Give Them Wings to Fly: Building Parents Capacity to Support their Child’s Learning

In an earlier blog, A Different Dream, I talked about how Early Interventionists (EIs) can help families create different dreams for their child’s future and for how he or she will be fully able to participate in typical family activities. So having the dream is great! But what happens next? Do the Early Interventionists come in with their magic wands and make the dream come true? Well, it’s not that easy, but the process can be magical.

First a brief history lesson on how Early Intervention, and our view of it as professionals, has evolved.

Tears and tantrums

At first, Early Intervention services were center-based. A parent would bring their child to the center, the “professional” (Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, Speech Language Pathologist, Educator) would begin to “work” with the child, usually in the center of a room crowded with toys. The child’s mother, truly thankful for an hour of down time, would sit in a chair and passively observe the interactions.

At the end of the session, the professional might or might not summarize what he/she did—depending on the level of tantrum the child was having because he could not take the toy he was playing with home.And in reality, the professional really got only about 15 minutes of quality time with the child.The other 45 were spent coercing the child to do something other than scream for mom.

But whatever the challenges, we were providing services! And we were doing good things for these little ones! And we were the experts! Right?

Then in 1998, with the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part H of the Act became Part C, and new federal mandates followed. One was the provision of services in a child’s natural settings. So now, instead of parents coming to the center, we would bring the center to them!

The EI professionals would bring a toy bag, filled with toys most families could never afford, sit down in the middle of the floor, and take out various toys for a “pre-determined lesson” of that day. In the meantime, mom spent time in the kitchen washing dishes, or in the laundry room washing clothes, or in her bedroom reading—again thankful for one hour of babysitting so she could do something she wanted.

And again we thought, weren’t we great? We were the experts, going into homes, and the child wasn’t screaming for mom! But…. whoa, those tantrums started as soon as we started packing up the toy bag!

A reversal of thinking

Fast forward to present day, as a whole new evidence-based approach to providing services is evolving. Gone are the days of “the toy bag” and the parent’s hour of downtime. This new approach truly puts the child and family first and recognizes the parent/caregiver as the expert where the child is concerned.

This approach is called “Coaching.”The provider assumes the role of Coach and the parent/caregiver, Coachee. In the book The Early Childhood Coaching Book, by Dathan D. Rush and M’Lisa L. Sheldon, the role of the Coach is to build the parents’ capacity to support their child’s learning and to empower each Coachee in recognizing that the parent/caregiver has deep expertise about his/her child and that learning doesn’t occur only during the single hour the professional is in the home.

Coaching is a dynamic relationship wherein the Coach and Coachee work together to support the child’s learning and participation in everyday family activities. It is a partnership wherein Coachees “own” their decisions in helping their child acquire new skills, and work with the coach to develop a joint plan that the Coachees “practice” with their child.

And we, the professionals, are no longer the only experts in the room.

Throughout, the Coach observes, models, and provides meaningful feedback, and the Coachees, by virtue of their active participation (sorry, no more downtime) become more confident in their ability to own their role in their child’s development.

Now, instead of visits either starting or ending in tears, they are often more relaxed. The children smile because they are having fun, with people they know, in a place familiar to them. The parents/caregivers smile because they are seeing their dreams for their child become reality—they are giving their little one wings to fly!