In 2001, I braved the Wisconsin winters to tackle the more challenging task of graduate school. Somewhere between reading about Brown’s morphemes and researching effective ways to wear a scarf, I met John and his family. (During grad school, I worked for the Wisconsin Early Autism Project providing pivotal response treatment and discrete trial training.) For two years, I spent several days a week working with this 10-year-old child in his home on improving his communication. The lessons I learned from this family made an impact on my professional viewpoint.
Sure, I taught John communication strategies. More importantly, however, I was able to exist alongside the family—I listened as Anne (his mom) talked about the grown-up version of John and his future needs. I witnessed Caitlin advocate for her brother. I stood at the doorway on my last day and watched Michael wipe away tears as he thanked me for being a part of his son’s life.
As I drove back to Texas later that spring, I vowed to always connect with my families. As speech-language pathologists, we know parent involvement supports progress. In reality, however, it’s challenging to make this connection for many complex reasons. You don’t get the luxury of home-based treatment. You may not share the same native language. You call and the number’s disconnected.
We need to be okay with a variety of family participation levels without judgment and with out-of-the-box thinking. So let’s talk about effective strategies for connecting with families:
- Functional family priorities: Ask the family what’s important to them. A five-minute conversation builds trust and rapport, gives insight on daily living needs, and initiates a relationship. For those who speak another language, find an interpreter through local organizations, team members who speak the same language or family members who can interpret. Also, families appreciate when they see direct outcomes of speech-language treatment. This likely happens more often when goals and objectives affect the child’s daily functional living. By communicating with the family, you can focus on what will yield the most outcomes.
- Communication creativity: Use various forms and modes of communication. For some families, communicating via email or text is more feasible than oral communication. I find this true, at times, when I work with families from diverse backgrounds. With an email or text, families have time to translate the message. Also, I find using opportunities, such as drop-off and pick-up time, effective for communicating with families.
- Prioritize pictures: I also send pictures—via email and text—showing what the child achieved recently. A picture says so much. Even better, you can send a short video of a strategy from the session. I always feel that showing a parent what a strategy “looks like” and “sounds like” makes an important step toward generalization.
- Positivity, please: As SLPs we have a lot to say, but families need to know you see the good in their loved ones. So when you connect with them, share what went well. Parents often tell me they never received a positive phone call before mine. This doesn’t need to be the norm. Positivity surely increases communication.
- Rightfully resourceful: Even after trying all of these strategies, it’s OK if a caregiver is unable or unwilling to participate. Your efforts at school and the clinic will make a difference. As SLPs, we are MacGyvers—we can make great things happen with the available tools.
It’s been 15 years since I met John. Recently, his sister thanked me for my efforts. Truth be told, I think I gained so much more from my Wisconsin family. I was the lucky one.
Phuong Lien Palafox, MS, CCC-SLP, is a bilingual speech-language pathologist at Bilinguistics, a private practice in Austin, Texas. She focuses on service-delivery models, literacy-based interventions, students from diverse backgrounds, and social skills for children with autism. She’s an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity; and 16, School-Based Issues. Palafox will present at ASHAConnect this summer in New Orleans. firstname.lastname@example.org