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Using family-based practices for young children with special needs in preschool programs.

Early childhood special educators often use a family-based approach to working with children and their families (Cook, Klein, Tessier, & Daley, 2004; Raver, 2004). Although this approach is not new, it is used inconsistently and is misunderstood by many early childhood teachers. Part of the difficulty stems from the discipline-specific training of individual team members. Teaming, as recommended by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (1997) and DEC Recommended Practices in Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education (Sandall, McLean, & Smith, 2000), combines the skills and knowledge of an early childhood special education teacher, a general education early childhood teacher, a school psychologist, a speech-language pathologist, a physical therapist, and at times, a social worker. Usually, children with special needs attending inclusive preschool programs receive consultative or direct services from one of more members of this team.

Making a family-based approach better understood, however, will benefit teachers, children, and families. This article will discuss some of the key components of this approach so that early childhood teachers will become more proficient in infusing these practices into their programs. Figure 1 shows the dimensions of family-based practices that will be discussed.


Philosophy Guiding Family-Based Practices

A family-based approach offers families the resources, supports, knowledge, and skills necessary to provide their children with learning experiences that encourage development (Trivette & Dunst, 2000). Parents are considered active collaborators with the team in all aspects of the child's education. Family-based practices require early childhood teachers to develop specific attitudes and approaches to working with children and families.

The philosophical basis for family-based practices is the belief that children with disabilities, and their families, possess strengths that are as important as their needs. In other words, teachers operate from an assets model--not a deficits model--to serving children and families. Teachers acknowledge that it is not their role to significantly alter family-child interactions. Instead, teachers recognize that families demonstrate many strengths that are beneficial in raising a young child with special needs and work to build families' existing strengths. The majority of parents of children with special needs have the emotional investment necessary to encourage, motivate, and support their child's development.

A principal objective of family-based practices is to enhance parents' confidence in their ability to parent and encourage their child's progress (Trivette & Dunst, 2004). When teachers believe in the inherent capabilities of children and their families, families will know. Research has found that staff's strongly held beliefs about parents' abilities to support their children's learning is linked to more positive parental judgments about their own parenting competence and confidence (Trivette & Dunst, 2000). This premise of family-based practices explicitly shapes teachers' perceptions of children, as well as how they perceive and address children's needs.

Attitudes Guiding Family-Based Practices

Identifying and acknowledging a child's and family's strengths are cornerstones of the family-based approach. Teachers focus on building a child's skills while making every effort to avoid introducing new stress into families' lives.

Support Child's Development and Build Strengths.

With the help of the team, early childhood teachers teach goals and objectives designed to help a child with special needs advance developmentally in his or her class. Most assessment tools are effective in identifying a child's needs, but many may not be adequate in identifying the full spectrum of a child's strengths. In the broadest sense, a child's strengths are any aspects of a child's personality or abilities that are received positively by others (Dunst, Herter, & Shields, 2000).

Parents tend to be especially good resources for identifying children's strengths that are not typically highlighted by assessment tools (Glascoe, 1999). For example, look at the case of 3-year-old Nicky, who has hemiplegic cerebral palsy, resulting in weakness on the right side of his body. The team assessment found Nicky had many fine motor weaknesses (e.g., inability to use both hands together with coordination, or to stabilize materials with his right hand) and gross motor weaknesses (e.g., poor coordination and balance while standing and walking). His strengths, according to team assessments, were his communication and personal skills. However, many other valuable strengths that could be used to promote Nicky's learning were not identified. For instance, Nicky has a sunny personality, is an eager learner, loves to play games, and enjoys physical contact with adults and peers. If the team had not been committed to using a family-based approach and to uncovering all of Nicky's strengths, these positive characteristics might have been overlooked.

Knowing Nicky's strengths is useful not only in helping him learn in the classroom, but also in structuring learning from the classroom to home. Many young children with disabilities have difficulty with generalization--the ability to transfer learning acquired in one situation or setting to another (Cook et al., 2004). To help facilitate generalization, the team asked Nicky's parents to teach him some skills at home, thereby capitalizing on his strengths and interests (Raver, 2003). In the classroom, Nicky is learning the spatial concepts of "next to," "under," and "behind" and the cognitive concepts of "wet/dry" and "empty/full." Nicky's preschool teacher asked his parents to identify the types of activities the family enjoyed. His mother commented that they preferred outside activities, such as camping, biking, and gardening. Then, Nicky's teacher and his mother jointly identified home activities that would reinforce skills Nicky needed to learn, without demanding a lot of additional family time.

For instance, while working in the yard, Nicky's mother suggested that she and Nicky's older sister, Kaitlyn, could: 1) teach the concepts of wet and dry while they watered the yard, 2) teach under and next to by having Nicky run under the spray of water, 3) teach Nicky to use both hands by having him dig in the vegetable garden, taking turns with each hand, and 4) teach about empty and full by having Nicky fill or upend a bucket. Home teaching activities, like those in the classroom, are best when they are simple and mutually enjoyable (Dunst, 2001; Raver, in press).

Attempt To Minimize a Family's Stress. All parents have to cope with stress, but parents of children with special needs tend to have even more daily stressors. Even exemplary services can introduce additional stress into a family's life (Wehman & Gilkerson, 1999). Teachers need to take special care in the way they manage services and supports so they do not unintentionally add to the stress in families' lives. Services and resources that reduce stress should be encouraged. For instance, having access to support groups or other parents can reduce stress in some families. These allies can become important to managing family stress. Parents report that the persons they would like to talk to the most are other parents whose children share their own child's disability (Santelli, Turnbull, Marquis, & Lerner, 1997).

To reduce stress, team members need to support parents' hopes and dreams for their children and work to suspend judgments about families. Family-based practices acknowledge that parents can be the best advocates for their children when they are armed with information, encouragement, and optimism.

Transitions from infant-toddler services to preschool services, and then from preschool to school-age services, are often problematic and stressful for children and families (Hanson et al., 2000). To ease transitions, good communication between the programs is necessary. Identifying a key person or guide for families can ease the strain (Hanson et al., 2000). Some level of stress is unavoidable, but teachers dedicated to the family-based approach are proactive in efforts to avoid imposing undue stress on children and families.

Processes Guiding Family-Based Practices

In family-based practices, parents identify priority areas that are given special attention by teams (McWilliam, Winton, & Crais, 1996). As a part of this process, teachers attempt to build collaborative relationships with parents and respectful lines of communication.

Collaborative Relationships. Parents are involved in all decisions about their child (e.g., assessment, transition planning, intervention programs), and they take the lead in selecting services that will be provided. Forming a collaborative relationship means that parents are encouraged to become involved in every aspect of their child's education, in the way that is most meaningful to each of them. This type of relationship requires teachers to build trust-based, positive relationships with parents and family members. Basic interpersonal skills, such as following through on plans and paying attention during conversations, for example, are courtesies commonly viewed by parents as critical to successful collaboration (Dinnebeil, Fox, & Rule, 1998). Providing parents with practical knowledge, such as how to facilitate communication in a nonverbal child (team members are excellent sources of this kind of technical information), and offering emotional support are essential in helping families feel positive about their child's learning and progress (McWilliam, Tocci, & Harbin, 1998).

A teacher's cultural competence also will influence relationship-building with families. Research suggests that interacting in ways that are culturally sensitive while sending messages about the inherent worth of each individual involved is essential to forming collaborative relationships (Bennett, Zhang, & Hojnar, 1998; McWilliam et al., 1995). Professionals who are tactful and honest, and present information in an understandable way, tend to be most successful in implementing family-based practices (Dinnebeil & Rule, 1994).

Respectful Communication and Interaction Styles. An integral component in the process of developing collaborative relationships is supporting families' values and lifestyles. Frequently, values and spiritual beliefs help shape what a disability means to a family and influence a family's response to services (Zhang & Bennett, 2001). Professionals who demonstrate empathy for, and an understanding of, a family's beliefs tend to be more effective in their relationships (Zhang & Bennett, 2001).

The way in which professionals communicate and interact with families has a direct impact on parent-professional relationships, as well as child outcomes (Banks, Santos, & Roof, 2003). Parents must be given the time they need to make decisions and brainstorm options (Raver, 1991, 1999), even if teachers themselves are pressed for time. If parents do not have adequate time to consider important life decisions, they may experience increased anxiety and stress, lose respect for professionals, and become increasingly dissatisfied with services over time.

The simple process of eliciting and interpreting parents' confidences about concerns and priorities is important for creating respectful interactions. Frequently asking parents about their concerns ensures that parents have an opportunity to discuss their child's development and behavior with a concerned, invested professional. Glascoe (1997) found, however, that almost 40 percent of the families surveyed reported that they did not spontaneously share their worries with professionals. Frequently "checking in" about family and child concerns seems to be a necessary foundation for collaborative, respectful relationships with parents.

Approaches Guiding Family-Based Practices

To help children realize their potential, and aid families in adapting to the circumstances imposed by their child's special needs, teachers can offer children and families supports and resources, and encourage a balanced family life.

Offer Formal and Informal Supports and Resources. Formal supports and resources involve services offered by professionals, such as home visits, consultative services in the preschool class, and speech or physical therapy, as well as services from other professionals who offer specific help for a unique child and/or family need, such as a community health nurse offering assistance with a child who is having difficulty gaining weight. Informal supports and resources involve contacts with other families (both those with children who have disabilities and those with typically developing children), information about community programs (such as Family Fun dates at the public library and community family activities), and emotional support.

Parents need to be able to trust that professionals can bring hope and change to their child's life. They expect teachers to be knowledgeable about their child's disability and use strategies that are appropriate for facilitating their child's development. The advantage of teaming is that if one team member does not possess the skills to help a child or family, another team member will be able to or will know how to access the information for a family.

A key characteristic of family-based practices is an emphasis on the manner in which supports and resources are managed. When supports and resources are offered in a "competency-enhancing" way, they can positively affect a child and family. A competency-enhancing manner means not overwhelming a family with information or services, using supportive communications, and mobilizing resources in ways that do not disrupt family life (Brinker, Frazier, & Baxter, 1992). Teachers must keep in mind the relationship among needs, stress, and supports (Baxter & Kahn, 1999). It is a teacher's job to ensure that families are supported, not overburdened. For example, after talking to Nicky's mother, Nicky's preschool teacher recommended that physical therapy be moved from Wednesday afternoons to Thursday mornings so that the therapy sessions would not interfere with Nicky's sister's soccer practice. Another time, this teacher allowed Sarah, a 3-year-old with a mild hearing impairment, to stay in her class for 30 minutes after the other children left, one day a week, so Sarah's father could pick her up from school. This arrangement allowed both of Sarah's parents to become more involved in her schooling and offered her father a nonthreatening environment in which talk to the teacher.

Be Respectful of Families' Need for Balance. All families need time to relax, to play without an objective in mind, and simply to enjoy life together. Although parents of children with special needs can be important assets to their children's learning, it is essential that teachers frequently remind themselves that one significant role they can play is supporting parents in their role as parents, not merely as teachers.

Professionals must recognize the many opportunities for facilitating a child's development that occur as a part of daily living, family routines, family rituals, and family and community celebrations and traditions (Dunst, Bruder, Trivette, & McLean, 2001; McWilliam, 2000). Parents are encouraged to use "natural learning opportunities," which are regular child and family activities and events, to support their child's learning, but only to the extent that the child and family members find them pleasurable (Dunst et al., 2000). For example, 4-year-old Michael, who has Down syndrome, spends most Saturdays with his family on the softball field watching his older brother's game. This routine offers many mutually rewarding opportunities for his parents to promote Michael's learning. He can catch and kick baseballs, name spectators' clothing (e.g., shoes, sunhat, sunglasses), name colors (e.g., the colors of the team uniforms), and use action words such as "catch," "throw," "run" (Raver, 2004, in press).

Parents have the difficult job of attempting to balance their personal needs, the needs of their marital relationship, and the needs of their children. In short, parents must balance the needs of the entire family, not merely attend to the needs of their child with special needs. Most parents have to struggle with the hurtful reality that, for example, one child's orthopedic expenses may preclude another child's opportunity to take piano lessons. Parents need support from teachers in their relentless struggle to ration their limited financial resources and physical and emotional energies.


Family-based practices involve developing collaborative relationships with parents that are founded on acceptance, respect, caring, and recognition of a child's and family's strengths (Wehman & Gilkerson, 1999). Family-based practices attempt to support a child's development as well as a family's adaptation to that child's disability. Fortunately, most families are steadfast in their concern for their child with special needs (Turnbull & Turnbull, 1990). And, fortunately, most families make successful adjustments (Raver, in press). In fact, most parents of children with special needs report that their child has enriched their family's life and made family members more appreciative of the smaller things in life (Raver, 1999). When early childhood teachers consistently infuse family-based practices into their daily interactions with children and families, they are being afforded an opportunity to give just as much as they will receive.


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Sharon A. Raver is Professor, Department of Special Education, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.
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Author:Raver, Sharon A.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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