After earning a masters degree in education at the University of Kansas, I moved to North Carolina and accepted my first professional position as anBaby resting in a boppie pillow 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.

Lessons Learned

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 NewtonJen 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.

20 comments on “A Professional Imposter: Reflections From an EI Provider/Mom

  • Pam says:

    What a great article with incredible insight and perspective. The “building trust” component is such an important element as we work to build relationships with families. I know I have much to think about and process as I re-read this message.

  • David Munson says:

    Jen, Thank you for sharing your deep personal experiences. Your reflections challenge us to be MORE empathetic and MORE family-centered in our interactions with families. Bless you!

    • I agree, David. I love hearing from interventionists who have the unique experience of also receiving EI with their children. Their unique perspective offers such great insights. Jen has done a beautiful job of conveying her experience, which gives us a several important lessons to reflect on.

    • Jen Newton says:

      Thank you! I was surprised by how much I needed to feel that empathy from our team and how much that experience has shaped my work since.

  • Beth Tolley says:

    Thank you Jen for this powerful article. We can all learn from your willingness to share your experience and for your insight!

    • Jen Newton says:

      Thank you! I have reflected on it often since. Early intervention is such a critical resource for kids and families. I couldn’t imagine turning to anyone else at the time. And we were fortunate enough to know it as available! as providers, you all change lives!

  • Cori says:

    WOW! Powerful Jen. Thanks for sharing your story and insight.

  • Mila Rose says:

    Thank you for your thought provoking message. You reminded me of the African proverb; It takes a village to raise a child.

  • Bryce Hayes says:

    Beautiful post from a beautiful mother about a beautiful family. Love.

  • Nancy Williams says:

    This is a great reminder to listen and allow our families to come to trust us in addition to asking thought provoking questions that will enable families to enjoy their child.
    Thank you!

  • Erica Simon-Gross says:

    What a wonderful article. As a service coordinator, mom of four including 4 month old twins, and an EI parent; this post really connected with me. Crossing over to the other side of the table is eye opening. Having my daughter participate and graduate from EI gave me the view from a parent’s eyes. It truly helped me become a better at what I do and love.

    • Jen Newton says:

      Sounds like we have a lot in common, Erica! It definitely provides a unique lens and an important opportunity for reflection. Sounds like you have a blog or two to write as well! I look forward to hearing your experiences when you’re ready to share them!

  • Michelle says:

    Great article, I too was a mother who received early intervention services in Vermont for my oldest daughter, who is now 31 years old. We all learn together as a team and I felt supported. The service coordinator and therapist was patience and answered many questions I had. I love the work I do with families and children so much that in 2010 I went back for my Masters in Special Education with an endorsement in Early Childhood Special Education. I now work as a service coordinator and my personal experience helps parents going through the early intervention process for the first time.

  • Jeff Mullins says:

    Wow! So vulnerable and such a valuable perspective. There’s not much more to say than what has been said, but I really appreciated reading this. Thank you.

  • Kate Stimpson says:

    That was wonderful! Like Jen I also worked in EI for about 6 years then had my twins. My baby girl was a 3lb preemie and also failure to thrive. Her twin brother was thriving and doing so much better than her. I also had to rely on my local EI system (that I worked for) to come into my home and do all the things I knew but had difficulty translating into my own experience. I just felt so vulnerable and like a failure professionally and as a parent. Even though I knew the whole Intake, Eligibility and IFSP process backward and forward, it was still very overwhelming. I can’t even imagine what a parent who isn’t so well acquainted feels like. It was hard to be in the hot seat, on the receiving end of therapists I knew well and have watched do this same thing for others.
    Thank you Jenn, for this article. This is my story as well.


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