ERIC Identifier: ED481301
Publication Date: 2003/07/00
Author: Cynthia Warger and Jane Burnette
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Institute for
Urban and Minority Education
Applications of Participatory Action Research with
Students who Have Disabilities. ERIC Digest.
Participatory action research is an approach in which researchers and
stakeholders (those individuals who might benefit from the research findings)
collaboratively engage in the various stages of the research process. Participatory
action research provides for greater influence of stakeholders in the research
process and a higher level of support for the implementation of research
findings in practice. This digest offers several examples of how researchers
and practitioners are using participatory action research data to select
effective practices and support change and innovation. The following sections
illustrate applications of participatory action research in related services
for young children, inclusion in elementary schools, working with families,
and transition to adulthood.
Generating Data-based Strategies in Natural Environments
It is important for related service providers to validate what they
do in their daily practice to ensure that their services improve the quality
of life for children and their families. Participatory action research
can help therapists explore questions about the efficacy of therapy practices
within a child's and family's natural environments.
A study in progress at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia pairs
therapists with research mentors to conduct individualized research. Occupational
and physical therapists implement small-scale research studies with a child
and/or family who are part of their caseload. To support the research process,
the research mentor provides guidance on formulating research questions,
conducting the study, interpreting the results, and preparing a presentation
The therapists volunteer to receive training related to best practices
in natural environments, data collection, and other aspects of research
investigations. The nature and type of data to be collected depends upon
decisions made by each therapist/mentor team. Much of the data and documentation
required for this type of participatory action research may already part
of the child's individualized family services plan (IFSP).
According to Phillipa Campbell, the study's director, these collaborative
research teams work because there is ongoing contact between the mentors
and therapists. Mentors need to be present at all stages of the research,
and they must feel comfortable sharing their expertise and skills as part
of the research process.
Promoting Inclusive Schooling Practices
Research shows that the participatory action research approach can improve
professional practice and promote the inclusion of students with disabilities,
including those with significant challenges, in general classrooms. In
studies with elementary school teachers and administrators in several school
districts, teachers and administrators were introduced to participatory
action research methods and then guided through the steps of sharing issues
and forming issue-focused workgroups that developed action-based and technical
support plans (Salisbury, Wilson, Swartz, Palombaro, & Wassel,1997).
Action plans described the question, the type of information to be collected,
and the proposed methods for addressing the issue. Monthly workgroup meetings
were held to discuss findings, analyze data, explore emerging issues, and
determine next steps.
Another study addressed how building principals might use participatory
action research to collect data to provide information for school improvement
initiatives (Salisbury, Wilson, & Palombaro, 1998). Administrators
used the process to become more reflective and to cultivate a culture of
inquiry with their teachers about special education implementation issues.
Throughout the process, these researchers documented lessons learned
about the adoption and use of participatory action research:
- Administrative support-above and beyond endorsement-is essential.
Principals were involved in the workgroups, facilitated use of the process
at the building level, and supported incorporation of inclusive practices.
- Time and opportunity for reflection facilitates the process. For
example, teachers regularly scheduled meetings and were initially provided
with release time. Even busy principals scheduled appointments with themselves
to reflect on information.
- Research questions and their results must have practical appeal.
- Principals must value collaboration and express this value to others.
Educators embrace a comfort level with not having all of the answers
up front and are willing to solve problems through a collaborative process
of classroom-based and/or school-based inquiry.
Conducting Collaborative Family Research
An OSEP-funded parent information center, The Grassroots Consortium
on Disabilities, and the Beach Center on Family and Disabilities at University
of Kansas have established a partnership to provide a participatory action
research model for collaboration between researchers and families. The
goal is for participatory action research teams composed of researchers
and culturally and linguistically diverse families to discover new relationships
that broaden the scope of their commitment to research as a means of social
change and contribute to a deeper understanding of the critical role research
plays in finding practical solutions for families.
In one project, researchers supported families of children with behavioral
difficulties in learning how to gather data about their child (e.g., strengths,
needs, likes, dislikes), develop a functional behavioral assessment for
their child, and participate as full partners in the development of a positive
behavioral support plan.
Participatory action research produced the following advantages:
- Increased the relevance of research to the concerns of family members.
- Increased the rigor of research and increased the benefit to researchers
in minimizing logistical problems.
- Increased utilization of research by families.
- Enhanced the empowerment of researchers, families, and other stakeholders.
There were also several advantages for family members. Parents gained
a sense that their opinions and experiences were valued. Their concerns
were heard and their comments were incorporated into research that will
benefit society. They also expressed appreciation because the process necessitated
their having to think about things they may never have considered before,
such as the determinants of quality of life for them personally and for
Challenges encountered in using participatory action research with families
include time and resources. "Every kind of collaborative problem solving
approach requires time," Ursula Markey, one of the study directors, asserts.
"A particularly critical element related to time is the amount needed to
develop trusting relationships with families-especially those families
who have felt exploited by researchers in the past." Markey says that it
can sometimes take 1-2 years of ongoing communication before trust is sufficient
for a genuine partnership to evolve. Resources also need to be considered,
since families should be compensated for their time and reimbursed for
Studying Social Inclusion at Worksites
"Participatory action research can reduce the gap between research and
practice, resulting in enhanced outcomes for students with disabilities,"
says Hyun-Sook Park, researcher at San Jose State University. "Collaborative
decision making with stakeholders makes the selection of research questions
more meaningful to them; it helps them address issues related to the implementation
of innovations, which often results in actions that are more doable and
Park and her colleagues applied participatory action research to the
intervention study of social inclusion at worksites (Park, Gonsier-Gerdin,
Hoffman, Whaley, & Yount, 1998). Stakeholders were involved at various
stages in the research process-establishing research questions, collecting
data, implementing interventions, validating and interpreting outcomes,
and disseminating results. The intervention was viewed as a process for
generating strategies to support social inclusion. Researchers and stakeholders
reviewed the data about students' work and social experiences at their
worksites. In work situations where the majority of students were not socially
included, researchers and stakeholders interpreted the data together and
generated actions to alter the situation. These discussions led to work
group meetings in which researchers and stakeholders brainstormed strategies
and selected some that were eventually implemented. Researchers found that
the participatory action research process empowered teachers and job coaches
to take ownership of their action changes and resulted in the increased
social inclusion of participants with disabilities in competitive work
According to Park, the key to making the process work was establishing
trust and respect. "Practitioners saw that researchers were really trying
to listen to them and understand their perspectives. It was a slow process,
but eventually practitioners saw themselves as part of the dialogue."
Park offers the following suggestions:
- Invite full participation from the beginning.
- Expect the trust building process to take time. It may take six months
to a year before collaboration around an intervention can get started.
- Equalize power among participants.
- Use language that has the same meaning for researchers and stakeholders.
- Discuss barriers to implementation and seek solutions together.
Markey, U. (2000). PARtnerships. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions,
2(3), 188-189, 192.
Meyer, L., Park, H., Grenot-Scheyer, M., Schwartz, I., & Harry,
B. (1998). Participatory research: New approaches to the research to practice
dilemma. JASH,* 23(3), 165-177.
Park, Hyun-Sook, Gonsier-Gerdin, J., Hoffman, S., Whaley, S., &
Yount, M. (1998). Applying the participatory action research model to the
study of social inclusion at worksites. JASH,* 23(3), 189-202.
Salisbury, C., Wilson, L., Swartz, T., Palombaro, M., & Wassel,
M. (1997). Using action research to solve instructional challenges in inclusive
elementary school settings. Education and Treatment of Children, 20(1),
Salisbury, C., Wilson, L., & Palombaro, M. (1998). Promoting inclusive
schooling practices through practitioner directed inquiry. JASH,* 23(3),
Turnbull, A., Friesen, B., & Ramirez, C. (1998). Participatory action
research as a model for conducting family research. JASH,* 23(3), 178-188.
Beach Center on Families and Disabilities
Grassroots Consortium on Disabilities
*Journal of the Association for the Severely Handicapped (JASH) is now
Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities.