The most important role of early childhood instructional staff in this Action Step is effectively communicating with families and specialists about children with potential special needs. Along with families, instructional staff members are primary and invaluable sources of information regarding children's learning and development because they interact closely with children on a regular basis. As leaders, you want to support instructional staff in having the skills to fulfill this role. These skills include instructional staff's ability to collaborate and effectively communicate with families, to understand and talk about data, and to connect families to resources (at your site and within the larger community) that can provide support to children identified with special needs.
How can instructional staff begin the communication process?
Before approaching the family with a concern, instructional staff should ensure that the concern has been discussed with the leadership team at the site. Site administrators should be involved before moving forward with a family conference or referral. A concern should be brought up based only on multiple observations or assessments of the child over time.
When planning a conference with a family, you will need to choose a place where you can talk privately. Be sure to schedule the conference when both parties will have plenty of time to talk. Most importantly, a discussion regarding a concern should not be the first interaction the family and instructional staff have had about a child's development. Instructional staff members should already have established a relationship with the family of each child in their care, ensuring that the family is familiar with the site's assessment system, including what is assessed, how it is assessed, and why it is assessed.
Instructional staff should bring appropriate data to the meeting, including informal observations of the child's development and behavior, as well as results from formal assessments. The family should be encouraged to bring some observations regarding their child's development and behavior to foster the collaboration.
How can instructional staff help navigate parents’ and families' fears and emotions surrounding possible delays and special needs?
Instructional staff must understand that it is reasonable for a family to express strong emotions when a concern about their child is presented. This is why it is critical that staff remain supportive, caring, and respectful. Encourage staff to always keep in mind that the goal is the child's well-being.
When communicating with families, staff should use respectful, positive language and avoid loaded language (e.g., language that provokes unnecessary alarm or makes assumptions beyond what the data show). Of course, instructional staff should always remind families that staff members are not specialists in identifying delays or disabilities, but they are there to support the families as sources of information about their children's learning and development. There are two important messages to communicate to families: (1) concerns shared by staff members need to be evaluated further, and (2) there are significant benefits of getting assistance early for their children if delays are identified.
As leaders, you want to encourage instructional staff to base their communication with families on the evidence and data they have collected, providing specific examples. For instance, instructional staff may describe certain events that they observed and recorded, such as, "The other day a gust of wind blew the door shut. It made a loud bang and scared all of us. I noticed that Sara didn't flinch as would be expected."
When discussing formal assessments with numerical scores, you will need to guide and train instructional staff on how to describe results beyond just the numbers. Instructional staff will need to know how to communicate what the numbers mean and what they say about the child's learning and development. Tip Sheet 7, "Sharing Screening Results with Parents" on the Wisconsin Early Childhood Collaborating Partners website, offers some specific examples of language instructional staff can use to accomplish this:
"These results are reassuring."
"These results are somewhat concerning."
"These results may show a need for more practice."
"These results are concerning."
"These results show a need for further assessment."
Further tips and guidance on how to communicate concerns with families can be found on the eXtension website.
How can instructional staff empower families in the process of identification?
Information is power. As leaders, you want to ensure that instructional staff have the knowledge to equip families with the information they need. This way, families can understand the process for receiving additional support and make the best educational decisions for their children. Families can be empowered by learning about and connecting to resources available to them. Instructional staff can guide families in working with their primary care physicians to seek further assessments. Connecting families with Early Childhood Intervention Services (ECI) (for children 0–3) or the local school district (children over the age of 3) is another way instructional staff can assist families as they seek additional assessments. Instructional staff can make the initial referral to ECI.
The Hand to Hold website provides guidance on the process for receiving services, both for children age 0–3 and children age 3–5. This information describes how to get help early, what to expect from the child's doctor, what to expect after the doctor's visit, how ECI can help, and how to make the transition between ECI and a Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities (PPCD).
It could be helpful to review the Effective Instructional Framework module to support instructional staff in continued collaboration with families, specialists, and other services throughout the time children with special needs are in their care.
TO LEARN MORE: For more information about supporting the identification of delays and disabilities, you may review the following resources:
Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! is a coordinated federal effort to encourage healthy child development, universal developmental and behavioral screening for children, and support for the families and providers who care for them.
Early Childhood Intervention Services is a statewide program for families with children, birth to three, with disabilities and developmental delays. ECI supports families to help their children reach their potential through developmental services. Services are provided by a variety of local agencies and organizations across Texas.
The Partners Resource Network (PRN) is a non-profit agency that operates the Texas statewide network of Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs), which includes PATH, PEN, and TEAM. The Texas PTIs provide training, education, information, referral, emotional support, and individual assistance in obtaining services.
Prevention and Early Intervention is a division of Texas Child Protective Services that supports children and families through the prevention of child abuse and juvenile delinquency.
The Talking with Families section of the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center describes resources and best practices related to talking with families about child and family outcomes.