Frontline Initiative Communication

Bridging the Gap:
Effective Communication with Families


Terri Niland is a Co-Resident Counselor for Arc of Montgomery County, Maryland.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the Direct Support Professional (DSP) lies in effectively communicating with families. As a resident counselor of more than five years in an Alternative Living Unit, I have worked closely with the families of the three women who live there. In addition to maintaining regular contact with those families who are fully involved, I have encouraged additional contact with family members whose involvement has been minimal. In order to nurture these contacts, I believe one of the most important things to keep in mind is that the ultimate goal of any such communication is to serve the best interests of the individual to whom I provide supports. I have found the following strategies to be helpful for maintaining this best interest, while fostering positive interaction with families.

Take the initiative - All too frequently, it is a family member who initiates contact with the DSP. The DSP, however, needs to initiate communication. For example, I see the frustration of families who are not notified about staff changes. Initiating communication shows your interest in the individual as well as shows the value you place on those who are closest to the individuals you serve.

Communicate early in the relationship - Early communication is essential to getting the relationship off to a good start. There is nothing more frustrating than when the initial point of contact between a DSP and a family member involves a problem. Overcoming a negative beginning can be difficult. Communicating early on positive grounds goes a long way in getting the relationship off to a good start.

 Work as a team - The relationship between families and DSPs should not be adversarial. Rather, their relationship should be characterized by a willingness to work together to serve the best interests of the individual.

Share information with other staff members - Staff members sharing among themselves enhances communication with families. By sharing information provided by families, as well as serving as a sounding board for one another, the DSP can improve the quality of care they provide. Furthermore, helping each other learn how to work effectively with family members can be a vital part of this communication.

Use a variety of methods - Speaking with family members and writing them notes are just two methods of communication. Be creative! Be practical! One of the most effective means of communication I have with families involves making detailed notations in bank books. When a withdrawal is made, I write a description of how the money will be spent. The families are very appreciative of this record.

Be honest - Honesty in your interaction with families is an essential ingredient to effective communication. Learn how to best approach family members with what needs to be said. What works well with one family might not work with another.

Be an advocate - As DSPs, we have a dual role. Not only are we responsible for the day-to-day care of the individuals we serve, we are also called to advocate on their behalf. This is probably one of our most important functions, as it involves serving the best interest of those with whom we work. At times, being an advocate will involve working together with family members on behalf of the individual. At other times, it might involve advocating on behalf of the individual in matters with which the family might disagree.

Show you care - Your genuine concern for the individual, as well as for their family members, will serve you well. Sharing observations with family members as well as asking for their input, will go a long way in maintaining positive communication. In addition, attending to detail and knowing what values are important to family members will be helpful as well. Your genuine care and concern will earn you respect that will foster your positive relationship with families.

These are a few ways I have found that have improved both the lives of the people I provide supports to and my work. As DSPs, we can greatly improve the quality of our services simply by looking for more effective and creative ways to communicate, especially with families.