- Explore 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
Infants and toddlers 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 with an infant or toddler 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, and your communication is especially important when working with families with infants and toddlers with special needs. Some infants and toddlers will enter your program with known special needs, and other families will learn that their child has a disability or delay while enrolled in your program. Families with eligible children ages birth to three may receive early intervention services and have an individualized family service plan (IFSP). 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 often need more help supporting their children’s development and may turn to you, or others in your program, for assistance with connecting to services or agencies outside your program. It may be helpful to form relationships with community agencies so you, or trainers and administrators in your program, have up-to-date information on how to make a referral and the types of services offered. Positive interactions with families and other professionals can decrease families’ stress and improve their well-being.
Families with infants and toddlers with special needs may go through various evaluation processes and may ask you to complete questionnaires or provide input at the request of a doctor, specialist, or teacher. Other professionals rely on this input, especially when they have limited amounts of time with children compared to program staff who often spend many hours each week caring for, educating, and observing children. This information can be used to determine if a child has a specific condition, support the child outcome summary (COS) process, determine eligibility for specific services, and develop goals for an IFSP or individualized education plan (IEP). An IFSP is a written document that states families’ desired outcomes, the steps needed to achieve those outcomes, and recommended services. You, or a trainer or administrator from your program, may be asked to officially participate in a families’ IFSP review, a time when the team of professionals and the family come together to assess progress, create new outcomes, and determine needed services. Working with professionals from outside agencies helps things run smoothly for families and ensures that all of the professionals and caregivers in a child’s life 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 infants and toddlers 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 a child’s time in your program is essential. Ask questions to learn about strategies that work at home and consider using them when providing care. Through your interactions you can build trust so both you and families feel comfortable sharing children’s strengths and if there are concerns (Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith, & McLean, 2005). Before communicating concerns with families, it may be helpful to discuss with a coach, trainer, or administrator your plan to share this information using family-centered practice. Be prepared for families to react in a variety of ways and know how you can offer support if they choose to take specific steps or access other agencies and resources. For families already receiving support from other professionals, ongoing communication with both families and professionals is critical to maintain consistency between program and home environments. When all the caregivers in a child’s life are consistently using effective strategies to promote development and outcomes, children are more likely to benefit and learn new skills.
In your collaboration with families, acknowledge and respect their strengths and unique background, while realizing their ability to make decisions that are right for them (Hanson & Lynch, 2004). 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 yourself and families.
Take a look at the following guidelines that reflect family-centered practice. You may remember some of these from Lesson 1. Then, think about which of these you can use in your work with families of children with special needs (Turnbull, Turbiville, & Turnbull, 2000):
- Recognizing the family as a constant in the child’s life; caregivers and service systems may come and go
- Facilitating collaboration between families and professionals
- Honoring and respecting family diversity in all dimensions (cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic, spiritual, and socioeconomic)
- Recognizing family strengths and the different approaches that families may use to cope
- Sharing unbiased and honest information with family members on an ongoing basis
- Encouraging family-to-family support and networking
- Acknowledging and incorporating the developmental needs of the child and other family members into your practice
- Designing and implementing services that are accessible, culturally and linguistically respectful and responsive, flexible, and based on family-identified needs
Watch this video to 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 infants or toddlers with special needs in your classroom. Consider the following:
- Acknowledge that families know their infant or toddler best and ask them questions about services or resources that may be helpful to you.
- Establish ongoing communication between home and the early care and learning setting. Communication journals are a great way to maintain communication. These are usually sent home with the child and returned the next day. Caregivers 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 the infants or toddlers in your care, they can be an especially valuable tool in establishing consistency between home and the early care and learning environment for infants and toddlers with special needs.
- Incorporate children’s books in your classroom library that reflect consideration of multiple abilities and differences.
- Invite families to talk with you about their infant or toddler’s special needs. For example, a family member may come in your classroom and talk about their child’s use of adaptive equipment (e.g., braces, wheelchair, or 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.
- Be a team player! Work collaboratively with families and other professionals who may be involved in the delivery of services to infants and toddlers 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. Caring for an infant or toddler with special needs may be challenging at times, and family members need time to navigate this experience at their own pace.
- Avoid making judgments for families and their infants or toddlers.
- 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, supervisor, or coach when in doubt about any aspect of your work with families.
Watch the video below to learn about having difficult conversations with families. Refer to the content two sections above for more ideas on how to communicate about difficult situations.
Complete the following activities on Reflecting on Families of Children with Special Needs and Using Family-Specific Language. Share your thoughts with a coach, trainer, or administrator.
Use the handout, Useful Resources for Families and Professionals, to explore the websites and learn more about ways to support families of children with special needs. You may consider sharing some of this information with families. 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 behavior.
|CHILD OUTCOMES SUMMARY (COS) PROCESS||Team process required by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs for all state early intervention and preschool special education agencies to report data summarizing a child’s functioning in three outcomes areas: (1) positive social-emotional skills, (2) acquisition and use of knowledge and skills, and (3) use of appropriate behaviors to meet needs|
|EARLY CHILDHOOD SPECIAL EDUCATION / IDEA PART B||Federal program implemented by local education agencies to provide services and accommodations to eligible students with educational disabilities ages three to twenty-one|
|EARLY INTERVENTION / IDEA PART C||Federal program implemented by states to provide services to families with eligible children with developmental delays or disabilities ages birth to three|
|INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION PROGRAM (IEP)||Written program for special education (IDEA Part B) that lists educational goals, services, and accommodations for eligible children ages three to twenty-one|
|INDIVIDUALIZED FAMILY SERVICE PLAN (IFSP)||Written plan for providing early intervention (IDEA part C) services for eligible families with children ages birth to three|
|LOCAL EDUCATION AGENCIES||Publicly-funded school districts|
|RELATED SERVICES||Including but not limited to the following services: speech-language therapy, audiology, interpreting, psychological, physical therapy, occupational therapy, recreation, counseling, orientation and mobility, medical services, nursing, social work, parent counseling and training|
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