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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  To access the full research publication summarized in this digest, please see the citation below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

Family support for learning is important for all students, but it may be particularly important for children with disabilities. One of the main tenets of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Action is parents’ participation in decision making related to their children’s education. However, despite legislative support for parental involvement, little information has been available until now to examine the actual level of family support for education that is given to middle- and high-school-age students with disabilities. ¹

This research digest considers the following questions for secondary-school-age students with disabilities receiving special education:

  • To what extent do families of secondary-school-age students with disabilities engage in activities at home and at school that support their children’s educational development?
  • What are the relationships between student and family characteristics and levels of family involvement?

Research Methods

The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) provides the first national picture of the involvement of families in the educational development of their secondary-school-age children with disabilities. NLTS2, a 10-year study, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.²

NLTS2 is a rich source of information on the characteristics, experiences, and achievement of youth with disabilities. It has a nationally representative sample of more than 11,000 students who were 13 through 16, receiving special education, and in at least seventh grade when they were sampled in 2000. The information reported here was gathered from parents or guardians of NLTS2 youth in telephone interviews or through mail questionnaires administered to parents who could not be reached by phone, in the spring and summer of 2001; 9,108 interviews/questionnaires were completed, resulting in an 81% response rate.

Comparisons with involvement of families of youth in the general population are calculated from data for 13- to 17-year-olds from the 1996 National Household Education Survey (NCES, U.S. Department of Education). Descriptive findings are weighted to represent youth with disabilities nationally as a group, as well as youth in each of the 12 federal special education disability categories used in NLTS2. Multivariate analysis techniques (i.e., linear and logistic regression) are used to identify the independent relationships of various family and youth characteristics with differences in levels of involvement. Please see the NLTS2 website ( for details about the NLTS2 design, sample, analysis approach, and measurement issues.

Research Findings

Involvement at Home
Families of most students with disabilities are very involved in supporting their children’s educational development at home. Most families report regularly talking with their children about school (80%) and helping with homework at least once a week (76%). One in five families provide homework assistance as often as five or more times per week.

Students with disabilities are more likely to receive help with homework than are their peers in the general population. The difference in homework support is especially apparent for those who receive frequent help; students with disabilities are five times as likely as their peers in the general population to receive homework assistance frequently. Only 4% of secondary school students in the general population receive help with homework five or more times a week, compared with 21% of youth with disabilities who receive homework assistance that often. At the other end of the homework-help spectrum—students who rarely receive help—students in the general population are almost twice as likely as those with disabilities to receive homework assistance never or rarely. Almost half (45%) of students in the general population receive homework help less than once a week; in contrast, only 24% of those with disabilities receive such infrequent assistance.

Involvement in School-Based Activities
Families of secondary-school-age students with disabilities participate in a wide range of school-based activities, including schoolwide meetings (e.g., back-to-school nights or PTA meetings), conferences with individual teachers, student or class activities (e.g., attending science fairs or musical performances), and volunteering at school (e.g., chaperoning class field trips or serving on school committees). Overall, 93% participate in at least one of these types of school-based activities. Approximately three out of four parents report attending school meetings (77%) and parent–teacher conferences (73%). Almost two thirds (62%) report attending school or class events. Parents also report volunteering at school, although to a lesser extent than other types of school-based involvement, with about one quarter volunteering.

Families of students with disabilities are as involved as their peers in the general population, and for some types of school-based activities—general school meetings (77% vs. 70%) and parent–teacher conferences (73% vs. 56%)—they are more involved.

Involvement in the Individualized Education Program Process
Participation in the development of their children’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a type of family–school partnership specific to families of students with disabilities who qualify for special education services. Nearly 9 out of 10 parents of secondary-school-age students with disabilities (88%) report participating in at least one IEP meeting in the current or prior school year.

Family attendance at IEP meetings does not always ensure active participation in the decision making process. Slightly more than half of the families report being involved in developing IEP goals. When asked how they feel about their family’s involvement in decisions about their children’s IEP, about one third want to be more involved.

Student and Family Characteristics Associated With Family Involvement
Several characteristics of students with disabilities and their families are related to the levels of family participation in their children’s educational development, when controlling for other differences using multivariate analysis techniques. The following are a few highlights:

  • Family involvement varies across disability categories. Youth with emotional disturbances are among the least likely to receive help with homework, and their families, as well as families of students with mental retardation, are among the least likely to participate in three of four types of school-based activities—school meetings, events, and volunteering—but are among the most likely to attend parent–teacher conferences.
  • Negative youth behavior is related to lower levels of family involvement at school and at home.
  • African American students have families who are more likely to be involved at home than their White peers but less likely to be involved at school and to attend IEP meetings.
  • Families of students who are actively involved in extracurricular activities at school are more likely to participate in school-based activities.
  • The more time parents spend on homework support, the less likely they are to be satisfied with their children’s schools.
  • Having external supports is related to more frequent family participation. Those who belong to support groups for families of children with disabilities and those who participate in OSEP-supported or other types of training are more likely to support their children’s educational development.
  • Families with higher expectations for their children’s postsecondary educational attainment are less likely to help with homework but are more likely to be involved at school than families of youth with disabilities who are less optimistic about their children’s continued education.

Implications for School Practice

Families of students with disabilities are highly involved in monitoring and assisting with homework. Parents need information and guidance about how and when to help with homework and how best to support their children’s academic work. Parents can receive this information through regular communication with teachers regarding topics such as material covered in class, how homework should be completed, and teacher expectations for adequate performance, yet researchers have found that fewer than half of schools report offering parents of students with disabilities weekly or monthly information about curriculum or instruction (Schiller et al., 2003).

To better support families’ involvement in their children’s education, schools need to expand the strategies they are using. NLTS2 findings highlight the need for schools and teachers to broaden their focus from programs that bring parents to the school building to programs that support family involvement at home and that expand family expectations, both of which NLTS2 analyses have found to be strongly related to student outcomes (Newman, 2005).

Teachers’ actions can have a strong impact on family involvement (Ames, deStefano, Watkins, & Sheldon, 1995; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). Targeted outreach (e.g., teacher invitations) may be particularly necessary for parents of students with emotional disturbances or mental retardation, along with additional efforts to include these children in school-based events and activities that bring families to schools. Further, it is important for schools and teachers to be aware of differences among families. Families who are spending the most time helping with homework, such as African American families, often are those who are not coming to the school building. These families could benefit from creative outreach, as well as support in their involvement at home.

Parent-to-parent programs and support groups also can be particularly effective in providing informational, emotional, and motivational support to families of children with disabilities. Belonging to these groups is positively associated with family involvement both at home and at school. Other research has found that only one quarter of schools offer support or parent groups to families of students with disabilities (Schiller et al., 2003). NLTS2 findings point to the importance of providing a forum for parents to share their thoughts and feelings and a place to receive information, support, and encouragement from others who understand what they are experiencing.


Ames, C., deStefano, L., Watkins, T., & Sheldon, S. (1995). Teachers' school to home communications and parent involvement: The role of parent perceptions and beliefs. Baltimore, MD: Center on Families, Communities, Schools & Children's Learning.

Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., & Sandler, H. H. (1997). Why do parents become involved in their children's education? Review of Educational Research, 67, 3–42.

Newman, L. (2005). Family involvement in the educational development of youth with disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Schiller, E., Burnaska, K., Cohen, G., Douglas, Z., Fiore, T., Glazier, R., et al. (2003). The study of state and local implementation and impact of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Final interim report (1999–2000 school year). Bethesda, MD: Abt Associates.

¹ Summarized from Newman, L. (2005). Family involvement in the educational development of youth with disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
² NLTS2 has been funded with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number ED-01-CO-0003. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.

Lynn A. Newman, Ed.D.
Senior Education Researcher
SRI International
333 Ravenswood Ave.
Menlo Park, CA 94025

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