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Working with Families of Children with Special Needs

This lesson will highlight the ways in which you can play an important role in supporting families of children with special needs in your family child care home. You will learn recommendations for effective collaboration with families and other professionals and begin to understand the additional roles and responsibilities placed on many families of children with disabilities.

  • Explore your own assumptions about working with families of children with disabilities.
  • Identify variables that may challenge or support family-centered practice.
  • Develop effective ways to support families of children with disabilities.



Families of Young Children with Special Needs

Children with disabilities are members of our communities, programs, and families, and it is our responsibility to provide high-quality, inclusive support for these children and their families. While these families often experience challenging situations and stressors, they have hopes, dreams, and goals for their children just like other families. You can positively impact families of children with special needs by empowering them with knowledge, empathizing with their feelings, and collaborating with other support professionals in their lives.

Within the VLS, the terms special needs and disability are often used interchangeably. It is important to note that while the two terms have similar meanings, the word, disability, is generally used to refer to a long-term condition or impairment that impacts the way a child or youth learns, participates, or interacts with the world around them. The term, special needs, often refers to additional supports or assistance a child or youth may need within an educational, developmental, behavioral, or health context. Language is a powerful tool that can create a sense of identity, purpose, and pride and is particularly important to consider when working with children and families. One critical way to empower families of children with special needs is to have a dialogue with them around their preferred language when referring to their individual child’s unique needs and abilities.

Working with Families of Children with Special Needs

Establishing meaningful relationships with families is a critical part of your work in providing quality family child care. Some children will enter your family child care with known disabilities, and other families will learn that their child has a disability or is delayed while in your care. You may even be one of the individuals to help identify an area of concern. Families with eligible children ages birth to three may receive early intervention services and have an individualized family service plan (IFSP); while children ages three and older may receive special education services (IDEA Part B) and have an individualized education program (IEP). Others may only receive support from a medical center, and some families will be involved with multiple systems of support. Regardless, families can be overwhelmed by what feels like a constant flow of suggestions, therapies and appointments to help their child learn and develop. These families may need more help supporting their children and may turn to you for assistance with connecting to services or agencies outside of your family child care. It may be helpful to be familiar with outside agencies so you have up-to-date information on how to make a referral and the types of services offered and available. Positive interactions with families and other providers can decrease families’ stress and improve their well-being, as well as improve their confidence in you as their child’s care provider.

When families are working with other providers and agencies, you may be asked to collaborate to create consistency between the support children receive in all the environments they spend time. Working with providers from outside agencies helps things run smoothly for families and ensures that all providers and caregivers in their children’s lives are communicating. This lessens family stress by reducing the need for primary caregivers to act as the in-between messenger of important information.

The first step in establishing strong relationships with families of children with special needs is to spend time discussing and learning their wishes and concerns for their children and to learn about the meaningful activities and routines they participate in at home. Maintaining this communication throughout the time that a child is in your home is very important. Ask questions to learn about strategies that work at home and consider using them in your family child care home. At the same time, share your thoughts about children’s strengths and if there are concerns. Before initiating conversations with families about concerns, reflect on ways you can communicate using family-centered practice.  Be prepared for families to react in a variety of ways and know how to support families if they choose to seek assistance from outside agencies for support. Ongoing communication with families and the supportive professionals in their lives creates consistency and helps children develop and meet their outcomes and goals more quickly.

In your collaboration with families, it is important to acknowledge and respect their strengths and unique background, while accepting their ability to make decisions that are right for them (Hanson & Lynch, 2004). This means that when a family’s wishes and decisions are different from what you would recommend, you respond to the family’s decisions with respect. Ultimately, meaningful communication and relationship-building will enrich the process for both you and the families you serve.

Take a look at the following guidelines that reflect family-centered practice. You may remember some of these from Lesson One. Then, think about which of these you can use in your work with families of children with special needs (Turnbull, Turbiville, & Turnbull, 2000):

  • Recognize the family as a constant in the child’s life; caregivers and service systems may often change.
  • Facilitate collaboration between families and professionals.
  • Honor and respect family diversity in all dimensions (cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic, spiritual, and socioeconomic).
  • Recognize family strengths and the different approaches that families may use to cope.
  • Share unbiased and honest information with family members on an ongoing basis.
  • Encourage family-to-family support and networking.
  • Acknowledge and incorporate the developmental needs of the child and other family members into your practice.
  • Design and implement services that are accessible, culturally and linguistically respectful and responsive, flexible, and based on family-identified needs.


Watch this video to hear family child care professionals share their experiences working with families of  children with various special needs.

Working with Families of Children with Special Needs

Learn about addressing the needs of families who have children with special needs.


There are many ways you can demonstrate respect and consideration for families of children with special needs in your family child care. Consider the following:

  • Acknowledge that families know their child best, and ask them questions about services, resources, or typical routines that may help you to learn more about their child.
  • Establish ongoing communication between home and your family child care program. Communication journals are a great way to maintain communication. These are usually sent home with the child and returned the next day. Providers can share noteworthy observations, events, or daily challenges, and families can respond to those or share their own news or reflections. While communication journals can be used with families of all children in your family child care home, they can be an especially valuable tool in establishing consistency between home and learning environments for children with special needs.
  • Incorporate children’s books in your home library that reflect consideration of multiple abilities and differences.
  • Modify daily activities so that all children can participate in their own way.
  • Invite families to talk about their children. For example, a family member may come into your home and talk about their child’s use of adaptive equipment (e.g., braces, wheelchair, a communication device). The family member may explain the use of equipment, which can help children and other families understand aspects of their life. This also promotes acceptance of differences and creates an inclusive environment.
  • Be a team player! Work collaboratively with families and other professionals who may be involved in the delivery of services to children with disabilities.

If disagreements or miscommunication arise, consider the following:

  • Remind yourself that your role is to support families’ hopes and dreams for their child.
  • Be patient. Dealing with a child with a disability may be challenging at times, and family members need time to navigate this experience at their own pace.
  • Avoid making judgments of families and their children (e.g., “They just don’t want to see what’s wrong; they think their child is perfect.”).
  • Consider difficult times as opportunities to build trust between yourself and families.
  • Question your assumptions about working with families of children with disabilities and urge other professionals you know to do the same.
  • Talk with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator when in doubt about any aspect of your work with families.


Complete the following activities on Reflecting on Families of Children with Special Needs and Using Family-Specific Language. Write down some of your reflections, and share your thoughts with a coach, trainer, or family child care administrator.


You may want to share these resources with families. Review the websites listed in the Useful Resources for Families and Professionals to learn more about supporting families of children with special needs in your care. Think about how the information in The Emotional Experience of Families of Children with Disabilities will impact how you view families and respond to their decisions and behaviors.

Building a collection of resources that can easily be shared with families in your program is a great way to build supportive relationships. Use the Disability Services Resource activity to create a resource to help families learn more about local agencies that provide services for children with disabilities. CDA candidates should use the CDA Family Resource Guide: Disability Services handout to complete this activity.


Federal program implemented by states to provide services to families with eligible children ages with developmental delays and disabilities ages birth to three
Any accommodations a student needs outside of standard classroom instruction and design. This is a blanket term and can include students with behavioral issues, students on accelerated learning tracks, and students with physical disabilities
Written education program for special education (IDEA Part B) that lists educational goals, services, and accommodations for eligible children ages three to twenty-one
Federal program implemented by local education agencies to provide services and accommodations to eligible students with educational disabilities ages three to twenty-one
Written plan for providing early intervention (IDEA Part C) services for eligible families with children ages birth to three


True or false? Encouraging family-to-family support and networking is a reflection of family-centered practice.
Which is not an appropriate way to communicate with the family of a child with special needs?
Finish this statement: In your work with families of children with special needs, family-centered practice…
References & Resources

Barrera, I., & Corso, R. M. (2003). Skilled Dialogue: Strategies for responding to cultural diversity in early childhood. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Center for Parent Information & Resources. (n.d). Supporting the Parent Centers Who Serve Families of Children with Disabilities. Retrieved from

Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (2004). Understanding Families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Harry, B., Kalyanpur, M., & Day, M. (1999). Building Cultural Reciprocity with Families: Case studies in special education. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Harry, N., Rueda, R., & Kalyanpur, M. (1999). Cultural Reciprocity in Sociocultural Perspective: Adapting the normalization principle for family collaboration. Exceptional Children, 66(1), 123-136.

Howard, V. F., Williams, B. F., Port, P. D., & Lepper, C. (1997). Very Young Children with Special Needs: A formative approach for the 21st century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Johnson, B. H. (1990). The Changing Role of Families in Health Care. Children’s Health Care, 19(4), 234-241.

Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B. (1999). Culture in Special Education: Building reciprocal family-professional relationships. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Lynch, E. W., & Hanson, M. J. (2004). Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A guide for working with young children and their families (3rd ed). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment. Retrieved from

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Engaging Diverse Families. Originally retrieved from

Peck, A., & Scarpatti, S. (2002). Special Education Around the World. Teaching Exceptional Children 34(5).

Poston, D., Turnbull, A., Park, J., Mannan, H., Marquis, J., & Wang, M. (2003). Family Quality of Life: A qualitative inquiry. Mental Retardation, 41(5), 313-328.

Salend, S. J., & Garrick-Duhaney, L. M. (2002). What Do Families Have to Say About Inclusion? How to pay attention and get results. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(1), 62-66.

Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M. L., Smith, B. J., & McLean, M. E. (2005). DEC Recommended Practices: A comprehensive guide. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Turnbull, A. P., Turbiville, V., & Turnbull, H. R. (2000). Evolution of Family-Professional Partnerships: Collective empowerment as the model for the early twenty-first century. In J. P. Shonkoff & S. J. Meisels (Eds.), Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention (pp. 630-650). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.