Early Intervention Strategies for Success

Sharing What Works in Supporting Infants & Toddlers and the Families in Early Intervention

Early Intervention Strategies for Success, Tips, Insight and Support for EI Practitioners


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Rule of thumb…never bring a xylophone to an intervention visit when there are siblings in the mix.Woman Holding Hands of Two Toddlers

This was one of my biggest rules when I was working in EI and still lugging around a toy bag. Ages ago I had a visit where I brought the xylophone along and the preschool-aged brother of the child I was seeing spent the ENTIRE next 60 minutes banging on it. Painful for me but so much fun for the two of them. While I learned that musical instruments were not my thing  (and shortly thereafter learned to leave the whole toy bag at the office), I learned a more important lesson. The brother was fantastic at getting his younger sibling to make sounds and get engaged, a much more skillful teacher than me (despite, or maybe because of, the marvelous noise they made together)!

Unfortunately some interventionists, particularly those who practice a more traditional, clinical approach, still recommend for parents to keep siblings out of the visit so that the interventionist can “work” with the other child. Now that we know that the best way to “work” with an infant or toddler is through his/her family and their daily routines, early interventionists need to jump into those routines and find ways to include everyone in the intervention. Siblings often have a remarkable way of knowing how to get their brothers/sisters to communicate, interact, and play. They are often hungry to get involved. Get them on your side, make them feel like they are important members of the team, and see what happens!

Here are a few strategies for adding siblings to the mix.

Explain Why Involving the Sibling is Important

Parents may think that the sib will be “in the way” so it’s your job to explain how this isn’t true. Help the parent see how the sibling can be involved and how this benefits the child. After all, the sibling is the child’s most natural and accessible playmate during the rest of the week!

Watch Them Play

First, sit back and watch how the siblings play with each other. Find out what they like to do together and build on that. Ask the sibling to show you the child’s favorite toys and games. Watch for how they motivate and engage each other.

Keep It Simple

Ask the sibling to hold the rattle so that the baby can track it. Show the sibling how the child communicates by moving her arm (maybe for a child with multiple disabilities). Teach the sibling how to use “hand-over-hand” support to help the child activate toys. Teach turn-taking games. Make it fun. The sibling might only want to play for a few moments and that’s okay too.

Follow-Up with the Sibling at the Next Visit

When you ask the parent how the week went, don’t forget to ask the sibling too. It can be easy for a sib to feel left out with so much focus on the child with the delay or disability. Help him feel important and involved, and you just might be helping forge a bond between the children that will last!

How have you involved siblings in visits? Do you have a great success story about involving siblings? Or maybe a xylophone story of your own (we all have them)? Share your thoughts!

6 comments on “Adding Siblings to the Intervention Mix

  • Cori Hill says:

    Ooohhh…(shudder, shudder).I have my “still bringing the toy bag and a sibling” confession, too! Once I purposefully brought a shiny, “bells and whistles” fire truck SPECIFICALLY to entertain the sibling who often took toys away from the child “with whom I was working.” (Ok, hindsight is 20/20 and I wish I knew then what I know now!) Unfortunately, I picked the PERFECT toy for this little guy and he was enthralled with that truck. As he saw my visit coming to a close, I watched as he loudly tiptoed like only a preschooler can do, and hid the toy behind the sofa, hoping that I would forget it. When the mother asked where the truck was (knowing full well where it was), the little boy replied, “I dunno!” Needless to say,it was not pretty trying to get the little guy to fess up and return the toy (and why didn’t I just leave the truck for a week or two?) Where were this practical tips when I was providing direct service?

    • Hey, we all have these stories! What’s important is what we learn from them, right? For one of my very first families, I actually brought an whole second toy bag for the older sibling, to keep him entertained. Yes, that’s 2 bags! Yeesh, I agree with the power of hindsight! Now I can imagine all of the learning opportunities I probably missed by not including both children in the intervention!

  • Jennifer S says:

    One “technique” that I have found that works sometimes, especially with older sisters, is that the parents and I talk about how we are helping to “teach” the younger child, and I’ve found that oftentimes the older siblings is MORE than excited to be a “teacher” and is often very willing to help us with whatever task we ask them to do with their younger sibling, often taking much pride in doing this!

    I do also have some parents that despite my assuring them that the older sibling(s) are fine, and encouraging the parent to allow them to stay and interact, I have also found that some families are more comfortable with the older sibling playing on the computer, with another family member, etc, as it is oftentimes the only time that the parent can focus on the youngest child one on one. Despite talking about involving the older sibling in visits, I think it’s also important that we realize that some families prefer it this way, and that we can work with that too….mentioning and talking about strategies that can be used during the week when the older sibling is there of course 🙂

    • I’ve found the same thing, Jennifer, that sibs love being “teachers!” I think you also make an important point about family preferences. Letting families know that it’s a-ok for sibs to be involved then letting them make the decision about how the visits work is very appropriate for family-centered services!

  • Mary Ellen Plitt says:

    Love this one. Especially the part about stepping back. It takes little time to appreciate how siblings and other young family members can motivate and illicit more than we adults at times.


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