After earning a masters degree in education at the University of Kansas, I moved to North Carolina and accepted my first professional position as an Infant-Toddler Specialist providing home based services to infants and toddlers with identified developmental differences or those at risk for future delays. This opportunity put me directly in the trenches with families and I embraced the challenges. Armed with my minimal field experience, and hard-earned book knowledge, I felt confident I could help families help their babies in their day to day routines. I know now that I learned much more from each of them than they had any hope of learning from me.
Fast Forward Nine Years…
Fast forward nine years and I was pursuing a doctorate in special education. I had the privilege to attend a three day primary service provider boot camp for Kansas early intervention providers with Dathan Rush and M’Lisa Sheldon of the Orlena Hawks Puckett Institute. I developed relationships with providers and trainers, delved into the research around natural learning environments, family centered practices, primary service provider model, Dunst, Trivette, McWilliams, you name it, I was reading about it and writing about it and talking about it.
Then I had twins.
They were strong and perfect and unique, each in her own way. Until Maelle wouldn’t – couldn’t – stop puking. We ran tests. We tried formula. We tried really expensive formulas. We vowed to buy a new couch – vomit soaked as it was. At four months, her pediatrician first uttered the dreaded phrase – failure to thrive.
We left the pediatrician, Maelle crying and throwing up, me crying and looking up the number for our local early intervention agency. When the woman asked my concerns, I, with all my training and experience in early intervention, said, “ I just want her to eat!” As those words left my mouth, I knew I had moved away from the professional in the equation and become a parent just like so many others I knew. I needed support, guidance, and reassurance. I needed to talk it through, to listen, to make a plan. I needed an early intervention team.
The provider who facilitated our intake was a woman I worked with at the primary service provider model training. Navigating this dynamic challenged me in new ways. I felt vulnerable, merging a professional relationship into a personal one, opening my home, my family, my fears, and my perceived failures to somehow who, just weeks ago, may have thought I was knowledgeable. I felt like a professional imposter. I could talk about the work but I could not help my own daughter, my own family.
Looking back on it, a few things stand out to me about that time in my life, both professionally and personally:
- Honesty is harder than it sounds. I’ve encouraged families to open up to me, honestly report their routines, challenges, feelings, and dreams. Only when the tables were turned did I realize how much I did not want to talk to this person. She was lovely, warm, and accepting, but the intimate details of our family life were so sensitive at that time that I struggled to be fully honest.
Lesson: Invest in building trust. It is not inherent in the relationship, it must be earned.
- Writing functional and meaningful goals is also harder than it sounds. When it came time to write Maelle’s IFSP, I said (it sounds like a joke after teaching functional goal writing for so long), “I want her to walk.” My primary service provider dutifully replied, “How will Maelle walking increase her participation in your family?” Well played.
Lesson: The developmental model is ingrained in the thinking of parents. We want to know that they can do what they “should” do next. The prompt given by my provider redirected my thinking to focus on Maelle and my family rather than on the developmental norms. We all need that prompt. Probably often.
- “Comparison is the thief of joy.: Theodore Roosevelt felt my pain as I navigated parenting of twins. I know there is a wide range of typical. I know that cognitively. However, when one walked and the other waited four months to follow in her footsteps, I received a lot of reminders about that wide range of typical. More importantly, none of those reminders eased my heart about what Maelle was not yet doing.
Lesson: Approach families with deep empathy. Hearing that she would do it (whatever “it” was at the time) never made me feel better. Instead, maybe say, “I know this is hard. I am here to support you.” I would have liked that a lot.
Brek and Maelle are first graders now. They are strong and perfect and unique, each in her own way.
Jen Newton is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood/Early Childhood Special Education in the School of Education at Saint Louis University. She worked as an early interventionist with infants and toddlers with disabilities or at risk for school failure in home settings before entering the classroom as an inclusive prekindergarten teacher in North Carolina’s More At Four program and later as a parent educator on an Early Reading First grant. She earned a doctorate in Special Education from the University of Kansas in 2011 and spent four years preparing inclusive educators at James Madison University prior to joining faculty at SLU. Her research examines inclusive teaching and learning, early childhood teacher preparation, and university/school partnerships.