Family Engagement Patterns

One of the things I love about the work we do is the opportunity to gather evidence related to our field.  Recently CLASS partnered with our sister organization, Mamre, in Brisbane Australia, along with our good friends from Chatham University in Pittsburgh to explore family engagement patterns.  We were particularly interested in looking at the differences in family engagement between families who have children with disability labels compared to families who have children without disabilities.

So, we identified 50 families in Pittsburgh, and 50 in Brisbane, 25 of which had children with disabilities, and 25 whose children did not have disabilities in both cities.  We then proceeded to conduct a community engagement survey, developed at Harvard University, with these 100 families.  This survey was designed by Robert Putnam, a renowned sociologist and prolific researcher on social capital and community engagement.

We recently completed the research and are now in the process of examining the data for trends and findings.  In the early analysis we are discovering what seems to be some interesting cultural and disability related trends.  Of course we plan to write this up and share it more widely, but here are some aspects of interest:

*  In both the US and Australia, children without disabilities are much more likely than children with disabilities to have friends who do not have disabilities, but there is no significant difference in whether the two groups have friends with disabilities.

*  Families in Australia who have a child with a disability are much less likely to go to a friends home or community events compared to other groups.

*  US families were more likely than Australian families to go out to dinner and Australian families who have children with disabilities were the least likely (of all 4 cohorts) to go out to dinner.

*  Australian families who have a child with a disability appear to feel most lonely in their neighborhood compared to all other groups.

*  In both the US and Australia, children with disabilities tend to not see their school friends outside of school as often as children who do not have disabilities.

These are but a few of the findings, but we think this kind of information is important for a number of reasons.  We know that community engagement is a key step in building social capital, yet for most of us, we rarely get formal exposure to engagement protocols.  Rather, we learn how to engage by observing others engage.  If this is the case, and the families who have children with disabilities tend to engage less, then their children get less chances to observe engagement protocols - and, in turn, may have a more difficult time engaging at all.  This, in fact, may be one of the reasons why adults with disabilities, on average, tend to have less social capital than their non-disabled peers.

There is so much more we need to learn about community engagement and social capital, but studies like the family engagement exploration we are doing offer a good start.  Once our analysis is complete we will report the findings and I will be sure to share key aspects in this blog.