This post is the second in a series based on a transcript from a recent Q&A with Dr. Barry Prizant as part of his webinar, “Family Collaboration: An Essential Element for SPED Success.” Questions came directly from audience participants — special education directors, special educators, speech-language pathologists, and parents, and answers are from Dr. Prizant. Click here to see additional questions from the Q&A.
What processes between early intervention programs in school districts have been successful to continue parent involvement and could build on the strategies that were previously presented by the early interventionist?
This is such a crucial issue and I feel that it is one of the times that school personnel can really put a lot the eggs in the basket of developing trust. If you think about families whose kids are coming out of early intervention, these families are still, in some cases, in that period of shellshock — maybe just recently getting a diagnosis, maybe not fully understanding what the diagnosis means — and then having to face a whole new system with all new staff. This is a huge issue in terms of shifting trust to school staff, especially because the great majority of early intervention support happens within the home environment where parents feel more comfortable, where they feel like, “Okay, this is our context, this is where we live.” Of course it is not always possible to have a seamless transition, but let me share some ideas with you.
I’m going to tell a story that involves a transition that I was involved with, and this is one of the many times I learned from a school administrator about really engaging families in a way that develops trust. This was a special education administrator from the Northeast who always made the personal commitment to try to touch base personally with parents whose kids are in early intervention when she gets information that these children will be transitioning into her district. Sometimes she reaches out with a staff member, and on one occasion I actually went with her to the home after she contacted the parents. This was not a formal transition needing all the paperwork and so forth, but she called up and spoke to the mom and basically said, “You know your child is coming into our district and I would like to meet you and I would like to meet your child, is that okay? And I would be happy to come out to your home.” She asked me to go with her, and the family happened to have two kids, twin girls both with an autism diagnosis.
This was a lower SES family, and the home had limited space, and you could imagine with two kids, there was some degree of clutter in the home, but we just went there and we sat down on the floor and played with the kids a little bit. The mom made us some coffee and we just hung out with them. We had a very open conversation for 45 minutes to an hour about the questions the mom had. The kids were going to be transitioning four to six months later.
When this special education administrator shares this strategy with other administrators, they often look at her cockeyed and say, “How would you have the time for that? We are just so busy!” Her response is that, in the end, she discovered reaching out was actually was a time saver; that putting the extra effort into developing trust with families, going the extra mile, helped parents believe in you and trust you. This particular administrator said to me, “I know that this strategy precludes many nervous calls that would happen if I hadn’t established that personal contact.” A few years later, you have parents who put more trust in your decisions, put more trust in what you are suggesting. This is not always possible, especially in huge school districts, but reaching out on interpersonal level, whether it’s an administrator or whether it’s staff, is a very, very important piece from early intervention into the school years.
It’s important to reduce uncertainty so that parents can know what to expect. Put it in writing, give this written information to parents ahead of time, and set up a meeting where either a group of parents or an individual parent can ask questions about those guidelines, and at the same time inform the parents of how they can expect things to unfold.
There are more specific suggestions out of early intervention — for example some districts I consult will always send a preschool staff member out to observe the child in a playgroup or observe the child at home — and this is more to get some information about the child and to ask questions as opposed to primarily developing that trust with parents. At times, both can happen in the same visit.
From the very beginning, asking parents coming out of early intervention “Well, what has been most useful to you? What information has been provided to you that was helpful?” gives us the sense of what parents are looking for. Then we can let them know how we will try to put into place in the child’s program what has been helpful so far. In other words, what we are saying is that we are not going to cut off everything that was helpful in early intervention, that we are going to provide continuity of programming. I think when parents feel like what they are getting in one setting — whether it is early intervention versus elementary, elementary versus middle school, middle school versus high school — is just a totally different system with a totally different cast of characters, it creates so much more anxiety for them. If we could communicate to them the sense of continuity of programming, that we are going to build upon the progress that the child has made, and that we are going to follow up on the concerns that still remain significant concerns, it is just so calming for parents to know they are not going to start from scratch all over again.
Dr. Barry Prizant is a clinical scholar, consultant, researcher and expert on childhood communication disorders. His new book, “Uniquely Human: Seeing Autism Through a Different Lens” is scheduled to be released in August, 2015 by Simon and Schuster. To contact Dr. Prizant for a consultation or workshop in your district, visit https://www.barryprizant.com/.