It’s so easy, almost reflexive, to provide suggestions to a parent who tells us about a struggle with a child. Most of us have tons of ideas packed in our brains and are eager to share them, hoping we’ll have the magic solution to make life easier for the family. We spew suggestions without even thinking about it – it’s the “have you tried…?” habit. A parent says “Bath time is such a struggle because he can’t sit up in the tub!” so you say “Have you tried a bath chair?” or “Have you tried taking a bath with him to hold him up?” The “have you tried…?” routine could go on and on. The problem with “have you tried…?” is that we assume (as does the parent) that we have the answer. It builds a reliance on us to solve problems, which is not the intention of early intervention. It also wastes time because we are essentially guessing based on our own experiences, not the parent’s.
Families Value Problem-Solving
Families have reported in the EI literature that problem-solving is one of the most helpful activities that occurs on an EI visit. It offers a non-threatening chance to talk to someone about a struggle and brainstorm together about possible solutions. Problem-solving together also offers a wonderful learning opportunity for the parent because he/she gets to practice thinking about solving the problem, with someone else’s support. As the source of that support, we can either teach the parent that she needs us to do the thinking for her, or we can facilitate her problem-solving so that she is better prepared to tackle a similar struggle when it happens in the future. Which would you rather do?
Breaking the Habit
So how do you break the habit and really facilitate problem-solving?
Step #1: Pause – This seems easy but it’s usually not! Remembering to pause before you automatically move into “have you tried…?” mode is the first step. Take a deep breath, count to 5, sit on your hands, whatever it takes to stop spewing suggestions after you hear about a challenging situation.
Step #2: Listen – I mean, really listen. Slow down and listen because there are likely to be clues in the description of the problem that will help solve it. Take the time to get all of the info before exploring solutions.
Step #3: Ask good reflective questions – Substitute “have you tried…?” with “what have you already tried?” Very similar questions but with very different purposes. Asking what the parent has already tried accesses their prior experience and builds on their knowledge, which is important for adult learning. It also eliminates the majority of the guessing. Follow this open-ended question up with asking the parent to describe what she’s tried, how it worked, what she thinks could be changed, etc. It can also be so easy to slip back into “have you tried…?” after asking an open-ended question so be careful to remember that you are facilitating the parent’s problem-solving and it’s a reciprocal, ongoing process.
Step #4: Listen for clues – As the parent describes her past efforts, listen closely for important clues. Point them out and ask for more info. Exploring different paths, what each person does or doesn’t do, what’s happening in the environment, and what the parent would like for the situation to look like if it worked better, are all important to listen for.
Step #5: Identify the possibilities and let the parent choose – If you and the parent come up with some good options, ask the parent which she would like to try. Rather than prescribing an solution, let her decide. Adults are self-directed learners, meaning we like to choose what we want to do so take advantage of that and you’ll likely see families feeling more successful with using strategies between visits.
Step #6: Purposefully and specifically plan for what to do – Once the best option is chosen, work together to plan for how the parent will implement it between visits. If possible, practice it during the visit so that you and the parent can work out the kinks and problem-solve a Plan B if the initial idea doesn’t work. Always have a Plan B so that the parent has something else to try if Plan A doesn’t work. This way she doesn’t have to wait all the way until your next visit for support. The plans should be brief, detailed, individualized, and jointly agreed upon. I’ll talk more about joint planning in a future post, because when done well, it can make an incredible difference in the success of the support you provide.
Step #7: Follow-up – Don’t leave the family hanging. Check in on your next visit to see if the problem is solved or if the solution needs tweaking. Problem-solving is an ongoing, flowing activity that is woven throughout each visit.
Remember that you aren’t there to solve problems for the family; you’re there to solve problems with the family. On your visits this week, pay attention to how tempted you are to say “have you tried…?” Parents are often looking for answers. By pausing, listening, and facilitating problem-solving during the visit, you will be helping the parent learn how to find those answers for herself.
Do you need to break the habit?
Which of these strategies have you used and how did they work for you and the parent?
What challenges have you faced with problem-solving with families?