- Explore own assumptions about working with families of children with special needs.
- Identify variables that may challenge or 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 and care for these children and their families. While these families often experience additional challenging situations and stressors, they have hopes, dreams, and goals for their children just like other families. You can positively impact families with a preschooler with a disability 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, and your communication is especially important when working with families with preschoolers with special needs. Some preschool children will enter your program with a known disability, and other families will learn that their child has a disability or is delayed while enrolled in your program. You may even be one of the professionals that assists in identifying an area of concern or delay. 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, therapies, and appointments to help their child 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 and available. Positive interactions with families and other professionals can decrease families’ stress and improve their well-being, as well as improve their confidence in you as their child’s early care and learning program.
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.
Families with preschoolers with disabilities 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 in their daily routines. This information can be used to determine if a child has a specific area of need, support the child outcome 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 a family's IEP review, a time when the team of professionals and the family 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 therapists may provide services within your program. Regardless of how these 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, goals and expectations.
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 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 seek assistance from 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 the same, effective strategies to promote development and outcomes, children are more likely to benefit and learn new skills.
In your collaboration with families, it is important to 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 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 yourself 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 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 often change
- 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
There are many ways you can demonstrate respect and consideration for families of children with special needs or disabilities in your classroom. Consider the following:
- Acknowledge that families know their child best and ask them questions about services, resources, or typical routines 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, 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 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.
- Modify daily activities so that all children can participate in their own way.
- Invite families to talk about their child. 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 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.
- Consider difficult times as opportunities to build trust between yourself and families.
- Question your assumptions about working with families of children with disabilities or 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.
What are some of your assumptions about families of children with disabilities and your role when working with them? In the activity, Reflecting on Families of Children with Special Needs, share your thoughts after each question. Then, share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.
In the Using Family-Specific Language activity, read the scenario and write down how you would handle speaking to the child’s family. Share your responses with your coach, trainer, or administrator.
Reflecting on Families of Children With Special Needs
Use the resources listed in Useful Resources for Families and Professionals to learn more about supporting families of children with special needs or disabilities. You may also want to share some of these resources 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.
Building a collection of resources that can be easily 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.
Useful Resources for Families and Professionals
The Emotional Experience of Families of Children with Disabilities
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 https://parentcenterhub.org/
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.
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National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/positionstatements/ethical_conduct
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Trivette, C. M. & Dunst, C. J. (2005). DEC Recommended Practices: Family-Based Practices. In S. Sandall, M. L. Hemmeter, B. J. Smith, & M. E. McLean (Eds.). DEC Recommended Practices: A comprehensive guide for practical application (pp. 107-126). 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.