Impact Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities

Improving Relationships Between Families and Practitioners During the Early Years


Susan P. Maude is Associate Professor, Human Development and Family Studies, Iowa State University, Ames

After over 55 collective years of experience in working in the field of early childhood intervention and early childhood special education as direct practitioners, teacher trainers, administrators and consultants, we have experienced many changes in the ways we think and interact with families. Also, we have both been on the other side of the table in having family members who were served by these programs.

As the field has evolved during our lifetimes, the focus has shifted from serving children in isolated institutional settings to providing community-based, inclusive services in a family-centered manner. The roles of the family and the practitioner have changed dramatically. Practitioners once only dealt with the child, and family members were more passive recipients of service. Now family members are an equal and vital part of every service.

So what have we learned? What do we think is now most important for family members and practitioners to think about? In the chart presented here (see Figure 1) we have listed some of the things that family members should expect and demand, and some areas that require practitioners to examine their own beliefs and practices. At the core of all of the ideas presented in the chart is the need for people to communicate, to listen, and to learn from each other.

We live in a changing world where we know that every family is different, every family has strengths and unique priorities for themselves and their children, and every family is dynamic and what might be needed today may be very different than what is needed next week. Most of what we have learned works is based in mutual respect and understanding between practitioners and families, and in taking the time to learn as well as teach.

As you examine the ideas we present here, take the time to ask yourself where you are on the continuum of making sure that your child is receiving the best services. Or as a practitioner, ask yourself where you are in striving for excellence in your work with families and children. No one knows it all. Early childhood professionals work with a child and family for a short time. The best way to "make it count" is to do your best to understand and learn from the family. Families can best use the early childhood system by learning as much as they can about the way the system works, what all the acronyms mean, what ways they can help their child learn and develop, and what the paperwork means. And both families and professionals need to function in environments where stress is minimized!!!!!

Table 1. ​Supporting Positive Relationships Between Families and Early Childhood Practitioners

What's Important?

For Families

For Practitioners

Relationship development – it’s all about relationships!

Teach the people who provide services to you about your child and family: what’s important, what’s not, what’s possible, what’s not. Like any relationship, you have to work at it!

Think about ways to learn with families, rather than you teaching them. Once there is a power balance and you establish trust, the relationship can grow.

A family-centered philosophy

Expect the people who work with your child to recognize the strengths of your child and family, respond to your priorities, individualize service delivery, respond to changing priorities of your family, and support the values and lifestyle of your family. (Dunst, Trivette, & Deal, 1988; Dunst, Trivette, & Deal, 1994; IA Early ACCESS and Iowa SCRIPT, 2004; Keyser, 2006).

Be able to state your philosophy. Having a philosophy grounds you and provides you with a framework to assist you as you meet and interact with a myriad of families and situations.

Recognize child and family strengths

Think about the strengths of your family and be able to tell others the things that you are most proud of, the things you do well, and the supports that your family members give each other. Be prepared to describe your child’s strengths, accomplishments, and promise. Oblige others to participate in using this strengths-based approach.

Identify ways in which you can daily prove your belief that ALL families have strengths. Recognize and then build upon those strengths so that each and every family has the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills to be confident and competent in their abilities to support their child. Using a strength-based lens when working with children and families will help keep you positive and should help in preventing burnout.

Definitions of family – it’s a moving target

Define your family to the people who are working with you. Talk about the members of your family and roles they play.

Families have diverse shapes, sizes, and configurations. Each family that you support will offer to you their own definition of family. Take time to reflect on your own biases, and work to leave your biases at home.

Culture, Language and Ability Diversity (CLAD)

Take the time to talk to people working with you about your cultural, spiritual, and ethnic backgrounds, practices, and celebrations. Don’t assume they already know!

Examine the values and beliefs that guide your understanding of culture and how it influences your practices. Talk to families about their culture, practices and celebrations. Don’t assume they have the same beliefs, practices, or background as you have or as another family that you support. Celebrate and respect the differences!

Responding to family-identified priorities

Make sure that those who work with your child understand what is most important to you. Tell them what is the hardest thing for you to do with your child.

How do you match services and supports to the family-identified priorities? Make sure that you address the family priority and not your own!


If people who are working with you aren’t hearing what you have to say, tell them again and again. Help them understand your child, your family, and all of your needs. Expect that they respond to what you are saying. If this doesn’t work, call the person’s supervisor to discuss the problem. If you don’t understand something, ask the person to explain it until you do!

Listen, listen and observe, and then listen some more. Families continue to identify ability to listen as one of the key attributes of effective practitioners. Families benefit from information shared through a variety of resources and formats, as well as in a variety of languages and/or reading levels (Keyser, 2006).

Managing your time

Talk to the people working with you about your daily routines, your time constraints, your challenges and how these impact on your ability to participate in your child’s program.

Understand that families are busy. To avoid adding more activities to a family’s already busy schedule, embed the IFSP/IEP goals within the natural routines or learning opportunities that may exist for a family throughout their week.

Family dynamics – one size does not fit all

Think about the way you are dealing with the fact that your child’s development is different from other children’s. What emotions are you feeling? Who can you talk to for support?

Be careful how you interpret a family’s behavior and emotional status. Families experience different emotions about their children (Boss, 2007; Gallagher, Fialka, Rhodes & Arceneaux, 2002). Don’t assume. Don’t project. Listen!

Managing stress

What can you do to minimize the stress in your life? How can the person serving your child and family help? One thought is saying what you realistically can do in the next week, telling the person what is stressful for you about expectations, etc.

How are you handling stress in your life? Is it impacting on your relationships with the families you serve? Communicate to the families what would help you do your job.


 Don’t sign anything you don’t understand. Ask for more information if you have questions.

The amount of paperwork required for practitioners is exhausting. Understand that just as you had to learn about all of the requirements, so do families. Make sure they know what each paper means for them and their child.

  • Boss, P. (2007). Ambiguous loss theory: Challenges for scholars and practitioners. Family Relations, 56(2), 105–111.

  • Dunst, C. J., Trivette, C. M., & Deal, A. (1994). Supporting and strengthening families. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

  • Dunst, D. J., Trivette, C. M., & Deal, A. (1988). Enabling and empowering families: Principles and guidelines for practice. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

  • Gallagher, P. A., Fialka, J., Rhodes, C., & Arceneaux, C. (2002). Working with families: Rethinking denial. Young Exceptional Children, 5(2), 11–17.

  • Iowa’s Early ACCESS and Iowa SCRIPT. (2004). Guiding principles and practices for delivery of family centered services. Retrieved from

  • Keyser, J. (2006). From parents to partners: Building a family-centered early childhood program. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press and NAEYC.