In the early 80’s we used the term “family involvement.” There was an implied sense that early childhood professionals were bringing families into their inner sanctum. The alphabet soup of special education jargon was revealed; parents became members on various boards and family members began to “negotiate the special education maze.” (Anderson, Chitwood, & Hayden, 1982)
In the late 90’s we modified our terminology to reflect current best practice and we began to use ‘collaborative partnerships.” Families were viewed as equal members of the IFSP/IEP team. Parents and caregivers had invaluable information to share with other team members.
And now, it is 2012 and a new term is being utilized: family engagement. Is it all semantics or could this be the phrase that really changes our practice? Muscott et al. (2008) report that family engagement is defined when “building trusting relationships with family members; that is to say, relationships in which teachers and parents respect one another, believe in each other’s ability and willingness to fulfill their responsibilities, have high personal regard for one another, and trust each other to put children’s interests first. Relationship building is enhanced when family-centered practices that respect the uniqueness and personal circumstances of all families including those who have children with disabilities…”
So what does this look like in practice? How do early intervention providers and early childhood special educators truly collaborate with families? What is the family’s role in their child’s education?
In 2005, the Division of Early Childhood (DEC) identified four recommended practices for family-based practices.
- Families and professionals share responsibility and work collaboratively
Family members and professionals work together, sharing information and jointly developing appropriate family- identified outcomes that are responsive to cultural, language and other family characteristics
- Practices strengthen family functioning
Practices, supports and resources provide families with opportunities that strengthen decision making and choice. Information is provided and supports and services are mobilized in ways that do not disrupt family and community life.
- Practices are individualized and flexible
Resources and supports match each family member’s identified preferences, beliefs, and values. IFSPs and IEPs are tailored for individual children.
- Practices are strengths- and assets-based
Family and child strengths are used as the basis for engaging families in activities to build knowledge and strengthen parent competence and confidence. (Sandall et al., 2005)
As early childhood practitioners, we know that families are the experts on their child. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding their family and the learning opportunities on which we can build our strategies. Our job is to merge our knowledge and expertise about child development into the family’s daily routines. From this, we can develop IFSP/IEP outcomes and programming that will promote individualized activities that will truly encourage families to become fully engaged. Perhaps then, it will not just be about semantics!
What strategies do you use to engage families, build rapport, and maintain relationships?
References available upon request. Posting was adapted from original article in The T/TAC Telegram (Feb/Mar, 2009).