Collaborations Between Schools, Families, and Communities Must Have Shared Responsibilities
by Joe Savrock (April 2009)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are experiencing considerable pressures to improve academic outcomes and decrease school dropout rates. At the same time, nonacademic barriers to learning—such as emotional and behavioral issues, poverty, and family problems—are continuing to increase and often create significant barriers to helping youth succeed at school.
Interdisciplinary collaboration between schools, families, and communities can be an effective means of promoting the mental health of children in the schools and decreasing barriers to learning. These collaborations bring in a diversity of expertise and perspectives, which help develop creative ideas for broadening efforts to support youth. These efforts, which frequently provide relief to overtaxed school systems, often result in a continuum of innovative and effective outreach, prevention, early intervention, and treatment services for youth that reduce barriers to learning and promote mental health.
“Interdisciplinary collaboration is necessary to use the unique expertise of each discipline to improve the relevance and quality of strategies for addressing barriers to learning and promoting mental health,” says Elizabeth Mellin, assistant professor of counselor education at Penn State.
Mellin is completing extensive research that examines on how schools, families, and communities are carrying out their collaborative efforts. She is finding that, although collaborations have gotten increasing support and have become commonplace, they may not be producing the optimal results.
Mellin points out that authentic interdisciplinary collaboration is often more difficult to achieve than expected. “Building effective school-family-community collaborations is a lengthy, time-consuming, resource-intensive, and complex practice,” she says. “As a result, many groups believe they are collaborating when in reality they are simply meeting to report on their individual efforts.”
No one discipline, intervention, or approach can address the issues effectively if done in isolation, notes Mellin. “While the groups are working toward common goals, they are likely continuing to work on those goals independently,” she says. “When you look closely at what is really happening, they are meeting on a regular basis to talk about the independent work that they are doing. That is not authentic interdisciplinary collaboration.”
For interdisciplinary collaboration to be authentic, Mellin stresses, “the goals and activities of all three elements—the schools, families, and communities—must be mutually defined and implemented. There is shared decision-making and practice that builds on the unique competencies of each person involved in the collaboration.”
To help identify whether interdisciplinary collaboration is truly occurring, Mellin offers a key question: “When someone—a teacher, family member, or school counselor—leaves the table, how is what you do different? If the answer is nothing, then the group is likely not really collaborating.”
Mellin acknowledges that authentic interdisciplinary collaboration is difficult to achieve. This is in part because there has been a lack of preparation for teachers, mental health professionals, special educators, and others.
“These professionals are often prepared for practice in disciplinary silos and often do not have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for interdisciplinary collaboration,” says Mellin. “They simply do not know how to engage in mutual decision making and practice with other professionals because they have never had to do so. In addition, these groups often have little preparation about how to include families and youth as partners in interdisciplinary teams.”
Mellin believes that schools, families, and communities would benefit from further applied research, and she has several continuing studies aimed at measuring the effectiveness of the interdisciplinary collaboration. “We need to rethink approaches to preservice training and generate research that can help in the development of tools to support interdisciplinary collaboration,” she says.