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Coaching with Interpreters – A Table Talk Wednesday Recap

Written by Julie Higginbotham, Senior Case Coordinator, Mecklenburg County CDSA

We talk a lot about coaching and working with a wide variety of families, so it made sense for us to have a Table Talk Wednesday event so folks could talk more about what this looks like when we are supporting families that don’t speak English.  For this discussion, we primarily focused on the use of interpreters for intervention sessions with families.  When supporting families with an interaction style of coaching, it is vital that the early intervention provider is able to effectively communicate with the parent or caregiver in order to problem-solve together and engage in joint planning.   For this event, we had Candice Welti, Physical Therapist with First Steps Pediatric Therapy, and Marsela Rodriguez, Bilingual Service Coordinator with the CDSA, to help get us started in sharing our experiences.  We had a mixed group of therapists, service coordinators, and even our in-house interpreters through the CDSA to give different perspectives on how we can best support children and families during our visits.  Here were some highlights from those different viewpoints:

  • What exactly is involved with interpreting services?  Interpreting is a very specific skill that requires a lot of detailed training because the interpreter is there to say, word for word, what we say to families, without summarizing or paraphrasing.  There are two main kinds of interpreting – simultaneous, where the interpreter is talking at the same time as you, and consecutive, where you say a complete sentence and then the interpreter repeats it.  The second kind is what we want to see during visits – we should be speaking in short, clear sentences so the interpreter can tell the family exactly what we said.  Even though someone is helping us communicate, we should always be looking at and speaking directly to the family or child, not to the interpreter. Also, don’t confuse this with translating – interpreting is verbal, translating is written.  Looking for more information?  The US Department of Labor has a nice overview available that describes interpreting/translating service to help give you some more clarity if needed.
  • What does it look like when we meet with families without interpreters?  While it was discussed in the context of what happens if there’s a change in scheduling or an interpreter isn’t able to get there for the visit, this conversation really brought out the reasons why we should be using interpreters during visits.  First of all, folks do a good job of doing the best that they can in these situations – some may reschedule altogether, others may see if they can make it through on the English that the family is able to use, and others may resort to drawing pictures, using a phone app to translate, or doing more deliberate modeling that can help bridge the language gap a little.  It was noted, though, that this last one is easier with physical therapy and occupational therapy visits than it is for speech therapy sessions.  It also seems to be easier if the therapist has been working with the family for a while and when there are already good coaching interactions expected during visits.   One person pointed out that not having an interpreter puts the therapist in a role of working more with the child than coaching the parent, which takes away from what we know to be best practice in early intervention. 
  • How does adding another person/voice to the conversation affect visits?    When we’re working with families that speak another language, naturally engaging directly with a family may seem more awkward. One person stated that some children respond more to the interpreter because they’re speaking their language.  It could even go a step further to a parent’s increased engagement with the interpreter than with the provider or service coordinator.  Just the fact that you’ve added another person to the visit can change the dynamic, even if you’re able to communicate more effectively with the family.

So, what do we do about these things?  Here were some suggestions from the group….

  • If you’re going to be working with an interpreter, there are some specific steps that help make the process a bit smoother for each visit.  First of all, taking a minute on the way to the door to have a pre-session with interpreters helps let them know what you will be doing and how you’ll be utilizing their skills.  This is a good time to let them know that you need everything interpreted, word for word, for both the parent and child, and vice versa.  When you go into the visit, interpreters will often have a little spiel that they go over with the family to help define their role in the visit as well.
  • If you’re in a position where you’re meeting with a family for an intervention session, and you don’t have an interpreter, you’ll have to decide if you can make it through and if the family still wants to meet with you.  If you know you’re going to be working with a family with the support of an interpreter, the team should be talking about what visits will look like and making plans for what to do if an interpreter can’t be there for a visit.  This would include making sure that the team, including the interpreter, can get information out about changes, cancellations, or other important things in a timely manner. It is also helpful to explore natural supports that the family may have to help with intervention sessions when appropriate.
  • If you find that having an interpreter in the visit seems a bit challenging, it might be a good idea to look at what could present some barriers to effective interactions.  If having information interpreted seems confusing for the child, perhaps you can work more with the parent in the position of guiding the child (which happens to be part of that best-practice coaching philosophy).  Maybe having the interpreter sit in a different place would help so that support isn’t quite as distracting.  The interpreter needs to be able to hear what everyone is saying, but strategic positioning can make a huge difference in a visit.
  • If you ask a question, you often are anticipating the answer.  If you find yourself surprised with a family’s response, you might want to look at how you asked the question.  What words and gestures did you use?  Did you use a slang term that can’t be interpreted directly in a way that makes sense?  Maybe you used a question that was too long, which the interpreter then summarized to the family, or the family’s answer was lengthy.  You can always ask the question a different way, help pace the family with their answers, use gestures to clarify, and watch your overall body language.  It’s important to stop when you notice a misstep or miscommunication so you can clarify before moving on to the next topic.

We are so very fortunate to have amazing interpreters on staff here at the CDSA, as well as the resources to access interpreters from the community when we need to be able to communicate with families in their native language and maintain our coaching interactions with families.  While it can seem intimidating at first, it really does make a difference in ongoing visits, and you may even find yourself learning a few new words in another language!

We have another great Table Talk Wednesday event coming up on November 19, 2014, where we’ll be talking about Crossing Boundaries and maintaining positive relationships with families we serve.  Come on out, invite a colleague or two, and see where the conversation takes us!

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