‘I think you need to be a helicopter parent’: how mothers of neurodiverse children understand their child’s schooling experiences, and their own role in their child’s education

PhD Thesis

Carruthers, Amanda. 2020. ‘I think you need to be a helicopter parent’: how mothers of neurodiverse children understand their child’s schooling experiences, and their own role in their child’s education. PhD Thesis Doctor of Philosophy. University of Southern Queensland. https://doi.org/10.26192/s4g7-2296

‘I think you need to be a helicopter parent’: how mothers of neurodiverse children understand their child’s schooling experiences, and their own role in their child’s education

TypePhD Thesis
AuthorCarruthers, Amanda
SupervisorAbawi, Lindy Anne
Lewis, Marian
Institution of OriginUniversity of Southern Queensland
Qualification NameDoctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages457
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.26192/s4g7-2296

There is widespread concern over the mental health of young people; consequently, there is a current focus on social-emotional wellbeing in Australian education policies. Research indicates that academic pressure and feeling socially isolated at school are sources of anxiety for the majority of Australian adolescents. This is particularly true for students with Neurodevelopmental Disorders – or neurodiverse students – whose learning, social-emotional or behavioural difficulties make them highly vulnerable in school environments.

Involving parents in their children’s schooling, and encouraging parents to be engaged in their children’s learning, are also prioritised in national and state education policies. However, decades of research has established that effective and collaborative parent-school partnerships are difficult to achieve, especially for parents of students with complex and additional needs.

This qualitative phenomenological study aimed to gain a better understanding of the lived experiences of neurodiverse students and their parents. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was employed in order to answer the following research question and five sub-questions: How do the participants understand their neurodiverse child’s experiences in high school settings, and their role in supporting their child’s education? (1) How did the participants describe and explain their child’s experiences at school? (2) How did the participants describe their own experiences of participating in their child’s education? (3) How might the participants experiences be interpreted? (4) What principles might be drawn from these interpretations to contribute to current understandings of effective parent-school relationships? (5) How do the findings contribute to current support practices for neurodiverse students and more effective parent-school partnerships?

Five mothers of neurodiverse adolescents, who attended mainstream schools in regional and rural Queensland, participated in semi-structured interviews. A detailed examination of the data, using IPA, revealed that:

1) Academic failure and social isolation were common experiences for these adolescents and had negative impacts on their wellbeing.
2) The participants attributed their child’s significant anxiety to a poor ‘fit’ between the mainstream school environment and their learning and social-emotional needs.
3) The participants perceived that their role in the parent-school relationship was to safeguard their child’s current and future wellbeing through concerted engagement in their child’s cognitive and social development, and active involvement at school.
4) The participants struggled to find authoritative information about their child’s difficulties or access remedial medical, mental health and allied health services.
5) The participants felt excluded from decisions around their child’s education and that their parent knowledge was ignored by educators.

The study findings suggest that schools should focus on the social-emotional wellbeing of neurodiverse adolescents to the same extent as their academic achievements; and should do so in supportive and developmentally appropriate environments. The study also emphasised the importance of working partnerships between educators and parents that are based on the sharing of knowledge about neurodiverse children, and mutual respect for expertise and experience. The study findings contributed to a set of principles and practices to inform educators, school leaders and education authorities about the importance of creating high school environments that are developmentally appropriate to the needs of neurodiverse students and that best support their wellbeing. These principles also relate to building stronger partnerships with parents. Limitations and implications for future research are considered.

Keywordsneurodiversity, secondary schools, student inclusion, student wellbeing, parent voice, interpretive phenomenological analysis,
ANZSRC Field of Research 2020390411. Special education and disability
Byline AffiliationsSchool of Education
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