Imagine that, without warning, you lost your job. Without your paycheck, you’ve gotten more and more behind on paying rent until you’re served with an eviction notice. You have two more days until you must leave your apartment and you don’t have enough money for a deposit on a new one. You have no family in the area who will take you in. You have two small children, both still in diapers. Your youngest son, Bryan, has a diagnosis of cerebral palsy and a visual impairment. He needs glasses and has missed two specialists’ appointments because you were afraid that you couldn’t afford the cost of the visits. At the end of a long, stressful day, you put your boys to bed. You know you need to call your service coordinator because you need to get Bryan’s services started but you just can’t. You have to find a home for your family first.
The First Priority
Sometimes early intervention cannot be a high priority in a family’s life. That can be really hard for us to accept, especially when, as in Bryan’s situation, we know that time is of the essence. Before we place judgment on a family about what they are or aren’t doing, we need to step back and consider what really is the family’s first priority and most pressing need at the moment. Sometimes, many times, it just isn’t “us” and that is perfectly okay.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Many of us were trained in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Maslow, some needs are more important and must be met before we can attend to others. As Bryan parent, you have unmet basic physiological and security needs that take first priority. Until you find stable housing and can meet needs for food, health care and other daily living necessities, you’ll most likely not be able to focus on higher order achievement needs like engaging in early intervention. This doesn’t mean that you don’t think that intervention is important; it just means that other, more critical needs must come first. If you really were Bryan’s parent, would you be able to talk about embedding stretches into Bryan’s dressing routine when you were preoccupied with whether or not your children were going to be sleeping in the car in two days?
Helping Families Take Action to Get Their Needs Met
Switch gears now and imagine that you are Bryan’s service coordinator or provider. How would you could help his family? Here are a few ideas:
Avoid the Temptation to Rescue – This can be a perfect situation where service coordinators swoop in, find housing, take groceries and diapers to the home, and end up feeling pretty good about themselves, right? Before being the superhero, it helps to step back and think about this: if we swoop in, the parent might learn to depend on us, rather than learning how to help herself with resources that can be accessed after you are no longer in her life.
Problem-Solve Together – Ask good coaching questions and really listen to find out what resources the parent has already tried to access and what her goals are. We might assume that housing is the first priority, but maybe she already has a lead on that. Imagine how frustrating it would be to have someone assuming they know what you need and then offering resources that aren’t helpful. Helping the parent come up with a plan that matches her priorities…much more helpful.
Know What’s Out There – Keep updated on shelters and other community programs. Contact your community’s homeless education liason (PDF, New Window). We can use our networks to find out what’s out there so that we can help families access current resources.
Put the Resources in the Parent’s Hands – Rather than going back to the office to call shelters or other resources, sit with Bryan’s mother while she make the calls. Provide contact information and help by being a support while she explores her options.
Keep Intervention Manageable -While the family is in transition, it doesn’t automatically mean that they won’t want early intervention. It might mean that less frequent visits will work better or that fewer intervention strategies are more manageable and that’s okay. Tell the parent that it really is okay to “do less” while they need to focus elsewhere because trying to squeeze more in is likely to add to their stress, which is not what early intervention should do.
Remember that Family Stability Comes First – Even though our priority might be for Bryan to get the services he needs, we have to remember that having a stable family is the most important thing he can ever have. If early intervention can help with that, wonderful. If we need to get out of the way for a while so he can have that, then that’s alright too. Just keeping in touch with the family so they know we’re there when they are settled might be all the help that’s needed.
How does it feel to put yourself in Bryan’s parent’s shoes?
Now switch gears…if you were Bryan’s family’s service coordinator or provider, how would you support his mother’s efforts to meet the family’s needs? How would you manage visits? Services? the IFSP?
Two great resources for learning more about helping families in similar situations:
Casting a Wide Net to Support Young Children Experiencing Homelessness (archived webinar to be available soon!)
I think that the “middle” few ideas/points are especially important to remember – our role as the Service Coordinator is not to fix things or to do things FOR families that we can help them do for themeselves. I think that this is challenging for a lot of early intervention providers, as most of us have huge hearts and when we see a problem we want to jump right in and solve it, to “help” the family, when in reality solving the problem FOR them doesn’t help as much. It’s a fine line to balance between helping the family to do things for themselves, and supporting them in doing so, versus doing it for them. I also think that this “line” can be different for each family….some families may need a bit more support and hand-holding than others, and there’s no way of knowing until we have built that rapport with them.
A good example is applications for preschools/Head Start programs – some families are fine if you give them the website -they can look it up, find the application, print it, complete it, send it in, etc, some families ask you to mail them the application, some families may need assistance sitting down with them to complete it, and follow-up to support them in turning it in and helping them get the required documents to the school. It all depends on the family.
I really appreciate your last sentence, Jennifer – it all depends on the family. I think it can depend on the situation too as far as how much support a family will need. Regardless of the family or situation, your perspective is “right on” for service coordinators and, really, all EI providers. Thanks for the great example!