enhanced self-esteem (Anastopolous et al., 1993).

A review of outcomes of parent-child interaction therapy (see above) concluded that it was generally effective in decreasing a range of children’s disruptive and oppositional behaviours, increasing child compliance with parental requests, improving parenting skills, reducing parents’ stress levels and improving parent-child relationships (McIntosh et al., 2000).

A US study investigated the long-term maintenance of changes following parent-child interaction therapy for young children with oppositional defiant behaviour. This study involved interviewing 23 mothers of children aged from six to 12 years. Changes that had occurred at the end of the intervention were maintained three to six years later (Hood & Eyberg, 2003). 

An Australian paper reports on studies of the Triple P-Positive Parenting Program (outlined above), administered to parents in groups. One of these involved 1,673 families in Perth, Western Australia. Parents who received the intervention reported significantly greater reductions on measures of child disruptive behaviours than parents in the non-intervention comparison group. Prior to the intervention, 42% of the children had disruptive behaviour, this figure reducing to 20% after intervention (Sanders, 1999).

In a summary of parent-mediated interventions involving children with autism, an overview paper concluded that parents learnt behavioural techniques to increase and decrease selected target behaviours in their children (Matson et al., 1996). Among the studies cited was one in which parents were taught to help their children follow photographic schedules depicting activities such as leisure, self-care and housekeeping tasks. The results showed increases in social engagement and decreases in disruptive behaviour among the children with autism (Kranz et al., 1993).

As well as the foregoing, which appeared in Mitchell (2008), Shaddock et al. (2009) drew attention to Risko and Walker-Dalhouse’s (2009) summary of research on methods for addressing the power imbalance that sometimes exists between parents and teachers. They found that teachers strengthened partnerships by communicating with families frequently; focusing on student success; linking health and social services to families; establishing parent networks; providing a parent meeting room; developing parent programmes in leadership, language and literacy with the parents; and involving parents in the creation and evaluation of school programs. These teachers also visited families and attended community events to learn about their students, families and community, then worked on joint literacy projects with parents, such as dialogue journaling, newsletters, anthologies of poetry, stories and plays.

Also, as summarised in Mitchell et al. (2010), there is extensive evidence for the effectiveness of parent involvement in facilitating children’s achievements as has been reported in several reviews and meta-analyses of the international literature (Cox, 2005; Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003; Fan & Chen, 2001; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Jeynes, 2003, 2005).

15.7 Summary

  1. Parents play important, if not critical, roles in educating and supporting their children’s education.
  2. Parents have been considered in almost every chapter of the current review.
  3. Many countries have legislation and/or policies on parent involvement in the education of SWSEN, at a minimum their participation in major decisions affecting their children, such as their IEPs and decisions regarding placements.
  4. Five different levels of parent involvement have been identified: (a) being informed, (b) taking part in activities, (c) participating in dialogue and exchange of views, (d) taking part in decision-making, and (e) having responsibility to act.
  5. Parents of SWSEN often require support and guidance in managing their children’s challenging behaviour. There is clear evidence that when this is provided both children and parents can benefit.
  6. Three parent training programmes stand out as having good outcomes: (a) behavioural parent training, (b) parent-child interaction therapy, and (c) Triple P-Positive Parenting Programme.


  1. This chapter draws on Mitchell (2008, chapter7) and Mitchell et al. (2010), as well as other sources mentioned in the text.
  2. The term 'parent' encompasses a range of people, including natural parents, adoptive or foster parents, guardians, extended family, carers and caregivers. Here ‘parent’ will be used to cover all categories of such relationships.
  3. As of 2009, over 2000 Parent Support Advisors had been employed to work across over 8000 schools (Training and Development Agency for Schools, 2009).