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VI. Family & Student Engagement

Coordinating support with families for student development.





  1. Early Learning
  2. Evidence-Based School and Classroom Practices
  3. Educator Preparation and Professional Learning
  4. Assessment
  5. Accountability
  6. Family and Student Engagement (current page)
  7. Special Education Financing




Family and Student Engagement


Research confirms the positive effects of family involvement in the school life of all children. When schools and families work together in coordinated, thoughtful, and consistent ways to support and encourage children’s learning and development, children simply do better.62 In fact, “the most accurate predictor of a student's achievement in school is not income or social status but the extent to which a student’s family is able to:

  • create a home environment that encourages learning,
  • express high expectations for their children’s achievement and future careers, and
  • become involved in the children’s education at school and in the community.”63


These predictors work in exactly the same way for children with disabilities. However, there is one difference. In a 2012 report, the Harvard Family Research Project adds that “while family engagement confers benefits on all students, those with disabilities often require a greater degree of parental involvement and advocacy than their peers without disabilities” if these children are to realize school success.64

Research provides the evidence: teacher-parent/family collaboration is critically important to student success.65 But it also makes good sense. No one knows a child better than his or her parent or family member.66 The fact that outcomes for students improve when families are involved and empowered in the special education process67 underscores the importance of thoughtful and intentional collaboration between key family members and educators.68


In an effective system, students themselves are also included in decisions about their education. As one recent summary69 noted:

When students with disabilities have practice making decisions, considering (and accepting) consequences, thinking ahead, and advocating for themselves, they are on the path to becoming collaborative partners in their own education—participants rather than bystanders. These students “feel better about themselves, take more risks, ask for the help and clarification they need, and consequently do better in school and in life.”70 They are more likely to assume that they have the right and the ability to interact with teachers and other adults, express their own opinions and preferences, ask questions, and generally engage in the world around them. As “self-determined” individuals, they are ultimately happier than people who operate without a sense of their own agency.71

The schools that best serve students are the ones that provide experiences and allowances for children and youth to grow into an understanding of their own learning strengths, needs, and strategies, so that they can ultimately guide their own learning. This growth in metacognition is a critical element of effective education for all students, but especially for students with disabilities.

The Challenges

More than one out of every eight students in America is identified as having a disability,72 and nearly every metric used to measure success after high school—employment, independent living, post-high-school education/training—show that far too many of these students do not realize their full potential, fail to find full employment, and end up with less-than-satisfying adult lives.73

Because we know that the chief safeguard for all students is their family—through family members’ direct support, strategic knowledge, and confident engagement in the school and their commitment to the ultimate life success of their children—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has explicitly written family involvement into nearly every aspect of the special education process. Unfortunately, parents often do not possess the confidence and the legal and procedural knowledge they need to confidently occupy and fulfill their role in the special education process, certainly not as much as they would like.

Family Engagement

Family-friendly Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings at the school level and integrated family engagement processes at the district level would go far toward creating and supporting inclusive community cultures and values. But while the importance of family involvement in the life and education of children is firmly established, clear and reinforced tenets for authentic family engagement are missing from many of our schools.

State and federal resources are designed to provide the help, guidance, and training that parents and family members need in order to become active and constructive educational partners. Federal funding supports Family Resource Centers (FRCs) and Parent Training and Information Centers (PTICs); and state funding has supported a few Family Empowerment Centers (FECs) to do the same. The FRCs and FECs provide parents support from other parents, help them navigate the special education system, offer training on the Individual Family Services Plan/Individualized Education Program (IFSP/IEP) process and parent rights, and feature many other parent-friendly services and community collaborative resources. These centers also provide technical and general information, assistance, support, and training to parents and families on a full range of other important issues, such as what to expect in an IEP, how to understand parents’ rights, and how to plan for transition to adult life. The centers are designed to operate as partners with the special education system to help parents gain the skills they need to become actively involved in the system in an informed and instructive way, supporting their child and appropriately assisting educators.

Unfortunately, these centers and their resources are not available in all areas of the state. Currently, only 14 FECs are funded, while there are 32 FEC regions statewide, even though there is legislation (SB 511) that calls for one center in each region. Also problematic is the paucity of funding for FRCs. These centers have not seen any increase in financial support since their inception in 1997, even though they have seen a significant increase in the number of Early Start families needing their services and supports.

All of these centers need to be able to respond to their diverse populations, specifically the number of families who are English language learners, whom they are charged with serving. These centers need the resources to provide information, training, and supports in the native language of the parents; and, in order to be effective, they need staff who have training in cultural and linguistic competence. To equip parents to be active educational partners, these centers also need resources to help parents be knowledgeable about evidence-based practices (e.g., social-emotional learning and positive behavioral supports, reading/academic interventions, self-advocacy). Adult learning theory also tells us that any training must be followed by coaching and ongoing support. All of these services are needed; all are generally inadequate in too many centers.

In this age of data and accountability, it’s particularly surprising that none of these centers have coordinated data-collection systems to monitor their work: to track the number of people served, trainings provided, satisfaction registered, etc. Data gathering was not required in the original legislation, but with the recent shift in the focus of state and federal monitoring, from compliance to result-driven accountability (outcomes), it seems prudent and responsible for these centers to be accountable to the larger system for the work they do and the impact they have.

Families need coordinated and consistent information. Parents often seek help with academic skills/homework support, adaptive skills, behavior, communication, and other challenges; and they often receive supports from schools and regional centers in isolation. Too often the strategies are not coordinated or even in agreement. Cross-agency, community-based training models do not exist in the form of shared trainings and collaboration to provide unified services and bolster local capacity.

Student Engagement

Students are also, naturally, critical to this conversation, and their voice needs to be included. The Statewide Special Education Task Force invited the student representatives on the California Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE) to address these issues. And these young adults have done so with passion. Speaking from her own experience, one ACSE student representative said, “Our parents have ideas for us and for our futures. These are not necessarily our ideas. We need to be the ones to step up, to know what we want, to say what we want, and to be heard. This is our life!”74

The purpose of public education is to help children gain the skills they need to make choices about how they live their lives and prepare them to become adults who are contributing members of their communities. Given how much students have at stake in their own education, and given how important it is for them to learn how to be responsible, contributing, and functioning adults, it only makes sense for parents and schools to use every opportunity to help them grow into those mature roles, starting as early as possible. Student engagement is a central part of this effort and includes such practices as student-led IEPs, person-centered planning, and opportunities for students to learn skills in self-determination and self-advocacy, each of which has a strong research base documenting its effectiveness. In addition, schools need to adopt a welcoming environment that includes conducting family-friendly IEP meetings and integrating family engagement into the processes for special education. Too often educators assume that children with disabilities can’t know what they want; too often adults don’t even think to consider asking students about what they want from their schooling or from a particular course of study. And while best practices for IEP meetings and transition plans reflect the saying “nothing about me without me,” IEP meetings that include students are rare in this state. Even rarer are those IEPs where students lead.


Parents and family members are critical to the school and life success of their children with disabilities. In successful schools, they are asked to contribute their insights about how their children learn, and they work with educators to construct useful strategies for home and school. They receive frequent reports on their children and how their needs are being addressed. Given the importance of family involvement—in terms of later learning and employment options for students, in terms of their improved life satisfaction and capacity for community and social involvement, and in terms of the savings to public benefits when people become employed to their fullest capacity and live as independently as possible—all efforts to inform and effectively support parents who have children with disabilities and to enhance their involvement in the special education process should be expanded. As well, students must be heard and included in decisions about their education in every way that is appropriate for their age and their ability. In school they must be given every opportunity to learn how to become independent adults.

In support of improved family and student engagement, the state needs policy change to ensure the following:

  • Fully funded FECs statewide, as already legislated in SB 511, so that each of the 32 FEC regions has a center
  • Increased funding to FRCs
  • Established data-collection systems to monitor the work done by the FRCs/FECs
  • Clear and specific guidelines and reinforcements for teacher-parent-school collaboration and interaction
  • Clear and specific guidelines and reinforcement for student involvement in their own IEP meetings and student-led IEPs
  • Coordinated systems of cross-agency and community-based trainings that focus on collaborative, efficient, and effective services in a seamless delivery system that supports parents and students


  1. Eccles, J. S., & Harold, R. D. (1993). Parent-school involvement during the early adolescent years. Teachers College Record, 94(3), 568–587.
  2. Henderson, A.T., & Berla, N. (Eds.) (1994). A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to student achievement. Washington, DC: National Committee for Citizens in Education, p.160.
  3. Ferrel, J. (2012). Family engagement and children with disabilities. External link opens in new window or tab. Harvard Family Research Project.
  4. California Department of Education. (2011). Family engagement framework. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF).
  5. Goodall, P., & Bruder, M. B. (1986). Parents and the transition process. Exceptional Parent, 16(2), 22–28.
  6. Stoner, J. B., Bock, S. J., Thompson, J. R., Angell, M. E., Heyl, B. S., & Crowley, E. P. (2005). Welcome to our world: Parent perceptions of interactions between parents of young children with ASD and educational professionals. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 20, 39–51.
  7. Fish, W. W. (2006). Perceptions of parents of students with autism towards the IEP meeting: A case study of one family support group chapter. Education, 127(1), 56–68.
  8. CDE. (2014). Students as collaborators: Self-Advocacy. The Special EDge, p. 14.
  9. Can Learn Society. (2013). Self Advocacy. External link opens in new window or tab.
  10. Wehmeyer, M. (2007). What works for special needs learners: Promoting self-determination in people with developmental disabilities. Guildford Press, p. 61.
  11. National Center for Education Statistics, (2014). Children and youth with disabilities. External link opens in new window or tab.
  12. National Center for Education Statistics, (2009). Post high school outcomes of youth with disabilities. External link opens in new window or tab.
  13. California Department of Education. (2014). Students as collaborators: Self-Advocacy. The Special EDge, p. 14.
Questions:   Special Education Division | | 916-445-4613
Last Reviewed: Monday, May 08, 2023
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