Collaborations & Partnerships

When parents and district leaders work together as part of a SEPAC, it establishes trust, open communication, and group effectiveness. School district leadership and personnel play an important role in developing, growing, and sustaining a SEPAC. Honest discussion and shared problem-solving can generate solutions that improve services to students—in many cases, with little or no impact on school budgets and resources.


  • Examples of successful partnerships.
  • Essential elements of strong partnerships between schools and parents.
  • Tips for strong collaboration and partnerships.
  • Strategies for conflict resolution.
  • Roles and responsibilities of parents and school leaders.

Part I: A Guide for Local Action | Chapter 4: Collaborations & Partnerships


Effective SEPACs begin in the spirit of partnership. Here are two examples that show how partnerships were formed.

Parent-Initiated SEPAC:

  • Several parents wanted to participate in a SEPAC and, after investigating, found that there wasn’t an active one in place. They reached out to school leaders who offered to take part in outreach meetings.
  • Parent members of the SEPAC sometimes held ‘parent-only’ meetings that were encouraged and supported by the Director of Special Services. The school provided and covered the cost of childcare for meetings. This support was critical to successful outreach for this district.
  • The SEPAC and Director of Special Services maintained a growing list of shared community connections. These were posted to the district website as a resource for all; Child Study Team members used the resource list, along with parents.
  • The SEPAC had quarterly meetings with the Director of Special Services to share their work and findings. It was a give and take: parents asked, “How can we help you?” as often as they asked, “How can you help us?” when probing an issue or solution. They engaged in collaborative discussions to generate solutions.
  • The SEPAC shares its work annually with the local Board of Education.

District-Initiated SEPAC:

  • The district Supervisor of Special Services wanted to facilitate a SEPAC, so he reached out to parents who were already actively involved in special education. They set up a steering committee with parent co-chairs so other parents could learn about SEPACs and how to run effective advisory groups. The steering committee grew into a parent-directed SEPAC that organized its own activities, meetings, and outreach to expand the group.
  • The district Supervisor encouraged the SEPAC to be a ‘connections channel’ so that parents felt more comfortable meeting with him and other school personnel. The SEPAC and district Supervisor met as partners every quarter. Because of the strong foundation, the SEPAC knew how to present issues so that they included suggested solutions and resources.

Both approaches built capacity and resulted in sustainable SEPACs that continued to work in partnership with the district. In both cases, the SEPAC was parent-directed, and district leadership supported parent leaders.

Part I: A Guide for Local Action | Chapter 4: Collaborations & Partnerships



Develop and use ground rules that can help all partners in a collaboration know what to expect and develop trust. Some areas to consider are:

  • Confidentiality—Parents need to be able to share concerns with the confidence that their input will not include personally identifiable information.
  • Use of SEPAC name—Individuals who are members should be reminded not to publish information, articles, announcements, newspaper editorials, letters, or public testimonials under the SEPAC name without group consensus.
  • Meeting participation—Commit to attend, turn cell phones off, and be present and collaborative.
  • Boundaries—SEPAC members should commit to helping other parents follow the appropriate chain of command and should seek to serve as liaisons or individual advisors.

Agree to listen carefully and without judgment.

  • Parents and district leaders must listen to each other with full attention and avoid interrupting.
  • Whether engaged in problem-solving or attending a meeting, members should avoid the temptation to generate or share a response before someone else is finished talking.
  • Members should not present information without welcoming questions and further examination. Instead, members might say, “My understanding of this issue is…. Can you share your perspective?”
  • Members should avoid judgment and emotional responses. Instead, they should be encouraged to take a breath in order to get more information and context.

Work to establish mutual trust and accountability.

  • Collaboration is a group effort—multiple voices must come together for the sake of action. Regular attendance should be valued and depended upon.
  • Respect and appreciation of members is important, along with valuing people for their expertise and perspective.
  • Stay true to the spirit of collaboration, working together as peers with diverse strengths and skills. Courtesy and friendliness in that working relationship is essential.

Try to see things from diverse perspectives.

  • Parents can make a good start by committing to helping other parents and students with disabilities.
  • The best solutions are the result of viewing things from different angles. Parents and district leaders can ask, “How can we help here?” and present input that’s packaged to help facilitate a solution.
  • Try phrases like, “That’s a good point,” “I appreciate that input,” and “What you say is interesting—where can we take this?”
  • Remember that appreciating SEPAC members and partners is essential and that “thank you” is vital.

Collaboration requires mutual respect.

  • Learn from mistakes. Avoid holding grudges. Record and celebrate success.
  • Keep working together to improve outcomes for children with disabilities.

Part I: A Guide for Local Action | Chapter 1: Special Education Parent Advisory Councils


SEPACs can submit reports (annually, or more often) to the local Board of Education and (subject to local practice) might invite a member of the local Board of Education to attend SEPAC meetings, events, and trainings. That way, school leaders can better understand and respond to needs.

Resolving Conflicts and Disagreements

Conflict is a natural part of all partnerships and should be expected in a SEPAC. Conflict is not a sign that things are not going well; in fact, conflict can increase understanding, build group cohesion, and expand viewpoints. But poorly managed conflict—or conflict that goes unresolved—can harm the partnership and erode trust. It is important that conflict be recognized and resolved in a positive manner, so that it can ultimately strengthen, not damage, relationships.

Here are some strategies to resolve conflict in a positive way:

  1. Make building relationships the top priority. Understanding the various points of view, not “winning” the argument, should be the goal.
  2. Don’t get personal about the disagreement. Focus on the issue, not the person.
  3. Listen carefully to different ideas and ask questions. Try to understand not only what a person is saying, but also why it matters to them.
  4. Try to agree on some facts. Conflict can move toward consensus as SEPAC members add to the facts that all can agree on.
  5. Focus on NOW. Avoid the temptation to bring other issues and problems into the discussion.
  6. Explore options together, without judgment.
  7. Know when to “let go.” Sometimes, it is best to “agree to disagree” and come back to a conversation at another time.
  8. Keep the interests of the children at the center of the discussion.

Part I: A Guide for Local Action | Chapter 4: Collaborations & Partnerships

Roles and Responsibilities

All members should:

  • Understand the function of a SEPAC.
  • Develop and maintain knowledge of regulations pertaining to the special education process.
  • Attend and participate in SEPAC meetings.

Parent members should:

  • Participate in outreach that extends to the larger community.
  • Record and distribute meeting minutes. (See Part III: Resources: Sample Action Sheet – Agenda and Minutes.)
  • Distribute information to families via a wide range of channels (see Chapter 8: Strategies for Strength and Growth).
  • Establish connections with school committees such as PTA/PTO and community resources.
  • Attend and offer oversight/participation for activities and events.
  • Explore meetings and events held in other districts.
  • Seek representation from other schools in the district and connect with other parent leaders.

School district leaders should:

  1. Work to engage parents of students with disabilities.
  2. Arrange services and supports to ensure diverse participation (childcare, accessibility of meetings, translation services, etc.).
  3. Direct parents to appropriate personnel when individual concerns arise.
  4. Take responsibility for making communication and the flow of information accessible to all parents and guardians though varied formats to increase accessibility.
  5. Identify areas of concern at assigned schools and seek remedies working with the cooperation of staff in input of all stakeholders.



  • Effective SEPACs depend on a real partnership and mutual respect.
  • District leaders can support parent leaders.
  • SEPACs can facilitate smarter budgeting and resource allocation.
  • Ground rules are important for effective collaboration.
  • Well-managed conflict can strengthen collaboration.
  • Parents and district leaders have different roles and responsibilities.