Zachary Hart, Northern Kentucky University – Sensemaking by Parents of Children with Disabilities

On Northern Kentucky University Week:  Making sense of information is crucial for parenting a special needs child.

Zachary P. Hart, professor in the department of communication, explores how to do so effectively.

I joined the NKU faculty in 2003.  I earned my PhD in Communication from Michigan State University.  I previously taught at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Concordia University-Chicago.  My research interests focus on the information seeking strategies and sensemaking process for parents of children with disabilities and the socialization of new employees.  I teach Communication Studies, Health Communication and Public Relations courses.  I previously served as department chair from 2010-11 and 2012-2018.

Sensemaking by Parents of Children with Disabilities

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Parents of children with disabilities are continually receiving and seeking out complex information to help them care for and raise their child. 

Medical, educational and social information related to physical and intellectual disabilities often can be quite difficult to gather, understand and process in addition to being emotionally overwhelming. 

At the same time, this information is critical in many contexts.

What’s more, they have to make sense of information that is critical to their child’s immediate well-being and perhaps even his or her life. Parents of children with disabilities often have the primary responsibility to provide medical and therapeutic treatments that could easily harm their child if not done correctly. Imagine a child who requires a ventilator. Proper maintenance of the equipment is literally life or death.

Sensemaking research typically has focused on organizational or work settings and has rarely investigated how the process works with parents of children with disabilities.  The limited amount of research done has focused primarily on the coping aspects of sensemaking with little attention given to message content, information processing and decision-making. 

Through a recent focus group study, I found that parents utilize a wide range of sources and methods to gather information about medical, educational and social concerns they have for their child with a heavy reliance on parent networks. The results also indicate emotional reactions to information play an important role in the sensemaking process and frequently impact decision- making as they advocate for their child.

Medical, educational and social service providers can help parents with the sensemaking process by recognizing the need to simplify information, connecting it to other more familiar situations to help reduce uncertainty, encouraging reliance on other parents in similar circumstances to provide information and support, and providing parents time and space to emotionally process information, which is a key part of successful sensemaking.

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