A detailed approach to supporting a child and family. Episode Two: Acknowledging the child’s present skills and level of understanding during the first meetings
This series of short articles is intended to be relevant to you if you are in some sort of non-family early child and family support capacity for families who have a new baby or infant with impairments that are predicted to impact on health, development and learning
Commenting on the child's abilities is essential on first meeting a child with the family. It is good practice with important elements including being supportive to the parents, seeing the child as a whole regardless of your usual professional scope, focusing on what the child can do rather than on the negatives and seeing the child, not the ‘patient’ or ‘invalid’.
Before meeting you, it is possible the family has been through upsetting experiences with only negative news about their baby or infant. This might be in the nature of things when, perhaps, birth was difficult and problems have been discovered in the child’s, health, development and learning. But in my experience something is needed now that is uplifting and helps the family begin to adjust. It is also possible that the family perceives this new arrival in their family as an invalid or a patient – someone with a short-term illness. In which case they might not yet see her or him as a real and valid child needing the same pleasurable activity, affectionate games and playthings that other babies and young children enjoy and thrive on as part of their quality of life. None of this can be addressed in just one visit, but valuable seeds can be sewn.
I do not think this first visit is the time for investigating the child in depth. These opportunities will come later. But, if the child is awake, it is an opportunity to start getting to know the child and casually observe the skills he or she has and the level of understanding they have reached. This can easily happen during the conversation with the parents if the child is nearby. It is a time for perceiving the child as a whole child rather than focusing only on any particular aspect of child development. This includes emotions, physical abilities and sensory perceptions. The aim during this first meeting is to share some positives with the parents. You might notice abilities they have already seen but do not know the significance of. You might see developments they have not seen yet. Either way the conversation will be encouraging and uplifting allowing the parents perhaps to start seeing their baby or infant in a new light.
What might you observe in this informal appraisal of the child’s present situation
Is the child aware of this stranger in the room? Does she respond with interest, pleasure, fear? Is he responding to touch, to noises in the room, to things moving in his visual field – near or distant? What you can observe about posture will depend on whether the child is lying on the floor, held on a lap or sitting in a seat of some sort. Is there some head control, some turning to one side or the other, some changing of position in response to what is happening nearby? Does he move his hands to reach? Does she look at what her hands or feet are doing? Does he move towards something interesting that he can see or hear? Can she manipulate a toy to produce its sound or movement?
The skills and understanding that you can observe on this first meeting will surely be the basis for your future development and learning activities with the child. It would not be unusual if you observe some developments that the parents had been told not to expect. What you can see with your early child and family support skills might be quite different from what doctors and nurses have seen in their medical work with the child.
A second aspect of bringing positivity to the family can be acknowledging what all the family has achieved during the difficult time they have been through. This might include how their love and care, perhaps night and day, has brought the child to where she is now, how the skills the child has have grown out of all the activities she has shared with family members (perhaps including grandparents and siblings), how the toys they have bought for the child have helped and will help in the future.
For the early child and family support worker, this first meeting is an exercise in high professionalism. Parents typically want honesty. But they want it to be combined with warmth and sensitivity. They will surely know when they are being patronised with insincere praise. They will start to trust and respect you if they see you can trust and respect them. They will value starting a relationship that promises to be on equal terms, even though your caring, experience and knowledge is very different from theirs.