Improving parental involvement in special education and advocacy

Photo of Volunteer Advocacy Partners meeting at Vanderbilt

Although parental involvement is a key factor for any student receiving special education services, many parents view it as a challenge and report numerous barriers. Connecting to adult services after high school may present even greater challenges. Both the Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP) and its latest transition-focused version (VAP-T) aim to train advocates and parents to assert their rights, to promote parent-school collaboration, and to improve transition and outcomes after high school.

Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP)

Started in 2008 as a project of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD), the VAP is an intensive, 40-hour special education advocacy training curriculum. The training covers topics such as Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings, research-based interventions, procedural safeguards, assistive technology, least restrictive environment, discipline provisions, advocating for legislative change, and more. Upon completion of the in-classroom training, participants commit to working with four families of children with disabilities in an advocacy capacity.

“Even though we know that having parents involved in securing appropriate services improves the academic achievement of their children, many parents do not feel qualified or, at times, welcome to collaborate with their schools in IEP meetings,” said Megan Burke, Ph.D., former VKC UCEDD trainee and co-developer of the VAP. “Some parents report an atmosphere of power differentials or relay feelings of intimidation. Many admit that they simply do not know the law and thus, their rights. In essence, parents do not feel like equal partners.”

To date, the VAP has trained more than 300 advocates, with continued interest in program participation and expansion across Tennessee. Researchers have studied the effectiveness of the training and the rates of sustained voluntary advocacy efforts. Regarding effectiveness, participants reported significant gains in their knowledge of special education and in their perceived advocacy skills. In terms of measuring advocacy efforts after training, more than 60% of graduates reported having advocated for one or more families. They also reported more involvement in disability organizations, higher rates of identifying themselves as advocates, and greater predicted likelihood to advocate in the future.

Volunteer Advocacy Project-Transition (VAP-T)

Thanks to a 3-year grant from National Institute of Mental Health, and in an effort to meet the unique needs of transition-age youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), investigators at the VKC are currently working with Burke and an advisory board made up of family members, young adults with ASD, and experts in ASD and transition to adapt the VAP curriculum and measure efficacy.

“With the rising prevalence of autism spectrum disorders over the past two decades, increasing numbers of these youth exit high school with each passing year,” said Julie Lounds Taylor, Ph.D., VAP-T principal investigator and assistant professor of Pediatrics and Special Education. “The transition to adulthood is especially difficult for youth with ASD,” said Taylor. “They lose the familiar structure of school and entitlement to many federally mandated services, and still often require assistance in employment and in activities of daily living. Despite the need for continued support, youth with ASD are more likely than those with other disabilities to receive no formal services after leaving high school. We decided to build upon the effective VAP curriculum in order to increase parent ability to successfully advocate for their son or daughter. We think that this training will result in fewer gaps in services received from high school to adult service systems, ultimately leading to improved outcomes.”

In addition to adapting the VAP curriculum, Taylor and Robert Hodapp, Ph.D., professor of Special Education and VKC UCEDD director of Research, will examine both parents’ capacity to advocate and the outcomes of access to services. They also will develop a catalog of relevant resources and materials and will construct a project replication manual.

“This study has the potential for tremendous impact,” Taylor said. “Although the transition to adulthood is a critical turning point in the lives of adults with ASD, few evidence-based interventions exist that families can draw from to improve this process and to promote positive young adult outcomes. If the aims of the study are achieved, the VAP-T has the potential to be rapidly adopted and broadly implemented.”

For more information on the VAP, contact

For more information on the VAP-T, contact

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