Written by Joey Bishop-Manton, Clinical Supervisor, Mecklenburg County CDSA
You get to a scheduled visit and the family isn’t home. This has happened before. Or…they are at home, but they are taking care of other things while you are there (laundry, phone calls, etc.). Or…they don’t seem comfortable showing you things, trying things that you suggest, or sharing information with you about what has happened since your last visit. It is natural for an early interventionist to question why building a relationship with some families seems to be easier than with others. Do they like me? Did I do or say something wrong? Do they really want me here? Building a good working partnership with a family takes time. How can you connect with families and let them know how much you want to support them?
- Developing a new relationship takes time. Sometimes, it can seem almost effortless as you meet and begin to problem-solve with a new family. More often, it takes time to get to know each other and build a good working relationship. Think about how it would feel to invite someone you don’t know, not only into your home, but also into the day-to-day life of your family. Yikes! Providers discuss many important principles to describe early intervention, but the idea of “partnering” with a service provider might be new (and kind of strange) for the family. Parents and other primary caregivers may need some convincing before they really believe we are here as much for them as we are for their child and that our agenda is really their agenda. Getting to know what is important to families, what they are interested in, favorite activities and routines, as well as really hard activities and routines, all help us get to know a family.
- Little things really do matter. Having a stranger come into a family’s home can be hard. Even really nice strangers! Families might think they need to clean up the house or do other things to “get ready” for us. Making it clear that families shouldn’t change their normal routine for visits is really important. When you come into a home, if Mom or Dad or Grandma sits on the couch, where do you sit? You know you can talk with a parent while you sit on the floor with a child, but sitting with a parent gives a clear message of “I am here for you.” It’s always good to ask permission – even when you think the answer will be yes. For example, while many families may want you to take your shoes off during visits, some families might view that as an odd request, but they might not feel comfortable telling you that.
- Be genuine and specific in your feedback to families. Finding ways to increase the confidence and competence of caregivers is a primary goal of early intervention. It would be hard to find a parent who doesn’t at times question how well they are doing. Look for opportunities to share specific and positive information about what families are doing right and why it is important. When we become more confident, we are often more comfortable trying new things.
- Ask for information and really listen. Gathering detailed information from families about what happens during their day is what leads to effective intervention. Sharing information with familiar people (family and friends) can be a lot easier than sharing it with a professional. Encouraging a family to paint a picture about what going to store really looks like helps identify the challenges and learning opportunities of that activity. Children change all the time, and family routines, activities, and interests change often as well. Ongoing conversations with open-ended questions allow families to share new information to help guide outcome development and intervention strategies. For some great conversation starters, check out some Questions for Eliciting Family Interests, Priorities, Concerns, and Everyday Routines and Activities.
- Talk directly with families and the rest of the IFSP team when things don’t seem to be working smoothly. Ask families what is working for them and what is not. Is the time you picked for visits still OK? Are you still addressing things that they are concerned about? Do other team members have strategies that have worked for them? Service Coordinators can help facilitate discussions with teams and problem-solve on an ongoing basis if you hit any bumps in the road.
Building relationships with families can be hard. Sometimes family priorities change and sometimes a family/early interventionist match doesn’t work. That is ok! Figuring out ways to respect, connect, and learn from each family helps us grow in our own work. It also helps us learn to work with each family as the unique and special people that they are!