Written by Tami Dietz, Supervisor, Mecklenburg County CDSA
Empowering Families. Building Confidence and Competence. These are fairly new terms in early intervention, and we’ve heard them, and probably even thrown them around some, but do we really know what they mean?
As professionals working in this field, it is our common code to want to help children and their parents. We take pride in our ability to hear problems and know the answers. It makes us feel helpful and good about ourselves. We tell families what they need to do to improve their child’s development in their routines as a family. We should know, I mean, after all, we did go to school for it, (for years and years, I might add). And we ARE the professionals. Parents expect us to have answers, and we take on that expectation and give them what they want. Isn’t that how this is supposed to work?
But what if ….gasp!…..we don’t actually know all the answers? That is to say, what if we don’t know what might work for this particular family because we don’t live their lives, have their values, sleep in their beds, eat breakfast at their house, and pay their bills? What if we don’t actually know what would work best for them or their child?
The truth, in its rawest form, is that we don’t. We never did know the answers, even when we thought we did. Even though we’re the professionals, and we’re very knowledgeable, and we’re good at what we do.
Sometimes, the most difficult part of the work is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers, and then yes, telling families we don’t know. But there’s good news yet to come. We can tell parents that they know the answers (hooray!)…and they may not even know it! See, our jobs aren’t to simply tell families what they need to do to help their child, our job is to help families think, process, reflect, and experiment to figure it out themselves. As we know from the Early Childhood Coaching Handbook by Rush and Shelden, Reflection is a characteristic of the coaching process. The caregiver is asked to talk about what he/she is already doing as a first step to determine if modifications or new knowledge/skills are needed to reach the desired outcome. The coach then seeks to build the capacity of the caregiver….thus building confidence and competence. Here are some examples of what this might look like:
- For the family that exasperatedly describes their tantrumming two-year-old who throws his dinner choices like a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher….you probably don’t want to start with, “Well, maybe you should not put the food in front of him,” or “This is what kids do at this age.” Maybe start by asking some questions. “What have you tried when this is happening? How did that go?” or “What does he like about dinner? What foods does he enjoy?” If you ask, the family may let you see what a meal looks like with the family so you can get the bigger picture. Asking more questions to find out the details about what the whole family is doing during this routine, not just what the child is doing, is a good way to brainstorm about what could be done differently to change this routine.
- For the parent who answers the door blurry-eyed and describes the child that just won’t sleep through the night…you probably don’t want to start with, “Have you thought about putting him to bed earlier? Kids need plenty of rest.” And if you do, chances are good you may not be asked back. Not many of us tend to listen when folks start out telling us what we are doing wrong. You might want to begin with some empathy instead. We can all draw from our own experiences that lack of sleep is truly a form of torture. “I am so sorry,” “You must be exhausted,” and “Do you want to talk about this for today’s session and try to brainstorm together?” can help not only with building your rapport with the family, but also with a current, specific priority to address during that visit. Get a picture of what the family ideally wants to have happen to be most helpful and provide guided support. Remember to try and connect skills that parent already has to this current routine, and suggest using materials and supports already available and used by the family.
- For the dad that just can’t understand why his child bangs his head on the crib and pleads for your help to fix it….you might begin by gently reminding him of all the other successes they have had a family in raising this child to be happy and healthy leading up to now, and this is just yet another challenge to think through together. Remind him that he knows more about how to solve this problem than he thinks he does at this moment. Use some joint planning to talk about what is going on when this is occurring and what the family has tried or is willing to try. Listen and problem-solve with the parent, rather than telling them what they should do or doing it for them. Establish a plan for the next visit.
If you would like to reflect on your practices with families as an early interventionist, you can use the Provider Best Practice Rating Scale and see where things are going well for you and where there are things you can be changing to provide even better supports to children and families.
Now, I kid you not, this whole asking questions to get folks to come up with their own solutions is not as easy as telling people what to do. I, myself, find it easier to just tell people what to do. It simply takes less time and makes us feel better about ourselves. In truth, though, it’s really not about us or our successes or our failures. It’s about what helps families over the long haul….to be a stronger family. We essentially jump off the train at 3. :)They are together for the ongoing journey.