Research has shown that parent involvement is the most crucial factor in a child’s success. As a professional and as the parent of a child with challenges, I emphatically agree! Unfortunately, I often witness an “us” versus “them” attitude at parent-professional meetings, which is unproductive for everyone involved, including the child. How can we move past this mindset? How can parents and professionals better collaborate for the ultimate benefit of the child?
I have worked as a speech-language pathologist for over three decades. During this time, I have worked closely with professionals in the mental health, occupational therapy, medical, and education fields, as well as with parents. Our clinical protocol involved six hours of testing, after which we compiled our integrative report. We then invited the parents of our client to join us for a one-hour follow-up conference. During my time in the field, I have learned a lot– about what to do and what not to do! Over the years, we have refined our protocol until, identifying seven relatively simple strategies that helped us establish more solid, trusting, and friendly relationships.
So here are my “Super Seven” tips, or my VIPsies” – an acronym standing for each tip – because parents truly are Very Important People in their children’s lives.
1. Validate – As soon as we are seated, we compliment the child. Parents are so used to hearing negative things about their children that when they hear something nice (e.g., “Tamika seems to have a wonderful imagination”), it often sets the tone for a more positive meeting right off the bat. Next, we would say something like: “How have things been lately?” Usually, this one little question opens a floodgate of emotions. We listen, then validate (e.g. “Wow, what a saga…no wonder you’ve been so tired lately…”). Parents often need to “dump” – and when they finally get a sympathetic ear, they will want to talk it off! Since we have a lot of information to cover within the hour, we often have to gently cut this talking off, but we always let them vent their frustrations first. As a parent, I know that those frustrations are real.
2. Inform: We then review the report with the parents so they are aware of what we did, why we did it, and what that means for their child. While reviewing the report, we use layman’s language (for example, we would use the phrase “trigger happy” instead of “errors of commission” for the continuous performance test). This allows us to show parents that we value their right to know.
3. Provide: At the end of the report, we give recommendations and resources – books, programs, tips, accommodations, web addresses, articles, local referral sources, etc. We inform parents that these suggestions have been helpful for other parents. There isn’t one quick fix, but if you put several of these in place, you will probably see some nice changes over time.
4. Specify: In our early days, we were initially puzzled when some would call back later, saying: “What do I do?” What?! We gave them a bazillion suggestions! And then we realized – of course, they’re confused. We blasted them with too much information at one time! Now when we present all the recommendations, we let parents know that it is a lot of information to digest in one sitting. We encourage them to take it step by step. Often, this means breaking down our recommendations into steps to complete. For example, we might say "Just for this week, do four things:1) buy a big three-ring binder; 2) divide it into sections – one for medical reports, one for clinical reports, one for educational information, a log for phone conversations and meetings, and a section for notes and a to-do list; 3) call your doctor to schedule an appointment about the sleep problems your child has been having; 4) set up a meeting with the school to discuss ways the teacher may incorporate our suggestions for classroom accommodations.” By gently easing them into the process, we are able to avoid the deer-in-headlights mindset.
5. Inspire: Parents often express worry. They wonder “What’s going to happen to my child? Will they graduate? Will they ever be able to function on their own?” This is when we encourage them to look at the big picture. Often, we provide a few anecdotal positive stories (yes, we’ve all heard about negative outcomes – this is not the time to talk about those!) For instance, I would mention Ron– a kid in my high school -who was always into trouble. Ron was a champion spitball thrower and a real hellion. Well, twenty years later, at our twentieth reunion, I heard a familiar voice. It was Ron – only now it was Reverend Ron. I also mention my best friend, who got an F in conduct in seventh grade. She ended up becoming a school principal– a good one, too, as she knew all the tricks students could and would play. These stories often inspire the parents, as well as provide a little comic relief.
6. Encourage: As I mentioned at the beginning– research has shown that the most crucial factor behind a child’s success is a parent who is her staunchest advocate. So, we encourage the parents to connect with other parents and professionals, to be fearless in their pursuit to learn all they could, and to advocate, advocate, advocate! Yes, it’s work! But the more knowledge a parent has under their belt, the more empowered they become. The “village” with which they connect can be the wind beneath their wings so they can be the wind beneath their child’s wings.
7. Support: As much as we possibly can, we continue to be accessible for further consultation as the parents begin their journey. We give them our cards and invite them to call us whenever they need to– for information, moral support, or just to verbally “high-five” us about a new success (we love those calls!).
I can’t tell you how many times parents have come through the door, heads down, angry, frustrated, and exhausted. But once we began using the “Super Seven” strategies, we almost invariably received heartfelt handshakes, bear hugs, smiles, and sometimes even tears of gratitude. Parents often say: “Until today, no one understood us or our child. Now we have some real guidance on what to do next. Thank you so much.”
Other professionals who have worked with children tell me they would rather climb a flagpole than meet with parents, and as a parent myself, I can certainly understand why. Parenting a child with developmental challenges can be gut-wrenching. At times, the professional can end up the victim of the proverbial “kick the dog” syndrome. But since I have begun implementing my “Super Seven,” parent consultations have become the most gratifying part of my job!
Let’s face it. You can’t help everyone. But I can just about guarantee that if you incorporate the Super Seven VIPsies into your interactions with parents, you will greatly increase your odds, which ultimately will help the child. And the success of the child is, after all, our mutual mission.
Carol Kauffman, M.A/CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist with over forty years of experience. She was one of the founders of the Attention-Behavior-Language-Evaluation Clinic at Madison County Hospital and was the SLP consultant for fifteen years. Following that, she presented seminars nationally, training other professionals in the “VIPsies” method. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.