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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 preschool children with special needs. 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 special needs. 

  • 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

Preschoolers 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 a preschooler 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 preschoolers with special needs. Some preschool children will enter your program with known special needs, and other families will learn that their child has a disability or is delayed while enrolled in your program. Families with eligible preschool-age children 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, or others in your program, for assistance with connecting to services or agencies outside of your program. It may be helpful to form relationships with outside 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 preschoolers 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 outcomes summary (COS) process, determine eligibility for specific services, and develop goals for an individualized education program (IEP). You, or a trainer or administrator from your program, may be asked to participate in an IEP review, a time when the team of professionals and families come together to assess progress, create new outcomes, and determine needed services. Preschool children with IEPs may attend your program and their local education agency (LEA). Services on an IEP may only be provided at the LEA, or interventionists and related services personnel may “push in” and provide services within your program. Regardless of how special education services are delivered, 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.

Effective Practices

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 a child’s time in your program is essential. Ask questions to learn about strategies that work at home and consider using them in your classroom. 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 and professionals 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


Working with Families of Children with Special 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 children with special needs in your classroom. Consider the following:

  • Acknowledge that families know their child best and ask them questions about services or resources that may be helpful to you.
  • Establish ongoing communication between home and school. Communication journals are a great way to maintain communication. These are usually sent home with the child and returned the next day. Teachers 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 classroom, they can be an especially valuable tool in establishing consistency between home and school environments for children with special needs.
  • Incorporate children’s books in your classroom 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 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 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 for 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.
  • Talk with your trainer, supervisor, or coach when in doubt about any aspect of your work with families.

Family Members Share Perspectives

Watch this video to hear a family of a child with special needs share their school experience.


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 administrator.


Use the resources in this section to learn more about supporting families of children with special needs in your care. You may also want to share some of these resources with families. Use the handout, Useful Resources for Families and Professionals to learn more about ways to support families of children with special needs. 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.


ABA Therapy:
Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a research-based practice in which practitioners use strategies to modify the behavior of individuals to increase helpful behaviors and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning
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
Federal program implemented by local education agencies to provide services and accommodations to eligible students with educational disabilities ages three to twenty-one
Federal program implemented by states to provide services to families with eligible children with developmental delays or disabilities ages birth to three
Written education program for special education (IDEA Part B) that lists educational goals, services, and accommodations for eligible children ages three and older
Written plan for providing early intervention (IDEA part C) services for eligible families with children ages birth to three
Publicly-funded school districts
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 preschool teacher, it is not important for you to reflect upon 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. 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. 

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, United Kingdom: 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.