I’ve been thinking a lot about routines-based intervention lately. In particular, I’ve been thinking about (and experiencing) what happens when a family doesn’t invite you into their daily routines. What do you do when the space the family makes available to you is small? Not physical space, but family life space. When the only activity you have access to is playtime in the living room floor? What do you do when the parent clearly states that he doesn’t want to do something else, or when she cringes every time you ask to join another activity? We could dig into why this might be happening, and that’s a valuable discussion which has been covered in other posts. For this post, though, I want to think about the realities and complexities of this work and how that can affect us as practitioners.
Just this morning, a colleague told me that the reality is this: families are letting us into their very personal spaces. They decide how far to let us in and how much to reveal. We are guests in their homes and in their lives. We can never truly know what a parent is thinking about this “intrusion.” Of course, we do our best to be friendly and nonthreatening so parents see us as allies and partners rather than intruders. We have to acknowledge the fact, though, that we are a foreign body in their universe. That’s not good or bad; it is just part of the reality of EI.
To become less foreign, we build relationships, nurture trust, and share the emotional experience of helping the child so that families learn to feel safe with our presence in their personal space. Most of us do this really well, but then our own professional reality encourages us to go further. It’s not enough to just be a safe and encouraging presence. To achieve our field’s Mission (PDF, New Window)and implement our Key Principles (PDF, New Window), we have to reach beyond that. EI practitioners are tasked with finding ways to help the family practice and embed intervention in daily activities so the child is receiving as much intervention from caregivers throughout the day and the week as possible. That requires that we try our best to join activities beyond the living room floor, where the real parent-child interactions happen most often. It also requires that families let us in. That decision is purely up to them.
The Internal Struggle
Sometimes, the realities of home visiting and meeting the mission of EI can feel like a struggle, an internal conflict that can cause us to question our skills as early interventionists. Some internal struggle can be healthy. I worry, though, that this ongoing internal struggle that practitioners in our field (me included) continue to feel is making it harder to do the overall work of EI. When it’s too hard, we fall back on traditional practices (like playing with the child while the parent watches) and wrestle with ourselves for it. We know better. We go to trainings, watch webinars, and take online courses. Then, we go out on visits and struggle to do what we know we are supposed to do. Why? I think we have to be careful not to answer this question by blaming the family: “They won’t let me into their routine,” or “They are hard to engage,” or “She isn’t interested.” Sure, any of these could be true, but I believe that the reason why we struggle is often much deeper than this.
We struggle because the work is complex. It is deeply worthy work, but it can be hard. Every family is different. Every visit is different. Every interaction is different. We have to take what we know and adapt it in a thousand different ways. Yes, sometimes you will work with families without the struggle, with whom you feel the partnership and who embrace their pivotal role in facilitating their children’s development during and between visits. You’ll also work with families facing personal circumstances that interfere with how they take advantage of EI. You’ll work with families who are eager to have you enter their space, and others for whom your presence is a constant reminder that something is wrong. You will meet most of the families who are somewhere in between. No judgement there, it’s just reality again. It’s also a reality that you might support all of these families in a single day with very little interaction or support from peers or supervisors. The complexities of the work plus the complexities of joining families in their emotional and physical spaces can all make for a professional struggle…or a breathtaking experience of personal growth.
Use the Struggle to Help You Grow
When the struggle feels deep, and you are questioning what you do, take a step back and remember those magical moments when you’ve had the privilege of celebrating with a parent when a toddler achieve a well-earned outcome. Pause and reflect on the time you witnessed a mother playfully engage her child after weeks of your own uncertainty about whether or not you were reaching her. Reach out to your network of fellow interventionists who know the struggle and can remind you of your own worth and the value of what you do. You are part of something important. You might struggle. You might forget. You will feel the complexities of EI and when you do, focus on those experiences and connections that remind you why you do this work.
The work is complex. The realities are different for each family. You are the constant so use the struggle to help you grow.
What are your thoughts about the realities, complexities, and struggles of this work?
What do you do when the complexities of supporting families in their personal spaces and fulfilling your mission seem to conflict?
Share your insights in the comments below.