How physicians support children with disabilities and their families: Roles, responsibilities and collaborative partnerships

Mary E. Sheppard, Ed.D., Nancy Vitalone-Raccaro, Ph.D.

Department of Interdisciplinary and Inclusive Education, Rowan University, USA

Disability and Health Journal, Volume 9, Issue 4
Published online: May 27, 2016


The American Association of Pediatricians (AAP), in collaboration with the Council for Children with Disabilities and the Council on School Health, recommends that physicians learn special education law and practices in order to increase their ability to work with schools to support children with disabilities and their families. However, there is limited research that examines how doctors perceive their role as collaborators with families and school personnel.


The purpose of this study was to explore the perceptions and collaborative experiences of doctors treating children with disabilities in order to develop an initial understanding of how doctors collaborate within the doctor/family/school triad.


Semi-structured interviews with doctors (n = 13) from two states in the North Eastern United States were collected and analyzed using grounded theory methodology. Doctor specialty areas included general pediatrics, developmental pediatrics, rehabilitation pediatrics, and neurology.


Analysis of the data revealed four key categories: (a) what doctors do with regard to children with disabilities and schools, (b) elements that interfere with doctor/family/school collaboration, (c) what doctors know and understand about topics related to special education, and (d) how doctors learned about topics related to special education. Doctors disclosed they learned about these topics through mentorship and on-the job training, not formally during medical school or residency.


This research presents powerful evidence in support of a paradigm shift with regard to infusing a focus on doctor/family/school collaboration for children with disabilities into the medical school curriculum.