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Working with Families of Children with Special Needs

This lesson will highlight the ways in which you can play a significant 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 responsibilites placed on many families of children with special needs.

  • Explore your own assumptions about working with families of children with special needs.
  • Identify variables that support family-centered practice.
  • Choose effective ways to support families of children with special needs.



Families of Young Children with Special Needs 

Children with special needs 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 additional situations and stressors, they have hopes, dreams, and concerns 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.

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 special needs, and other families will learn that their child has a disability or is delayed while in your care. Families with eligible children ages birth to three may receive early intervention and have an individualized family service plan (IFSP); while, children ages three and older may receive special education services 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 and appointments to help their children 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. Positive interactions with families and other providers can decrease families’ stress and improve their well-being.

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 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 to establish strong relationships with families of children with special needs is to spend time discovering their wishes and concerns for their children and to learn about the meaningful activities 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 take specific steps or contact outside agencies for support. Ongoing communication with families and the supportive professionals in their lives creates consistency and helps children develop and meet outcomes more quickly.

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

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 come and go.
  • 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 a 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 or resources 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 or events, 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.
  • Invite families to talk about their children with special needs. 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 special needs.

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 special needs may be challenging at times, and family members need time to navigate this experience at their own pace.
  • Avoid making judgments about 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 special needs 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 Examining Assumptions about Families of Children with Dis/Abilities and Using Family-Specific Language. Write down some of you 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 Useful Resources for Families and Professionals to learn more about supporting families of children with dis/abilities in your care. Think about how the information in The Emotional Experience of Families of Children with Dis/Abilities will impact how you view families and respond to their decisions and behaviors.


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 dis/abilities
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 Retrieved December 2017 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.