Parent Emotions and the Inclusive Environment
As defined in the joint position statement issued by two major ECE professional organizations (NAEYC and DEC), the phrase early childhood inclusion "embodies the values, policies, and practices that support the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society." There was a time when it was customary for young children with disabilities and development delays to be separated or isolated from children with typical or "normal" development characteristics. That is no longer the case.
As a result, ECE professionals are familiar with the concept of inclusion. For starters, licensed programs are required by law to have certain policies in place to accommodate families and children with special needs. But ECE professionals should know that inclusion policies benefit everyone by fostering a positive, supportive, diverse learning environment for children of all abilities. However, it is also a fact that accommodating the needs of all learners can be quite challenging and strenuous.
Fortunately, you are not alone. There are many resources available, not just online and in professional journals but in the form of colleagues, physicians, therapists, and counselors who may be on hand to help meet a given child's needs.
Do you notice a missing word in that last sentence? Read it again...
Parents! Simply put, close communication and trust between caregivers and parents (or guardians) is the single best way to ensure that a child's needs are met; equally, lack of communication makes everyone's life more challenging.
Many parents are eager and willing to strike up that relationship, but what if they're not? What if parents seem hesitant to discuss their child's behavior or abilities? What if they express doubts or suspicions about your practices? What if they are unwilling to discuss or try a recommended strategy? What if they are in denial about the true depth of their child's disability?
All of these "what ifs" are actually normal, because parents are humans, and certain aspects of human nature sometimes present obstacles. In most cases, parents are aware that something is "different" about their child early on, so they are not shocked when a doctor finally makes a diagnosis. Furthermore, parents love their children unconditionally, regardless of ability. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for parents to feel shame, guilt, denial, resentment and all kinds of associated stress as a result of that diagnosis.
Unless the child's disability is a result of past abuse, neglect, or negligence, no parent deserves to feel shame or guilt, but such feelings can impede a child's treatment. Likewise, those in denial or those determined to find someone or something else to blame for their child's diagnosis, will only delay the course of treatment. As someone who spends nearly as much time (if not more) with that child, it is important for the ECE professional to be open and welcoming from Day 1.
When parents inform you of a child's diagnosis, do not apologize or appear mournful; don't say "I'm so sorry to hear that." Do not reply with a look of shock or anxiety; don't say, "Oh my, that's going to be a problem!" Replying with a smile or joke is not appropriate, either, and you don't want to just shrug it off with "Oh well, no big deal." Finally, do not suggest that you alone have a solution; don't say, "I will take care of everything." So how do you respond?
When in doubt, be professional. As a professional, your goal is to assure parents that their child's needs will be met. Look them in the eye and say, "Thank you for sharing this with me. Let's sit down as soon as possible and make a plan to ensure that your child's needs are met." With one little sentence, you welcome the parents and let them know that there is no reason to feel ashamed or guilty. You signal that you understand this will be a process, not a one-touch solution. Most importantly, you let them know they are not alone and neither are you: the "let's" before "make a plan" implies that you are in it together.
A good next step, before you get into specifics about the child's condition or needs or anything else, is to go ahead and invite parents to share their emotions. "If you don't mind telling me, how did you feel when you learned about the diagnosis?" This is a somewhat personal question, but it is an important one, because the parents' response will tell you a lot about the NEXT steps you need to take in this relationship, which must grow and flourish for the sake of the child, the family, and the program as a whole.