I recently spoke with a mother who is a highly educated, early childhood professional and who received early intervention (EI) for her child. She shared this insight with me: she loved when the therapist came to her home and looked forward to the visits because she was so eager to help her child. She also felt equally frustrated after each visit because the therapist would leave and she wasn’t sure how to use the intervention strategies during her daily routine. She paid close attention at each visit, and she and the therapist would discuss and practice what to do, but each time she was basically “left hanging,” unsure about how to intervene with her child’s development between visits. Think about this…here’s a mother who has professional expertise in early childhood, who is knowledgeable about EI, but who still struggled to use what she was learning. This insight reminded me that we really can do better to support all families during visits so they know what to do between visits.
What’s A Joint Plan?
One of the simplest and most effective things you can do during a visit to prepare a parent to know what to do and how to do it between visits is develop a joint plan. The joint plan is a key component of early childhood coaching as described by Rush and Shelden (2011). It’s also been called an intervention plan in other literature. The whole idea of the joint plan is to intentionally help the parent plan for how to use a strategy between visits when the provider is not present to provide support. It’s specific, individualized, and involves problem-solving and purposeful planning. It doesn’t have to be complicated and shouldn’t be very long. It may be a verbal or written agreement. It’s a simple technique that is usually easily integrated into your practice and one that helps parents remember what to do and how to do it. The hard part for providers is often just remembering to do a joint plan at each visit and follow-up on it at the next visit…once you’ve got that down, you’re half way there!
Watch this 30 sec video to hear from a different mother who explains the goal of early intervention. Her words will help you understand why developing a joint plan is so important!
6 Key Ideas for Joint Planning
Here are a six key ideas that will help you develop joint plans with the families you support:
1. Joint planning is NOT the same thing as prescribing homework – Homework is typically something we prescribe after the parent has watched us intervene with the child and often involves generic handouts. In contrast, the joint plan is a reciprocal process, with the parent equally and actively contributing ideas for how she/he plans to use what has been learned. The plan is also specific to a routine or activity that’s already a part of the family’s everyday life.
2. Joint planning begins with one simple question – And that question is: “Based on what we’ve practiced today, what would you like to do with your child between now and our next visit?” This question gives the parent permission to pick the thing that she thinks she can work into her day. This question facilitates reflection and gives you a sense of what she has understood, what is relevant to her, and what she thinks she can do. It also helps you focus the plan on something doable.
3. It is perfectly fine if the joint plan only focuses on 1-2 strategies – It’s been my experience that, when asked, most parents only picked 1-2 things to work on. In the past, many times I gave parents a laundry list of strategies and ideas, somehow expecting them to soak them all up. What I probably really did was completely overwhelm them. If the parent can really get the hang of a strategy or two and use it frequently with success, that’s a total win!
4. Make sure the joint plan is very specific and includes steps and a Plan B – The more specific the plan is, the easier it will be for the parent to know what and how to do it when you aren’t there. Specific doesn’t mean complicated, though. Rather than saying “prompt him for a word during lunch,” you and the parent could walk through the specific steps for how she will prompt the child using his favorite foods, in his kitchen, etc. I think it’s also a great idea to develop a Plan B. If the child doesn’t respond to the prompt, make sure the parent knows what else to try. Maybe she prompts just the first sound of the word or maybe she offers a choice next. A Plan B can help the parent feel successful when one strategy is less successful that expected because she has an alternative up her sleeve.
5. Writing the joint plan down on paper may be even better – I’ve a big fan of writing the plan down so that the parent doesn’t have to rely on her memory alone. Either you or the parent can actually do the writing. The written plan could be posted on the frig or shared with other family members. It’s also something concrete to come back to next week. Parents can take notes on it during the week of things they want to ask you or successes and challenges they experienced. It’s also a great way to track progress. My written plans had a column for the strategy steps, who will implement it, and why it’s important (like what the child will learn from this activity). Simple and very effective.
6. Following-up on the joint plan is absolutely essential – The joint plan provides a bridge for the parent between visits as well as a launching point for the next visit. You should always follow-up at the beginning of the next visit to see how it went, what worked well, and what was challenging. You can problem-solve from there, adjusting the strategy or trying something different. Following up also helps the parent understand her important role in intervention. I heard a parent once say that the plan held her accountable because she knew the therapist would refer back to the plan each time. I actually think the joint plan holds everyone accountable (us too).
Developing a joint plan is a very concrete strategy that you can start using today. It’s one of those techniques that increases the effectiveness of what you do and it only takes a few minutes at the beginning and end of the visit to make such a big difference!
What’s been your experience with using a joint plan with families?