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Using Data
Research Connections
Fall 2003


Using Data from Participatory Action Research to Support Change and Innovation

Participatory action research is an approach in which researchers and stakeholders (i.e., those individuals who might potentially benefit from the research findings) collaboratively engage in the various stages of the research process. The goal is greater participation and influence of stakeholders in the research process, a major purpose being to support the implementation of research findings in practice. OSEP has supported a number of research studies that used participatory action research methods to support change and innovation. Following are several examples.


Philippa Campbell, researcher at Thomas Jefferson University, PA, believes that it is important for related service providers to validate what they do in their daily practice to ensure that services increase the quality of life for children and their families. Her research is showing that participatory action research methodology can help therapists explore questions about the efficacy of pediatric therapy practices within the context of a child's and family's natural environments.

"Occupational therapists and physical therapists volunteer to receive training related to optimal practices in natural environments, data collection, and other aspects of research investigations," Campbell explains. "The nature and type of data to be collected depends upon decisions made by each team; however, much of the data and documentation are already part of the information typically collected for a child's individualized family services plan (IFSP)."

Therapists implement small scale research studies with a child and/or family who are part of their caseload. To support the research process, therapists have access to a research mentor who provides guidance on formulating research questions, conducting the study, interpreting the results, and preparing a presentation on results. "The key is to arrange ongoing contact between the mentors and therapists," Campbell reports. "Mentors need to be present at all stages and feel comfortable sharing their expertise and skills as part of the research process."


"The process of practitioner directed inquiry capitalizes on the expertise and knowledge of practitioners as those most knowledgeable about local contexts and conditions, and as the primary source of solutions that are most appropriate for those situations," explains Christine Salisbury, researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "We started with this basic question: Can we use practitioner directed inquiry to promote inclusion? Our research showed that the approach can improve professional practice and promote the inclusion of students with disabilities, including those with significant challenges, in general classrooms."

Salisbury and her colleagues conducted several 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, forming issue-focused workgroups that developed action-based and technical support plans. 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.

In a second study, Salisbury studied how building principals might use participatory action research to collect data to inform school improvement initiatives. These administrators used the process to become more reflective administrators and to cultivate a culture of inquiry with their teachers about special education implementation issues.

Throughout the process, Salisbury documented lessons learned about the adoption and use of participatory action research. Examples follow:

  • Administrative support-above and beyond endorsement-is essential. Principals should make explicit the value of collaboration.
  • Time and opportunity for reflection facilitates the process.
  • Research questions and their results must have practical appeal.


Ursula Markey of the Grassroots Consortium on Disabilities (an OSEP-funded supported center) and Ann Turnbull of the Beach Center on Family and Disabilities at the University of Kansas have established a partnership that provides a participatory action research model for collaboration between researchers and families. "Our shared belief in participatory action research and our commitment to be fully participatory as a partnership is the indispensable means through which we have been working," Turnbull says. Markey adds, "The promise is that participatory action research teams composed of researchers and culturally and linguistically diverse families will discover a new relationship that broadens the scope of their commitment to research as a means of social change and contributes to a deeper understanding of the critical role research plays in finding practical solutions for families."

Turnbull and Markey initiated their work together as part of a project in which 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. "Expanding the partnership to include participatory action research was a natural extension," Turnbull tells us. "We experienced several advantages in our implementation of participatory action research." The approach resulted in increased:

  • Relevance of research to the concerns of family members.
  • Rigor of research.
  • Utilization of research by families.

Markey highlights 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. Parents also expressed appreciation because the process necessitated their having to think about things they never considered before, such as the determinants of quality of life for them personally and for their families."


"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 sustainable overtime."

Park and her colleagues applied participatory action research to the intervention study of social inclusion at worksites. Stakeholders were involved at various stages in the research process. "In this study, intervention was treated as a process for generating strategies," Park explains. "Researchers and stakeholders reviewed and interpreted the data about students' work and social experiences at their worksites." These discussions led researchers and stakeholders to brainstorm strategies and select those 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 therefore resulted in the increased social inclusion of individuals with disabilities in work environments.

According to Park, the key to making the process work was establishing trust and respect. "Practitioners saw that researchers were really trying to listen and understand their perspectives."


Rather than waiting until an intervention has been implemented, it helps to find out early on how participants are feeling about it. One way to gauge reactions is through a focus group. Typically, we think of focus groups as being for adults, but educational consultant Marion Leibowitz has found that when designed appropriately, focus groups can yield extremely useful data from students, including students with disabilities. "Based on the data, we can make immediate changes and head off, what could be for a youngster, a terrible semester or year," Leibowitz says.

She offers a recent example. A high school decided to change to an alternate-day block schedule and rolled it out at the beginning of the first marking period. Leibowitz convened focus groups with students and found that students with disabilities who were included in general education classes voiced difficulty with the new approach. "As we delved deeper into their views, it became apparent that for many of them, the issue was not in adjusting to change, but was related to a much more practical issue of scheduling their tutors," Leibowitz described.

What makes a focus group a success with students with disabilities? Leibowitz offers the following suggestions:

  • Craft questions carefully. Start with open-ended questions (e.g., If you had a friend moving into your high school, what would you tell him or her about how your classes are scheduled?)
  • Limit the size of the group to six to eight students.
  • Make sure students feel comfortable participating (e.g., protect anonymity; do not pick students from the same class for a group if the issue is schoolwide; select a facilitator who is trusted by the students and who is not perceived by the students as having an agenda; change group composition for each discussion).
  • Limit the time to 30 to 45 minutes.

To find out more about using focus groups for school improvement purposes, contact Leibowitz at mlassociate@aol.com.

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