Volume:3, Issue: 1

Mar. 1, 2011

Teaching Collaboration Through Person-Centered Planning
Nat Hansuvadha [about] , Hilda A. Sramek [about]

DESCRIPTORS: collaboration, families, Making Action Plans (MAPS), person-centered-planning, students with disabilities, special education, teacher preparation.
SYNOPSIS: This paper is an examination of teachers’ responses regarding the implementation of a person-centered planning tool for individuals with disabilities. Thirty-seven special education teachers in a graduate course on collaboration, with emphasis on applied models and actual practice with families, responded to a survey on the strengths and challenges of this process, and the likelihood of its future implementation. Results show that teachers’ perceptions were positive because they had the opportunity to interact with and learn more about their students and their families.


Person-Centered Planning

The central role of parents in their child’s life points to the need for school professionals to establish positive and reciprocal relationships with families.  As the child enters school, the support team becomes increasingly important-- peers and service providers from the school district and other agencies, along with the family, participate in the life of the child.  However, research still indicates that many families, especially culturally and linguistically diverse families in the United States, feel confused and devalued by school professionals due to the culture of special education (Harry, 2008). A key to collaboration with families is using a person-centered planning (PCP) model, which places the child at the center and brings the family to the planning table. PCP is implemented in the U.S.A. by agencies that support persons with disabilities, particularly for their transition to adult life and integration into the community (Amado & McBride, 2001). As a result of PCP, services and supports are meaningful to families’ lives and they are more likely to fully participate in their children’s education (Bernheimer & Keogh, 1995; Coots, 1998). One PCP model is Making Action Plans (MAPS), which focuses on the student’s gifts, strengths, and dreams rather than their “deficits” or inabilities.  With MAPS, every dream is valid, and the team’s job is to create an action plan to assist the student fulfill the dreams (Falvey et. al., 2002).

The purpose of this report is to present findings of special education teachers’ perceptions and dispositions regarding the implementation of the MAPS process with their students with disabilities and their families. Teachers responded to a survey on the strengths and challenges of the MAPS process, and the likelihood that they would implement this process in the future.


Thirty-seven graduate students (32 females and 5 males) enrolled in a collaboration course as part of a master’s degree in special education.  They were all teachers of diverse students with mild to severe disabilities in southern California. Teachers averaged 3.4 years of teaching experience; their students ranged from pre-kindergarten to adulthood.  Teachers’ self-reported racial identities were 19 Caucasian, 10 Latino, 6 Asian, 1 African American, and 1 Arabic/Mexican.

Teachers selected one student from their caseload with a disability, and sought permission from the student’s family to conduct the MAPS process with them (Falvey et al., 2002). People who were important to the student and family (e.g. siblings, classmates, teachers, relatives) were invited to attend and participate. Then, teachers facilitated a discussion of their student’s history, including medical, school, and family history.  Next, the whole team helped the student identify his or her dreams, fears, strengths, and needs, and together they formed a plan of action, which contained details such as responsible parties, timelines, and measurable activities toward fulfillment of the dreams.

After the MAPS meeting, teachers completed a researcher-created survey that included demographic questions and open-ended questions, which were the following: 1) What were the strengths of the process?  2) What were the difficulties of the process? and 3) How likely are you to implement MAPS in the future? Both researchers qualitatively analyzed the data in a recursive process; both read the surveys and created a list of emerging themes for each survey question. Themes were re-examined and discussed until a consensus of final themes and subthemes was attained. Participant quotes illustrate the themes and their definitions below.


Strengths of Implementing MAPS

Six key themes emerged in teachers’ responses regarding perceived strengths of implementing MAPS, which are described here:

Learning more about the family.  Fifteen teachers (41%) reported that the process gave them the opportunity to learn more about their students’ families on a more “personal/authentic level”.   They stated that the process gave them the opportunity to “get to know the family and their dreams for their child” in a deeper and more meaningful way than through previous interactions the teachers had with the student’s parents.

Learning more about the student.  Twelve teachers (32%) reported that they were able to learn more about their students in a way that was individualized and focused on the student’s history, needs, desires, and strengths. They stated that the process was “student-centered” and possessed “no limits—the student could share all thoughts, dreams, etc.”  The ability to focus on a single student and the family helped them gain a better understanding of the student’s life (past, present, and future).

Collaborating with families. Ten teachers (29%) reported that the MAPS meeting with families created an open dialogue.  One participant wrote, “Parents/families had the chance to share information and be listened to, instead of assuming the more passive roles during IEP meetings. There was an absence of power roles. MAPS’ team members were equally valued and a sense of trust and respect were developed.”   They described opportunities to bond with the family and build interpersonal relationships.

Creating an intimate tone and setting. Twelve teachers (29%) described the setting of the MAPS process, which predominantly occurred in students’ homes, as a strength of the meeting. The setting contrasted traditional parent-teacher conferences and meetings, which take place at school. Though it was the teachers’ first experience in their students’ homes, teachers described the setting and tone of the meeting as intimate, comfortable and unique.  

Creating an action plan. Eight teachers (23%) reported that the action plan was a strength of the process. They reported that MAPS allowed team members to “make specific goals and an action plan that address other aspects of the student’s life” in addition to academics.  Families appreciated focusing on important life goals, and having a plan and direction to follow.

Achieving a positive student/teacher affect.  Eight teachers (23%) reported that the meeting motivated students to perform better in school after seeing how much their teachers cared as a result of MAPS. Positive student engagement and behaviors toward achieving school success ensued.

Challenges to Implementing MAPS

The majority of teachers reported challenges in  scheduling participants and facilitating  the meeting. For example, 25 participants (68%) wrote about difficulties in scheduling the meeting, which ranged from 2-4 hours, and in finding a time and place convenient for all team members.  “Getting them there” was no easy task. A second challenge, reported by almost a third of the teachers (30%), was the actual facilitation of the meeting.   Perceived challenges included: finding and working with a translator, working with students who communicate in different ways, encouraging verbal participation among team members, and developing an action plan to accomplish students’ more “extravagant” goals and dreams.  Teachers also described their own emotions working in the family’s home and in leading a new and unfamiliar MAPS process that was unbiased. Facilitators also found it difficult to navigate intimate family topics such as relationships and matters of health.

Future implementation of MAPS

All 37 teachers appreciated the value of MAPS and its implementation.  The majority (70%) indicated that they would likely implement it in the future with their students’ families.   Some teachers (30%) proposed modifications to the process, such as creating “mini-MAPS” for all students, or conducting MAPS with new students and their families at the beginning of the school year. Finally, some teachers (30%) made it clear that they would not be able to implement MAPS given their present work environment and conditions.


Overall, teachers reported numerous advantages of the MAPS process. Also, they discovered that the benefits of collaboration outweighed the concern of time, which was a common reported obstacle to collaboration with families and other professionals  (Blue-Banning, et al, 2007; Robertson et al, 2007). Considering that many of these teachers were also new to the profession and still learning to manage numerous work expectations, a majority of teachers remained hopeful in implanting MAPS in the future. In addition, once teachers possessed the tools of collaboration, they were able to propose modifications to the MAPS process compatible to their work environment.

Some teachers reported feeling inexperienced as facilitators and highly responsible for both the information that was revealed and the promises made to actualize their students’ dreams.   At the same time, teachers used the words “active” to discuss parental roles they observed in the MAPS meeting versus “passive” in previous experiences. With MAPS, teachers found themselves in a setting where families could talk freely and where they could learn about their students and their families in a profound way.  As teachers and school administrators continue to look for effective ways to work with parents, especially those with diverse cultures and backgrounds, this promising model can be taught, implemented, and customized to meet the needs of all students and their families (Callicott, 2003). More importantly, families and schools can build healthy and respectful relationships as they work to honor students’ strengths and support their dreams.


Amado, A. N. & McBride, M. (2001). Increasing Person-Centered Thinking: A Manual for Person-Centered Planning Facilitators. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration.
Bernheimer, L.P. & Keogh, B.K. (1995). Weaving interventions into the fabric of everyday life: An approach to family assessment. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 15, 414-433.
Blue-Banning, M.J., Summers, J.A., Frankland, H.C., Nelson, L.L., & Beegle, G. (2007). Dimensions of family and professional partnerships: Constructive Guidelines for Collaboration. Exceptional Children, 70(2), 167-184.
Callicott, K.J. (2003). Culturally sensitive collaboration within Person-Centered Planning. Focus on Autism and  Other Developmental Disabilities, 18(1), 60-76.
Coots, J.J. (1998).  Family resources and parent participation in schooling activities for their children with developmental delays.  The Journal of Special Education, 31, 498-520.
Falvey, M. A., Forest, M. S., Pearpoint, J., & Rosenberg, R. L. (2002) Building connections, in J.S. Thousand, R.A. Villa & A.I. Nevin (Eds). Creativity and collaborative learning: The practical guide to empowering students, teachers, and families (2nd Ed.). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Harry, B. (2008). Collaboration with culturally and linguistically diverse families: Ideal versus reality. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 372-388.
Robertson, J., Hatton, C., Emerson, E., Elliott, J., McIntosh, B., Swift, P., Krinjen-Kemp, E., Towers, C., Romeo, R., Knapp, M., Sanderson, H., Routledge, M., Oakes, P., & Joyce, T. (2007). Reported barriers to the implementation of person-centered planning for people with intellectual disabilities in the UK. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 20, 297-307.

1 Hansuvadha, Nat, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Advanced Studies in Education & Counseling and Liberal Studies; Sramek, Hilda, A., Director, SERVE Program, and Lecturer in Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling, California State University, Long Beach, CA.

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