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Working With Families of Children With Special Needs

All families, including families of children with special needs, have dreams, hopes, and concerns about their children. This lesson will highlight the ways in which you can play a significant role in supporting staff members as they support families of children with special needs. It will provide recommendations for effective collaboration with these families.

  • Teach staff to explore their own assumptions about working with families of children with special needs.
  • Observe and provide feedback on family-centered practices.
  • Model effective ways to support families of 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 services. While there are often additional situations and stressors associated with raising a child with special needs, these families have hopes, dreams, and concerns for their children just like all 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 families’ lives.

Working with Families of Children with Special Needs

Forming meaningful relationships with families is an important part of your work, and your communication is especially important when working with the families of children with special needs. Some children will enter your program with known special needs, and other families will learn that their child has a disability while enrolled in your program. Families with eligible children ages birth to three may receive early intervention (IDEA Part C) services and have an individualized family service plan (IFSP); while, eligible children ages three to twenty-one who receive special education services (IDEA Part B) will 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 strategies and appointments to help their children learn and develop. These families may need more help supporting their children’s development. Classroom staff will need to learn intervention strategies to support individual children with disabilities as they often spend much of their time in care. Families may also turn to program staff for assistance connecting to services or agencies outside your program. It may be helpful to form relationships with community agencies, so you have up-to-date information on how to make referrals and the types of services offered. Positive interactions with families and other supportive individuals in their lives can improve families’ well-being and minimize stress.

Families going through an evaluation process may ask a program staff member to complete questionnaires or provide input at the request of a doctor, specialist, or teacher. This information can be used to help determine if a child has a specific condition, support the child outcomes summary (COS) process, determine eligibility for specific services, and develop goals for an IFSP or IEP. It’s important that the staff member asked to do this task have time to complete this request. Other professionals rely on this input, especially when they have a limited amount of time with children compared to program staff who often spend many hours each week caring for, educating, and observing children. Families or a Local Education Agency (LEA) can request that you or someone from your program participate in a child and family’s IFSP or IEP review. This is when the team of professionals come together with families to assess progress, develop new goals, and determine needed services and accommodations. 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. When staff are able to attend and participate in IEP or IFSP meeting, they are more likely to use strategies in the classroom to help children meet their goals.

Modeling Effective Practices

The first step to establish strong relationships with families of children with special needs is to discover their wishes, goals, and concerns for their children and to learn about the meaningful activities they participate in at home. Maintaining two-way communication throughout a child’s time in your program is essential. Ask questions and find out about strategies that work at home and consider using those in the program. At the same time, help staff members share their own thoughts about children’s strengths and their concerns about children’s development (Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith, & McLean, 2005). Staff members may need your support before sharing concerns with families to ensure they are using family-centered practice and are prepared to support families if they choose to take steps or reach out to outside agencies and programs. For families already receiving support from other professionals, ongoing, two-way 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 learn new skills and meet goals.

In your collaboration with families, acknowledge and respect their strengths and unique backgrounds, as well as their ability to make decisions that are right for them (Hanson & Lynch, 2004). This means that although family wishes and decisions may be different from what you would prefer, these have to be respected.

Take a look at the following guidelines that reflect family-centered practice. Then, think about which of these you can use in your work with families of children with special needs in your program (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 identity, ethnic, linguistic, spiritual, family structure, and socio-economic)
  • Recognize family strengths and the different approaches that families may use in coping
  • 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

Supervise & Support

Supporting Staff Members’ Work with Families

There are many ways staff members in your programs can demonstrate respect and consideration for families of children with special needs. Look for ways staff members do the following:

  • Acknowledge that families know their child best and ask them questions about services or resources that may be helpful.
  • Establish ongoing, two-way communication between home and school. Communication journals or home-school communication apps are a great way of doing that. Journals can be sent home with the child and returned the next day. Communication apps allow teachers to upload text, photos, and videos and allows families to comment and send private notes. Staff members can share noteworthy observations or events, and families can respond to those or share their own news or reflections. While communication journals or apps can be used with families of all children, when it comes to children with disabilities they can be a valuable tool in establishing consistency between home and school environments.
  • Incorporate children’s books, toys, and materials that reflect diverse abilities and differences in the classroom environment and curriculum.
  • Invite families to talk about their children with special needs. For example, a family member may come in your program 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, and this 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 children with special learning needs.

If conflict 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 on families and their children.
  • 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.

To learn more about what to observe in staff members, watch this video from Kids Included Together (KIT;

Remember that you play a critical role in supporting the inclusion of children with special needs. If there is a specific plan such as an IFSP, IEP, or behavior intervention plan, you may participate in those teams and decision-making. Familiarize yourself with these processes and learn about individual plans for each child in your program. Provide support to staff if they need help implementing strategies, communicate with families about their observations of their children at home, and work with outside professionals as needed.


Complete the Reflecting on Families of Children with Disabilities activity to understand your own assumptions and biases as well as those of the professionals in your program. Choose at least one of the Using Family-Specific Language case scenarios. Reflect on your responses and discuss any questions you may have with a colleague.


Review the information in Useful Resources for Families and Professionals handout. You may want to share some of these resources with families. Think about how the information in The Emotional Experience of Families impacts how you view families and respond to their decisions and behavior. Finally, respond to the reflection questions in the Reflecting on Family Experiences activity.


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 outcome 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 and older
Early Intervention (IDEA Part C):
Federal program implemented by states to provide services to families with eligible children with developmental delays and disabilities ages birth to three
Individualized Education Program (IEP):
Written education 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 services (IDEA Part C) for eligible families with children ages birth to three
Local Education Agency (LEA):
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


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?
True or false? As a Program Manager, it is not important for you to think about your thoughts and assumptions about families of children with special needs.
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.

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.

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

Kids Included Together. (20201).

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). Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (n.d.). Family Engagement.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (n.d.). Diverse Families.

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 for practical application (pp. 107-126). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Peck, A., & Scarpati, S. (2002) Special Education Around the World. Teaching Exceptional Children 34(5):4.

Sandall, S., Schwartz, I., Joseph, G., and Gauvreau, A. (2019). Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs (3rd ed.). Brookes Publishing.

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 Shonkoff, J. P. & Meisels, S. J. (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.