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California Technical Assistance and Training

Collaborative Practices to Promote Student Success

December 2015

Updated by: Deborah Herburger

Created by: Lynne Cook, Ph.D. June 2011


Although many advocate for collaborative practices, few clarify what it is that makes a practice collaborative. An accepted description is that collaboration is a style for direct interaction between two or more co-equal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work toward a common goal (Cook & Friend, 1991; 1995). Schools in which teachers collaborate have seen increased student achievement (Mc Leskey & Waldron, 2007); students in co-taught general education classes have been found to achieve higher than those in non-co-taught classes (McDuffie, Mastropieri, & Scruggs, 2009); and reforms and innovations that were developed and installed with the participation of teachers and other stakeholders have taken root and been accepted faster than those in which teachers did not have a voice (Sindelar, Shearer, Vendol-Hoppey, Todd, & Liebert, 2006) (see Priority Area: Multi-Tiered System of Supports [MTSS]).


Consensus in the field is in favor of increased special-general education collaboration in the areas of universally-designed and accessible lessons (see Priority Area: Universal Design for Learning [UDL]); implementing core curriculum with fidelity; administering, analyzing and using assessment to inform instruction; and providing evidence-based interventions. General and special educator collaboration has been a preferred strategy for ensuring prereferral supports are in place to address disproportionality and inappropriate referrals (see Priority Area: Response to Instruction and Intervention [RtI2]), success in least restrictive environments while providing educational benefit (see Priority Area: Individualized Education Program [IEP]), and preparing students for college, career, and civic life success.

As an inclusive methodology, true collaboration can occur only if it is used by individuals who are engaged in a specific task or activity with a shared goal and mindset—such as planning, assessing, teaching, intervening, collecting data, developing curriculum, and so forth. The focus topics (below) for the Collaboration Priority Area are critical elements of teaching that yield greater results when executed through collaborative relationships between general and special educators.

Key Aspects:

  1. Develop and Refine Effective Communication and Interaction Skills Needed to Foster Collaborative Relationships
    Effective communication and interaction skills are essential to successfully build and maintain collaborative relationships with colleagues, families, and students. Through good communication skills team members can create an ambience of open communication, concise messages, probe for clarifications, recognize nonverbal signals, and develop mutual understanding. Good communication involves a set of complex skills that can be mastered with training and practice.
  2. Focus on Understanding Elements of Collaboration and Contextual Influences
    Learning to form effective partnerships requires a thorough understanding of collaboration. In addition to strong communication and interaction skills, effective collaboration requires awareness of the complexity and subtlety of collaboration as is often seen in the variety of programs or services in which it occurs including teams, consultation, co-teaching, co-planning, co-assessing, and family partnerships. The context in which the collaborative services are to be delivered is the final component to consider. Among context features are administrative and structural support for collaboration such as scheduled collaboration, class size or caseload, and professional development opportunities.
  3. Engage in Co-Teaching
    “Co-teaching” is an increasingly common practice in today’s schools and the quality of instruction and the benefits for students vary considerably. There is often confusion about what co-teaching is and how it differs from other in-class services. The unevenness of its implementation is widely recognized. Co-teaching, as supported by its many advocates, is a service delivery option for providing special education or related services to students with disabilities or other special needs while they remain in their general education classes. Co-teaching occurs when two or more professionals jointly plan and deliver substantive instruction to a diverse, blended group of students in a single space.
  4. Utilize Collaborative Assessment and Planning
    One of the most important, yet most neglected, aspects of general- special education collaboration is collaborative assessment and planning. Common planning time enables more than just an opportunity to hammer out the nuts and bolts of instruction; it also allows educators the time to engage in focused reflection and discussion needed to develop a shared vision and shared plans for adoption or initiation and implementation of strategies for effective instruction.
  5. Collaborate with Families to Enhance and Support Student Learning
    Families are critical resources for educators. They have unique knowledge of students’ skills, abilities, perspectives, communities and interests. They hold personal goals for their children. Teachers must collaborate with families to better understand their students and maximize their learning.


  1. Develop and Refine Effective Communication and Interaction Skills Needed to Foster Collaborative Relationships
    • Communicating with Parents: Strategies for Teachers
      Graham-Clay, S. (2005). “Communicating with parents: Strategies for teachers.” The School Community Journal, 15, pp. 117-129.
      • Strong communication is fundamental to the teacher-family relationship and to building a sense of community between home and school. Graham-Clay discusses how communication occurs and offers a variety of effective strategies that teachers can use to make communication with parents as effective and successful as possible. Teachers strive to establish partnerships with parents to support student learning. Teachers must continue to develop and expand their skills in order to maximize effective communication with parents. Barriers to effective communication are considered in conjunction with potential solutions.
    • The Art of Consulting and Communicating
      Working Together: The Art of Consulting and Communicating by Anita DeBoer and Susan Fister (1995)
      • This resource kit offers school-tested techniques for effective teamwork. The program includes the Working Together book that includes models for successful communication, collaboration, tips for scheduling, methods for evaluating collaborative efforts, and more. The video demonstrates key aspects of working as a team and collaborative teaching in a classroom setting. The kit also includes the Interpersonal Style Questionnaire and tools for collaborative teaching.
    • Communication Skills: Online Training
      Communication Skills—Mind Tools Online Training:
      • This online program for management and leadership training, offers a communications skills toolkit with a strong communications training program. The program includes clear descriptions and explanations that help participants to examine their own frames of reference, to understand others better, and to plan and structure communication effectively. Materials include guidance for developing effective strategies for face to-face communication, giving and receiving feedback, asking effective questions, and many other communication skills needed in collaborative work.
    • People Communicating
      People Communicating
      • A Web site with some interesting fact sheets and activities. Despite the numerous commercial links, there are useful materials available here at no cost. Topics include the basics: listening, workplace communications, barriers to communication, and conflict at work.

  2. Focus on Understanding Elements of Collaboration and Contextual Influences
    • Inclusive Schools
      Inclusive Schools in Action: Making Differences Ordinary by James McLeskey and Nancy Waldron (2000)
      • Drs. McLeskey and Waldron explore many of the lessons they have learned from teachers and administrators as they have worked to develop, implement, and maintain inclusive school programs. Among other topics, they examine the need for leadership, collaboration, and foundations for inclusive schools. A recent study guide is available to enhance understanding of what inclusive schools are, how these programs are developed, and why it is important that they be developed.
    • Collaboration: Interaction Skills
      Inclusive Schools in Action: Making Differences Ordinary by James McLeskey and Nancy Waldron (2000)
      • Interaction is a guide to help preprofessionals and professionals understand and participate effectively in their interactions with other school professionals and families. It addresses collaboration as a style of interaction, with accompanying knowledge and skills that facilitate positive relationships and services.

        Interactions provides an insightful look at how teams of school professionals— special educators, general educators and related services professionals—can effectively work together to provide a necessary range of services to students with special needs. As a result professionals learn how to collaborate with one another, other school professionals, and families to educate students with special needs. Five chapters are devoted to developing and refining interpersonal skills needed for collaboration.
    • Consultation, Collaboration, and Teamwork for Students with Special Needs
      Consultation, Collaboration, and Teamwork for Students with Special Needs (6th edition) by Vivian Correa, Hazel Jones, Carol Thomas, and Catherine Morsink
      • The authors provide a comprehensive, practical foundation and guide for preparing school personnel and families to work together to educate students with special needs. They address the roles and responsibilities of all educators, while working with families and in their communities. Divided into four sections, the text encompasses: contexts of collaboration, consultation, and teamwork (Part 1); the processes that facilitate collaborative school consultation and working in teams (Part 2); the content needed by co-educators to work effectively in partnerships (Part 3); and a final section that addresses the collaborative roles among a variety of co-educators (Part 4).
    • Collaborate, Communicate, and Differentiate
      Collaborate, Communicate, and Differentiate! by Wendy Murawski and Sally Spencer (February 2011)
      • Using a very practical approach, this book provides easy to use strategies that apply to daily tasks such as planning and differentiating instruction, communicating with families, using Universal Design for Learning to form instruction, assessing students with diverse backgrounds and abilities, co-teaching, and coordinating with all staff members.
    • Collaboration Between General and Special Education

      Collaboration Between General and Special Education: Making it Work by Michael N. Sharpe and Maureen E. Hawes, NCSET Issue Brief, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (July 2003)
      • National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) Issue Brief
        Special education and general education teachers nationwide now find they need to develop new skills and strategies to meet the challenges of providing access to the general curriculum for all students, including those with disabilities. This brief calls for greater collaboration between general and special education teachers as one strategy for facilitating this access. The brief outlines a five-step model for implementing collaborative relationships and provides further resources for practitioners.
    • MiddleWeb: Online Help for Middle School Educators
      • MiddleWeb is a Web site devoted to topics of interest to middle school educators. However, because collaboration is so integral to middle school models, you will find many helpful resources on this site. Some recent discussions included collaborating about grades and considerations related to working on a team instead of as an individual.

  3. Engage in Co-Teaching
    • Differential Effects of Peer Tutoring
      McDuffie, K. A., Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (2009). “Differential effects of peer tutoring in co-taught and non-co-taught classes: Results for content learning and student-teacher interactions.“ Exceptional Children, 75(4), 493-510.
      • Differential effects of a peer tutoring intervention on the academic achievement of 203 7th-grade science students with and without disabilities in co-teaching and non-co-teaching settings were examined over an 8-week period. Results indicate that the peer tutoring intervention was associated with improvements in student performance, and students in co-teaching settings perform better than those in non-co-teaching settings, but no additional value was added when peer tutoring was implemented in co-taught classrooms.
    • Co-Teaching in Special Education
      Friend, M., Cook, L., Hurley-Chamberlain, D., & Shamberger, C. (2010). “Co-Teaching: An illustration of the complexity of collaboration in special education.” Journal of Educational & Psychological Consultation, 20(1), 9-27.
      • Co-teaching has evolved rapidly as a strategy for ensuring that students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) have access to the general education curriculum while still receiving the specialized instruction to which they are entitled. Co-teaching illustrates the complexity of conceptualizing and studying collaboration in special education. Most inquiry on co-teaching has emphasized co-teachers' roles and relationships or program logistics rather than demonstrating its impact on student achievement and other key outcomes. Contributing to the admittedly equivocal evidence base for co-teaching are factors such as the still emerging understanding of this special education service delivery vehicle, inconsistencies in definitions and implementation, lack of professional preparation, and dilemmas related to situating co-teaching in a supportive, collaborative school culture.
    • Cooperative Teaching Instructional Tools
      Instructional Tools Related to Cooperative Teaching
      • Useful links to resources for creating co-teaching schedules, co-planning, developing curriculum, and assessing readiness to co-teach. The “Types of Co-Teaching” resource includes three video clips demonstrating different approaches to co-teaching. Additional resources and case studies are provided at the University of Kansas’ Special Connections website.
    • Co-Teaching Multimedia Kit
      A Guide to Co-Teaching Multimedia Kit by Richard A. Villa, Jacqueline S. Thousand, & Ann I. Nevin (2008)
      • Designed around the updated edition of A Guide to Co-Teaching, this comprehensive multimedia presentation offers staff developers all the materials needed to help teachers collaborate effectively in the classroom. The kit includes an updated edition of A Guide to Co-Teaching, providing the foundational framework for understanding and applying each co-teaching model and an 84-minute, content-rich VHS video that features Jacqueline S. Thousand and Richard A. Villa discussing the models of co-teaching, plus in-the-classroom footage of elementary, middle, and high school master teachers offering tips and suggestions as they demonstrate research-based co-teaching strategies in linguistically, culturally, and academically diverse settings. Facilitator’s guides and video supports are also included.
    • Six Approaches to Co-Teaching
      “Six Approaches to Co-Teaching”
      • Commonly used approaches to co-teaching are described and illustrated in this Connecticut State Education Resource Center (SERC) information brief. 

  4. Utilize Collaborative Assessment and Planning
    • The IRIS Center for Training Modules
      The IRIS Center for Training Modules—Effective School Practices: Promoting Collaboration and Monitoring Students’ Academic Achievement: 
      • These modules focus on the entire school population and highlight partnerships between general education and special education faculty that result in the creation of a 'collective responsibility' and shared high expectations for all students. Steps include developing collaborative relationships, establishing teams, and collaboratively monitoring and using data for making instructional decisions.
    • RTI-Co-Teaching and Differentiated Instruction
      RTI-Co-Teaching and Differentiated Instruction by Richard Villa and Jacqueline Thousand:
      • Learn how the power of co-teaching and differentiated instruction can be harnessed within a Response to Intervention (RTI) model to help struggling learners succeed. This is a hands-on reference guide designed to address the collaborative planning and problem-solving processes within inclusive classroom environments.
    • A Collaborative Planning Framework
      Stuart, K. S., & Rinaldi, C. (2009). A collaborative planning framework for teachers implementing tiered instruction. Teaching Exceptional Children, 42 (2), pp. 52-57.
      • Planning and assessment are intricately linked as illustrated in the collaborative planning framework described by Drs. Stuart and Rinaldi. By structuring evidenced-based instruction, progress monitoring and subsequent data informed instructional decisions within the RtI process, the authors show the connections among these processes and provide useful strategies and forms for collecting and using data for continued planning.
    • Co-Teaching Solutions Systems
      Co-Teaching Solutions Systems (CTSS) by Wendy Weichel Murawski:
      • A Teachers' Toolbox and Observation System focuses on co-planning, co-teaching, and co-assessing and is designed to monitor and promote effective co-teaching in the classroom. The Observation System provides formats for electronically recording co-teaching observation data and generating reports on effectiveness. The Teachers’ Toolbox includes co-teaching resources including necessary features for co-planning/co-instructing/co-assessing.
        A downloadable 14 day trial version of the Co-Teaching Solutions System is available
    • Transforming Theory into Practice
      Collaborative Planning: Transforming Theory into Practice by Richard Villa:
      • The video describes collaborative planning and five essential components to an effective collaborative teaming process. From research and practice, Dr. Villa provides important information about how collaborative teams can function optimally. He talks with teachers engaged in "collaborative planning" for successful classroom instruction. Collaborative teams of teachers are profiled and educators share how they met the many challenges and obstacles that needed to be overcome.
    • The Parent Handbook for California Common Core Standards
      • The Parent Handbook for California Common Core Standards is now available in Spanish. The original publication in English was produced in 2011 by the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association and the Sacramento County Office of Education. The Parent Handbook supports local school efforts for effective communication with parents, including school site councils, and parent involvement initiatives. It provides a detailed overview of what students will be learning in English Language Arts and mathematics programs that are aligned with California Common Core Standards (CA CCSS).

  5. Collaborate with Families to Enhance and Support Student Learning
    • Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality
      Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive Outcomes Through Partnership and Trust (6th ed.) by Ann Turnbull, H. Rutherford Turnbull, Leslie Soodak, and Karrie Shogren, (2011).
      • The text is written for courses that prepare special and general educators and related service providers to form successful partnerships with families of children with disabilities. This practical book instructs teachers and families on how to empower, collaborate, and advocate for children with special needs. Strong in its depiction of family systems theory (Part I), the history and current status of policy (Part II), and the principles of partnership and their application by teachers and other professionals (Part III), the text also offers a plethora of practical advice for educators and true ways to apply these principles on the job. The book includes authentic stories, depictions of how families and education professionals partner together for the education of special needs children, the challenges they faced along the way, the solutions, and ways they overcome these obstacles.
    • Constructive Guidelines For Collaboration
      Blue-Banning, M., Summers, J. A., Frankland, H. C., Lord-Nelson, L., & Beegle, G. (2004). “Dimensions of family and professional partnerships: Constructive guidelines for collaboration.” Exceptional Children, 70, 167–184.
      • The development of collaborative partnerships between parents and professionals is too often unsuccessful. One reason for this failure may be the lack of empirical understanding of the components of interpersonal partnerships. Using qualitative inquiry, 33 focus groups were conducted with adult family members of children with and without disabilities and service providers and administrators. In addition, 32 individual interviews were conducted with non-English-speaking parents and their service providers. Indicators of professional behavior facilitative of collaborative partnerships were identified. These indicators were organized into six broad themes: (a) Communication, (b) Commitment, (c) Equality, (d) Skills, (e) Trust, and (f) Respect. The specific meaning of each theme is described, including similarities and differences between professionals and family members.
    • The IRIS Center for Training Modules
      The IRIS Center for Training Modules. (2008). Collaborating with families. (accessed February 26, 2011)
      • This online training module is designed to help teachers build positive and collaborative relationships with families. It highlights the diversity of families and addresses the factors that school personnel should understand about working with and forming relationships with the families of children with disabilities.
    • Beach Center on Disability
      • This Web site provides research briefs and fact sheets on topics of interest to families and professionals. The information briefs are particularly useful for addressing the needs of families for educational, vocational, or adult living decisions. Additional resources include information and first person stories that support families and professionals.
    • The HEATH Resource Center
      • HEATH provides online, Web-based resources on postsecondary education for individuals with disabilities. HEATH has information for students with disabilities on educational disability support services, policies, procedures, adaptations, accessing college or university campuses, career-technical schools, and other postsecondary training entities. They also provide information on financial assistance, scholarships, and materials that help students with disabilities transition into college, university, career-technical schools, or other postsecondary programs.
    • Kids Together, Inc.
      • This is a volunteer supported Web site with information intended to be helpful to families, professionals, educators, advocates, self-advocates, and the community. The mission of Kids Together is “to promote inclusive communities where all people belong”. The various postings on the site include many topics of interest to families and professionals.
    • National Fathers Network **
      • National Fathers Network (NFN) provides resources and support to men who have children with special needs through development of national and statewide databases of fathers from diverse ethnic, racial, and geographic backgrounds; provision of father support and mentoring programs; and provision of varied educational and technical assistance services.
    • The Office of Special Education Programs’ Ideas That Work
      • This Web site is designed to provide easy access to information from research to practice initiatives funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) that addresses the provisions of IDEA and NCLB. This Web site includes resources, links, and other important information resulting from OSEP’s research to practice efforts.
    • Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER)
      • PACER’s mission is to expand opportunities and enhance the quality of life of children and young adults with disabilities and their families, based on the concept of parents helping parents. PACER provides assistance to individual families, workshops, materials for parents and professionals, and leadership in securing a free and appropriate public education for all children.
    • Parents Helping Parents
      • This is a comprehensive resource and information center run for and by parents. Its Web site offers useful links to information about support groups for family members and information resources for families and professionals
    • Sibling Support Project
      • The mission of the Sibling Support Project is accomplished by training local service providers to create community-based peer support programs for young siblings; hosting workshops, listservs, and Web sites for young and adult siblings; and increasing parents’ and providers’ awareness of siblings’ unique, lifelong, and ever-changing concerns through workshops, Web sites, and written materials.
    • National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University
      • Most educators want to build strong School-Family-Community Partnerships, but most have not reached this goal. NNPS, a major project of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, was founded by director, Dr. Joyce L. Epstein. NNPS guides leaders in schools, districts, states, and organizations to use research-based approaches to develop, implement, and evaluate their programs of school, family, and community partnerships. School programs of family and community involvement not only improve the school climate, but also help students improve attendance, behavior, and skills in specific subjects (e.g., reading, writing, math, science) and other important outcomes. In NNPS, district and state leaders are helped to organize leadership activities to assist all schools to conduct effective partnership programs and practices. See the Web site for information, publications, professional development conferences, best practices, other benefits and services, and how to join NNPS.
    • California Department of Education Family Involvement and Partnership
      • This page will highlight the topics and links from other sections of the CDE Web site, which are of particular interest and will provide information, resources and support to parents, guardians and families of children with disabilities.


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