Skip to main content

Supporting Families

How to support families sensitively when a child has developmental differences

Adults and child at sign in table

Educators have play a pivotal role in young children's lives and can a significant impact in relation to families navigating the steps in recognising and acting on developmental concerns.

For some families, educators may be the first source of reliable information about how their child is developing and, sometimes, they may also be their only source of external support. Other families will have a variety of supports and input that may concur with or contradict messages they receive from preschool.

When educators are sensitive, knowledgeable and communicate with families in a supportive and respectful way, the impacts for children and families in terms of understanding their child's needs can be profound.

Although conversations about children's development can be challenging, educators have a responsibility to know children well, build positive relationships with their families and share information to support best outcomes.

Supporting children's development requires an ongoing partnership with families to exchange information, work cohesively on goals and build a collaborative team (that may include other professionals).

When your awareness of developmental differences is emerging in relation to a child the first step is to gather solid data. Read about gathering observational data here.

Early conversations with families

Educators should begin to have tentative, informal conversations with parents to gather a sense of what may be happening at home and whether parents share any concerns. Initial conversations are just the beginning when it comes to the educators role in working collaboratively with families.

Educators may begin to provide information about what they are seeing and ask questions such as:

  • "How do you feel [child] is adapting to preschool?"
  • "We've noticed [child] seems tired sometimes - how is he/she sleeping at home?"
  • "We're noticing [child] is watching play but not joining in very often. Is there anything you would like to share with us about [child's] interests so we can offer activities he/she may enjoy?"
  • "[Child] is having some difficulty following directions from us. We are wondering if you are noticing this at home too?"

Preliminary conversations build foundational connections and also open up dialogue for parents to share what they are seeing at home. It is important for these incidental conversations to continue as you collect data. This can help prepare families for more formal discussions about their child's development and to gauge responses from parents about where they may be up to in terms of recognising developmental differences.

Understanding Parents' Responses in relation to 'Stages of Change' Model.

The 'stages of change' is a useful model when thinking about where the parents may be sitting in relation to understanding differences in their child's development. Read more about the 'Stages of Change' model here.

Many parents will sit in what is called the 'pre-contemplative stage' for a significant period. This stage is when someone is beginning to notice a concern and considering that some change may be required of them - but they are not yet certain, or ready to make a change.

At this stage, it can be useful to indirectly provide some targeted information. For example if educators' concern relates to language development, you might provide information about typical language development in a newsletter to all families. Access to relevant information can help families to be more prepared for when concerns are raised by educators.

Once detailed information has been gathered on how the child is functioning at preschool, it is important to meet with parent/s or guardians confidentially for a more detailed conversation.

Prepare for parents' possible reactions

Parents may react to hearing any concerns about their child's development in a range of ways. Some may seem relieved or validated about their own concerns; others may be upset or angry and some may not seem to react, and need time to process the information shared. Initial parent responses often shift over time. Educators at times express frustration when parents have differing views and don't initially act on advice to seek further assessment or intervention. It is valuable to share professional knowledge and observations and it is also always the parent's right to respond in their own way.

Early childhood educators may "plant the first seed". Over time, parents may think about information that has been shared, have further conversations with people in their family or community, and the seed that was sown by that first conversation is tended to by parents when they are in a position to act.

The 'Raising Concerns' webinar by Marina Bailey, Psychologist provides more comprehensive information for educators on preparing for these conversations. View webinar here.

Setting the scene for the meeting

Ensure the family know what you are planning to discuss in the meeting beforehand and ask the parent if they would like to bring their partner or a friend. The meeting should be planned for a time and in a space where you can talk privately and without interruptions. Consider offering parents some water and chat briefly first to help the parents feel comfortable.

It is important to let parents know at the start of the meeting that minutes will be taken and shared with them. Recording minutes will provide a summary of the discussion and any agreed actions that can be referred to in the future.

Sharing balanced information

It is very important to talk about the whole child including their strengths and interests. Information about areas of need will be much more difficult to process if it feels as though their child is being viewed only through a deficit-based lens.

It is imperative for educators to prepare themselves to communicate confidently in this meeting. Talking with colleagues beforehand can be helpful, to consider how they have managed similar conversations. With parent agreement, you may invite a second colleague who also has a relationship with the child and family to participate in the meeting. This may also help to provide consistent messaging and to hear the family's voice and ensure that minutes can be taken.

Ensure the conversation is reciprocal

It is important that the conversation goes two-ways. It is possible, parents may share information that challenges educators to view what is happening for the child very differently. Active listening and being open to adjusting the educator's perception is crucial to the success of such a meeting. Ensure you provide opportunities for families to ask any questions they may have.

Concluding the meeting

To wrap up the meeting, discuss next steps and agree on basic timelines where possible. Be mindful that timeframes may not be predictable, especially when it comes to arranging appointments, as waiting times can be long. If educators discover that parents have already accessed an assessment and/or therapy for their child and are at a different stage to where they initially thought, next steps may be different (Read 'Pathways to support' to assist with this).

If part of the plan involves the parents attending appointments with professionals, this resource can be very helpful to share with them as it will help them to know what information they may be asked for, as well as what to expect.

Working collaboratively with families when children have a disability is an ongoing journey. After the initial meeting, there is a need to continue to communicate effectively with families and any other professionals who become involved with the child.

If a child goes through the assessment process and receives a diagnosis, being available to support parents to access information can be vital. Reimagine Australia has some relevant resources for families in the early period following a diagnosis. Click here to view.

The partnership will involve continuing conversations, both informal and formal. It will be important to establish ways to communicate what is happening for the child across all settings to ensure consistency in the strategies used. Communication may include phone and face to face conversations as well as written exchanges (such as via a communication book, online sharing platform or email).

Over time, a range of professionals may come in and out of the child's life. It is useful to develop a means of tracking contact details of who is involved in the child's early intervention and any changes to this as they occur. Written parent consent is required for all communication with external professionals. You can download a template form you may like to use for maintaining this consent and contact information here.

When the process of transitioning to school begins, educators can also play a role in connecting the family to future supports and relevant agencies beyond preschool.