The Transformative Learning Experiences of Parents during Parent Education Groups
Many parents of children with ASD have opportunities to participate in parent education groups. While focusing primarily on knowledge and skill acquisition (Schultz, Schmidt, & Stichter, 2011), these programs offer natural opportunities for dialogue and group support for parents with similar needs. Parent groups have potential for facilitating transformative learning through critical reflection on parent practices, discovering new perspectives and insights, and acting on new learning through changes in patterns of parenting (Wolfe, 2001; To, 2013). However, it is not yet understood how parents of children with ASD experience parenting groups and the potential for transformative learning within these contexts.
What were the potential and critical factors for fostering transformative learning experiences of parents of children with ASD participating in parent education groups?
In order to better understand the transformative potential of such an education group, interviews were conducted with 17 parents who completed a parent education group (SCI-P) for parents of children with ASD. During the interviews, experiences of transformative learning and how group facilitation hindered or supported such learning were explored. Interviews were recorded and transcribed. Transcripts were coded through an iterative, collaborative process using a constant-comparative approach (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) that progressed from open coding using NVIVO (2012) software, to two additional passes across interviews using codes emerging from literature and research team discussions, to the development of matrices to further identify consistencies and discrepancies across participants (Huberman & Miles, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Finally, themes were developed to answer the research questions and are described in the following section.
Two major themes emerged from the data. First, parents reported perspective shifts, which empowered them to act and think differently. Parents identified three areas in which they reframed how they thought: characteristics of ASD, their child’s potential and parent actions, and being alone. The second major theme parents discussed was the impact the group characteristics had on their experience. Specifically, they were affected in positive ways by the openness of the group, the similarities they had with other parents, and the differences they had from other parents.
Facilitators of parent groups are unlikely to recognize the potential for transformative learning for parents of children with ASD, given the limited research of transformative learning in informal, applied educational settings outside of higher education or the workplace (Taylor, 2007). Based on this study, facilitators should consider the value of promoting transformative learning given the various forms of perspective shifts and possible outcomes. They should incorporate ways to support the transfer of this learning into daily lives. The critical role relationships between and among the parents held for learning, suggest facilitators must integrate approaches to encourage and nurture relational spaces which are open and safe. Additionally, the importance of diversity in parenting experiences that resulted in disorienting questions and insights suggest facilitators should consider criteria for group participation (e.g., time since diagnosis).