How to Successfully Partner with Families of Children with Disabilities

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A summary of an article entitled “The 5-Point Plan: Fostering Successful Partnerships with Families of Students with Disabilities” by Caitlin C. Edwards & Alexandra Da Fonte that appeared in the Jan/Feb. 2012 Issue of Teaching Exceptional Children.

This CEC Journal article was geared toward school age children, but the underlying purpose of its message applies very well to early intervention therapists. School teachers and early intervention therapists alike wear many hats when it comes to teaching children with delays and disabilities, and Edwards & Da Fonte say some of these include “instructor, advocate, listener & problem solver”.

We are lucky in EI that unlike school age teachers we have a federal law called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 99-457) which requires families to be a central part in planning their child’s goals for IFSP’s and IEP’s. The key word is “partner” and we must remember as therapists that in addition to the above named roles we may play in families lives, we must also partner with families to ensure the success of their children.

Because we serve young children 0-3 inside the home, we know very well the role that home life & a child’s familial and cultural heritage plays. This is something more difficult to view when teaching at a school age level. To facilitate partnerships with families and help to sustain this ongoing collaboration Edwards and Da Fonte have suggested using what they call “The 5 Point Plan”.

The following highlights their plan with some points that are relevant to early intervention therapists:

#1 Be positive, proactive and solution oriented:

  • When meeting a family for the first time explain that family participation is a central part of the therapy session, discuss what your expectations are of a family and ask what their expectations are of you as a therapist
  • Call families to remind them of therapy appointments or give them a calendar for the fridge so they can keep track of standing appointments
  • Always leave a family with “homework” that you have demonstrated during your session
  •  Research specific disabilities if you are not familiar with them and remember that every child regardless if they have the same diagnosis will be unique
  • Always share three strengths for every weakness you discuss
  • When discussing problems, always offer a possible solution, for example “Next week we’ll try_____and see if that is more successful.”

#2 Respect families’ roles and cultural backgrounds

  • When meeting a family for the first time discuss with them their child’s likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses etc. Don’t simply reply on the info you read from the intake or initial MDE.
  • Encourage families to share with you disability specific information about their child or cultural information about their family which can help you understand their child better
  • Review outcomes, strategies and goals with families to be sure these are really the things THEY want to work on with their child
  •  Ask families if they might need an interpreter for sessions or meetings to help things go more smoothly
  •  Involve siblings and extended family in therapy
  •  Ask the family if there is anything they want to know about YOU that might help them be more comfortable and successful in working with their child

#3 Communicate consistently, listen to parent’s concerns and work together

  • Always keep families informed of their child’s progress at each session, this should not occur only at scheduled reviews
  •  Use people first language and avoid using the child’s disability or a label when speaking about them
  •  Always inform families of how they can contact you and what hours you are available. If you make this clear at the start you should not have families calling or texting at 3am and if you do, you can refer back to when these terms were originally discussed
  •  Set up planned time for a phone call if needed, but be up front about a time limit. For example, “I would be happy to discuss Alex’s progress further with you and I will be available for 20 min on Thurs. at 2pm.”
  •  Collaborate with fellow therapists who also serve the same child/family when possible
  •  Keep a communication book with families, especially if a child is seen at day care or at a baby sitter while the parents are at work

#4 Consider simple, natural supports that meet individual needs

  • Always explain the therapy techniques or educational/behavioral supports you are using with a child and why you feel they will be or are beneficial (don’t just pull out the therapy ball without discussing why you are using it)
  • Be accepting if a family does not agree with a specific technique or strategy that you want to use with their child (even if YOU think the Wilbarger Protocol will work wonders, they may NOT)
  • Ask families what modifications and strategies they have used with their child and what worked and what did not
  • Be flexible!
  •  Avoid using generalizations to make families feel better like “all boys seem to talk late” or “I have a two year old, so I know how they behave”
  •  Ask for the families feedback on a weekly basis
  •  Ask families if they need other supports or services other than what you are offering and put them in touch with their service coordinator or a social worker when appropriate to seek outside help (counseling, food bank, toy lending library, etc).

#5 Empower families with knowledge and opportunities for involvement in the context of the child’s global needs

  • Provide information regarding a child’s diagnosis or disability via website links, brochures, hand-outs, referrals to physicians, etc.
  •  Provide information on local parent support groups
  •  Provide information on local conferences or work shops related to disabilities
  •  EI providers can offer parents free workshops on popular topics such as “potty training children with special needs” or “behavior challenges”, etc.
  •  Encourage families to tell you about community supports and services they have found to valuable with their child (ie, local story times or mommy & me groups)
  •  Offer to assist the child & family in community settings (day care, church, playground) as related to their IFSP goals


More than anything, when working with a family & their child do your best to forge a strong partnership, LISTEN and try not to judge!

Ewards & Da Fonte state that “Families involvement in their children’s education stands out as one of the greatest predictors of growth and well-being for students with disabilities.” (Elliott & Mullins, 2004; Resch et al., 2010).