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Respect, Reciprocity, and Responsiveness: Strengthening Family-Professional Partnerships in Early Intervention

by Kristen Schraml-Block and Michaelene M. Ostrosky, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Early interventionists interact and partner with a multitude of families, all with unique strengths, backgrounds, and circumstances. During partnerships with family members, professionals may encounter interactions and relationships that they perceive as challenging or imbalanced. Skilled Dialogue is a framework which emphasizes the use of respectful, reciprocal, and responsive interactions with families from diverse backgrounds (Barrera & Corso, 2002). Early intervention professionals may consider this framework and the supporting strategies to strengthen their partnerships with families.

Michelle had her second child, Isabella, 6 months ago. However, Michelle received some unexpected news at the hospital before bringing Isabella home—she has Down syndrome. Subsequently, Isabella and Michelle were referred to their local early intervention (EI) program for an evaluation. After the family was found eligible for services, the EI team developed an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which included a plan for how EI services could support the family’s priorities for Isabella. Since Isabella’s birth, Michelle experienced a range of emotions—from pure joy when interacting with Isabella to disbelief about her diagnosis. Michelle was often overwhelmed with uncertainty regarding Isabella’s disability and its impact on her development and future. In between feelings of isolation and uncertainty, Michelle was elated to be Isabella’s mother and was committed to being the best possible caregiver to her daughter.

Since the inception of Part C programs (formerly known as Part H) in 1986, one of the main goals of this federal legislation has been to enhance the capacity of families to meet the needs of their young children with disabilities or developmental delays (Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986, §671(a)(4)(1986)). One way to achieve this goal is through the implementation of the Division of Early Childhood’s (DEC) Recommended Practices (DEC, 2014). DEC’s recommended practices consist of seven different domains (i.e., assessment, environment, family, instruction, interaction, teaming and collaboration, and transition), and several practices to support each domain. The purpose of DEC’s recommended practices is to bridge the research-to-practice gap, thereby enhancing the development of young children with delays and disabilities. The family domain emphasizes the importance of family involvement in the EI/early childhood process and supports the use of family-centered and family-capacity building practices, as well as family-professional collaboration. This domain includes several practices such as a) respectful, collaborative partnerships; b) sensitive interactions that are responsive to families’ unique circumstances; c) individualized services based on families’ priorities, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity; and d) capacity-building practices that strengthen parental knowledge and skills (DEC, 2014).

Robyn, the early interventionist assigned to partner with Michelle and Isabella, has begun to provide services around the family’s IFSP outcomes. During each visit, Robyn attempts to engage Michelle in conversations about Isabella’s progress, as well as about routines and strategies that are working to support Isabella. However, Robyn notices that Michelle seems to “shut down” during these conversations. Michelle looks away and even gets up from the conversations to do things such as wash dishes or make phone calls. After just a few sessions, Robyn is beginning to wonder whether she is welcome in the home or whether the family prioritizes the services that EI offers. For example, when Robyn arrives for one EI visit, which she confirmed with Michelle 24 hours ahead of time, no one answers the door. Robyn immediately asks herself, “Why has it been so challenging to partner with this caregiver? Why do our conversations seem so guarded and unnatural? What can I do to better connect with this family?”

Early interventionists may wonder how to implement recom-mended practices and provide family-centered care when caregivers do not participate in the ways that one might hope or that align with recommended practices. EI providers, like Robyn, may find themselves questioning how they can better connect with caregivers, form partnerships with families, or even broach difficult topics. The technique of Skilled Dialogue provides early interventionists with a framework and supporting strategies to consider when forming and sustaining partner-ships with caregivers in EI, especially when navigating topics or conversations that might be perceived as uncomfortable or difficult.

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