Dr. James MacDonald 332 Mimring Columbus, Ohio 43202 Phone/Fax 614 447-0768 macdonaldj86@gmail.com

Communicating Partners

Dr. James D. MacDonald's Website

Helping Parents Help Children. Programs for Parents, Therapists & Educators


The third major investigation of the model was conducted in collaboration with Gerald Mahoney and Frida Perales at the Family Child learning Center associated with the Akron Children's Hospital and Kent State University in northern Ohio. The three of us had for many years conducted parallel studies of parent child relationships with children with disabilities. In 1998, we received a joint research grant to study the responsive relationship approach with fifty children, 20 with ASD and 30 with a variety of language delays. The project provided extensive data analyses that allowed richer investigation of the effects of the model on cognitive and emotional development as well as the social and communicative goals. (Mahoney and MacDonald, 2003, and Mahoney and Perales, 2003). The four-year project allowed assessments of several developmental domains before and after the training as well as elaborate analyses of the video samples. A full report of the study and multiple analyses is available in the Responsive Teaching early intervention curriculum (Mahoney and MacDonald, 2003)

For purposes of this study, the term Responsive Teaching was used as the title for the early intervention curriculum. The responsive strategies and developmental goals were virtually similar to those in Communicating Partners and the staff was trained with the series of Communicating Partners video training tapes that were used in the above studies. Each of the fifty parent-child programs began by establishing joint activity routines in which the major interaction goals of social play, imitation and turn taking were central to the program. Parents were trained in using the responsive strategies similar to the ones in the ARM in this book.

Ms. Perales trained several graduate students to be the parents' coaches. Ms. Perales had trained with the Communicating Partners program and related video training tapes for several years and was directly responsible for supervising the programs in this study. This was the first formal replication of the model by an independent group of professionals.

Parents and children received training during hourly sessions on a weekly basis for a year. The average sessions per year were 32.6. Each session involved instruction of the parent on one developmental goal and demonstration of the strategies to be used in daily routines in the home. Parents reported that they devoted, on the average, a little more than two hours a day using the responsive strategies in prescribed activities as well as natural routines.

The findings. The data are based on independent observers who were trained to high reliability on the major variables. Video taped observations were randomized so observers did not know which sample was before or after treatment and no two families were rated consecutively. In addition to the video analyses, several measures of cognitive, language and social emotional functioning were taken before and after the program.

The elaborate analyses provided one of the most detailed evaluations of a parent-child treatment programs ever. The analyses resulted in several findings:

  1. The parents' interaction styles became more responsive, matched, playful and balanced with the children.
  2. The children had significantly higher ratings at post-treatment in social and communicative skills as well as in related effects such as attention, persistence, cooperation, initiation joint attention and affect.
  3. Children's use of the trained social and communicative behaviors was highly associated with changes in their mothers' responsiveness and use of the five strategies.
  4. Children made significant gains in both cognitive and language development beyond expected of the time span.
  5. Improvements were made in a range of reported and observed behavior problems.
  6. Parents' ability to cope with the stress of raising a child with ASD showed some improvement in that parents stress reduced some with regard to their role with the child.
  7. Evidence of conventional features of autistic behavior was greatly reduced in some children but somewhat reduced in most.

Summary. The one-year program with 50 children and parents yielded several encouraging findings regarding the effectiveness of training parents to be their child's primary responsive partners. We found that even though the program involved only modest levels of professional contact (1 hour per week at most), parents followed through with it an average of two hours a day. The program was effective at encouraging two-thirds of the parents to engage in significantly more responsive interactions with their children. Further more, there was a strong relationship between how much parents used the responsive strategies and how much the children became more social and communicative. Nearly three- fourths of the children significantly increased their social and communicative behaviors over the course of intervention. While no claims of cure can or need to made, the findings indicate that the majority of the children increased their developmental rate in the areas of cognition, communication, emotional behavior, and social interaction and that their changes were related to the degrees to which parents became more responsive, balanced, matched, control sharing and playful.

The results of this extensive study are impressive not only because of the magnitude of changes children attained, but more importantly because of the consistent relationship between the impact of responsive teaching on parents' interactive behavior and the children's developmental progress. The detailed analyses make us more convinced than ever that parental responsiveness plays a crucial role in intervention because it has an enormous impact on the children's use of pivotal developmental behaviors. Parents cannot teach children everything they need to learn. But parents can profoundly influences the child's fundamental learning habits that are critical to helping children learn from their routine interaction in daily life. . Our findings suggest that it appears to be far more critical for children to "learn to learn" in their social relationships that it is that they learn discrete behaviors or skill in directive teaching. The study also revealed that parents became more enthusiastic and optimistic about their child's future once they experienced personal success in effecting positive changes in their children rather that relying on strangers to help their child develop.

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Dr. James MacDonald 332 Mimring Columbus, Ohio 43202 Phone/Fax (614)447-0768 macdonaldj86@gmail.com