The School Staffing Experience: Mothers' Perceptions of Social Work Helpgiving Practices
The Individual with Disabilities Act has strengthened the role of parents in their children’s special education programs. Specifically, the Act requires that educational professionals enlist parents as equal partners in the decision-making process. School social workers are one of the professionals in attendance in special education staffings, yet their role continues to be poorly defined. As limited research exists regarding the activities of the school social worker during such staffings, this study served to understand the helpgiving practices of school social workers that mothers found helpful and essential to their participation.
This qualitative study investigated helpgiving practices from the perspective of mothers with children on the autism spectrum during staffings convened for the purpose of developing individual education plans (IEP). Twelve mothers with school-age children on the autism spectrum were recruited via a convenience sample. A survey questionnaire was administered to collect background information on children and parents. The second method of data collection included one-time, face-to-face in-depth interviews. The interviews were audio-taped and transcribed for accuracy. Two coders independently conducted open-coding of the qualitative interviews using a constant comparative method of qualitative analysis. Inter-coder reliability was monitored throughout the process and any discrepancies were revisited until consensus was reached.
Repeated readings and data immersion resulted in the identification of five themes: a) elements of the IEP staffing b) parent agency c) team climate d) child-centered focus and e) supportive functions of team members. A prominent theme discussed by all mothers was the value they placed on their active participation in IEP staffings, specifically their need for support from professionals to advocate on behalf of their children. Participants identified the school social worker as being well positioned to provide this support; however, data indicate that the mothers did not view the school social workers as participating at the same level as other team members. Instead, participants described the school social workers as being passive members and often silent.
Findings indicate that school social workers may not be adequately fulfilling a needed role in IEP staffings; a role for which participants felt school social workers wer uniquely qualified. The gap between what a school social worker is trained to do and expected to do by the social work profession, and what is expected of them in schools, a host setting, is elucidated by the mothers participating in this study. While professional standards target school social work functions, they do not address expectations specific to IEP staffings. This lack of specificity makes it difficult for school administrators, operating primarily within an educational framework, to create job descriptions matching the values, skills, and knowledge of the social work profession.
Improved social work functioning in staffings might benefit from development of a more clearly articulated set of functions specific to this setting. If included in the standards governing school social work, social workers would be provided with the sanctions necessary to promote their unique professional behavior and perspectives. Additional implications for practice and research will be offered.