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Working With Families of Children With Special Needs

Just like families of children who are developing typically, 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 variables that support family-centered practices.
  • Model effective ways to support families of children with special needs.



Families of Children with Special Needs

Children with disabilities are members of our communities, programs, and families, and it is our responsibility and commitment to provide high-quality, inclusive services 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 every other family. You can positively impact families of children with disabilities 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.  

It’s also important to remember that disability is part of human diversity, and it is an important part of staff and family members’ experiences, too. Disabled adults work in your program, register their children in your program, and lead your communities. Some disabilities are visible, and others are not. The strategies you learn in this lesson will help you build a vibrant, welcoming community.

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 of children with special needs. Some children will enter your program with a known disability, 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 and older who receive special education services (IDEA Part B) will have an individualized education program (IEP). Preschool and school age youth may also qualify for what are known as 504 Plans, which outline the adaptations and accommodations that will help a child be successful in educational environments. Other children and youth 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 connecting to services or agencies outside your program. It may be helpful for you or an administrator 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 evaluation processes may ask a program staff member 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 a limited amount 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 help determine if a child has a specific condition, support the child outcomes summary (COS) process, determine eligibility for specific services, and develop outcomes for an IFSP or IEP. It’s important that the staff member asked to do this have time to complete this request. Parents or a Local Education Agency (LEA) may request that you or someone from your program attend eligibility meetings or reviews for IFSPs and IEPS. During these reviews the team of professionals come together with families to assess progress, develop new outcomes, 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.


The first step to establishing strong relationships with families of children with special needs or disabilities (and all families) is to reflect on your own assumptions about families. What are your own assumptions about parenting and child-rearing? What are your personal and professional values and beliefs about disability? How much do you know about the values and beliefs of the families in your program? The next step is to discover families’ 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 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. 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 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 backgrounds, as well as their ability to make decisions that are right for them (Hanson & Lynch, 2013). 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 developed by the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (2020), to reflect family-centered practice and think about which of these you can use in your work with families of children with disabilities in your program:

Family-Centered Practices for Working With Families
  • Relationship building takes time. Trust and respect—the cornerstones of family-practitioner relationships—develop when the two people work together, each contributing to achieving desired family goals and outcomes.
  • Put yourself in the parent’s shoes. The more you can understand parents’ concerns and priorities from a family’s point-of-view, the more you can partner successfully.
  • Develop and use effective listening skills. Show sincere concern and empathy for parents’ struggles and celebrate family strengths and accomplishments. Acknowledge and be responsive to family members' beliefs about their situation or circumstances. Remain nonjudgmental even if you do not agree with a parent’s point-of-view.
  • Be responsive to each family’s unique circumstances. This includes a parents’ personal and cultural beliefs and values. It is important to remember that beliefs influence how a family sees and responds to their situation.
  • Building relationships with parents starts with identifying what a family wants to accomplish as part of their work with you. Move beyond just talking, however, to taking concrete steps to achieve family-identified goals or outcomes.
  • Family participatory involvement means that parents are actively engaged in obtaining family-identified supports or resources and taking action to achieve desired outcomes or goals.
  • Ask the parents which steps or actions they feel comfortable doing themselves and which steps or actions they want to do together with you. Things parents feel comfortable doing build on family strengths. Things parents do together with others promote new abilities.
  • Parents look to professionals for advice and guidance. As part of identifying the steps and actions to obtain supports and resources, offer suggestions and ideas for parents to consider. These should be shared in an unbiased manner and not be imposed on the parents.
  • Remember to engage the parents in a review of their actions and accomplishments. This helps strengthen their sense of confidence and competence in achieving desired goals and outcomes.

Source: Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (2020). Practitioner family-centered practices for working with families.

You can help strengthen all families in your program by helping build family-to-family support and networking. Families can be the greatest source of support and resources for one another.  Families can help one another navigate complex school and medical systems. Friendships can also help relieve stress and build social supports among 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 communication between home and school. Communication journals are a great way of doing that. These are usually sent home with the child and returned the next day. Staff members 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, when it comes to children with special learning needs, they can be a valuable tool in establishing consistency between home and school environments.
  • Incorporate children’s books that reflect consideration of multiple abilities and differences in the 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 disagreements or miscommunications 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;

PUBLICRemember 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 recommendations, communicate with families about their observations of their children at home, and work with outside professionals as needed. 


Read the different scenarios in the Using Family-Specific Language activity and think about how you would support staff in partnering with families to meet their child's needs.


Review all of the resources listed in the Useful Resources for Families and Professionals handout 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.



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 ages with developmental delays and disabilities ages birth to three
To try to feel what another person is feeling; to “put yourself in another’s shoes”
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 and older
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 trainer or coach, it is not important for you to think about your thoughts and assumptions about families of children with special needs.
References & Resources

Barton, E.E., & Smith, B. (2015). Preschool inclusion toolbox: How to build and lead a high-quality program. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Center for Parent Information & Resources:

Division for Early Childhood (2014). DEC recommended practices in early intervention/early childhood special education 2014.

Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (2020). Practitioner family-centered practices for working with families.

Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E.W. (2013). Understanding families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk, 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Head Start Center for Inclusion:

Iris Center (2022). Children’s books: Portrayals of people with disabilities

Kids Included Together:

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2011). Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment.

National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (n.d.). Parent involvement and family engagement for early childhood professionals.

PACER Center (2022). Engaging culturally diverse families for student success.

Turnbull, A., Winton, P., Rous, B., & Buysse, V. (2010). CONNECT Module 4: Family-Professional partnerships. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute, CONNECT: The Center to Mobilize Early Childhood Knowledge.