The Language of Collaboration: Supporting Children with Special Needs
By Beth Truzansky
What Does it Take to Collaborate?
Collaboration takes work. It takes open communication, understanding of roles, and a ‘growth mindset’ that we can personally build upon the skills needed of us. The challenge to build a collaboration is especially clear when working across systems and agencies. Recently, I facilitated a retreat for a group of people who provide services to young children who have, or may be at risk for, delay in their development. Children birth-age to three in Chittenden County receives services through Children’s Integrated Services, an Early Intervention (CIS-EI) program based out of the Vermont Family Network.
I spoke with Robin Hood from the Winooski School District to better understand the systems and transitions for some of the youngest children in our special education system. Getting a peek into a system of care is something few people see or think about even if their child receives services. I believe this collaborative work illustrates the type of system coordination Building Bright Futures and all of our early childhood partners work to engineer.
I witnessed the investment by the CIS-EI leaders and School District Special Education Directors to map out common goals, procedures, and build relationships with their respective teams. As a Regional Coordinator, I was very happy to facilitate retreats with all the staff involved in the Chittenden County system.
About Early Intervention and Transitions
Let me first share a short tour of the early intervention system: In Chittenden County, children birth to age three who have an observable and measurable delay in their development and/or have a diagnosed health condition can receive Early Intervention services through Children’s Integrated Services.
Early Intervention services include therapies that help to support children reaching development milestones within the five developmental domains of physical, cognitive, communicative, adaptive and social. Services can happen in natural settings, which include the child’s home or early care and education setting. Teams of CIS providers collaborate with each other to support children and families in the school districts in which the children live. Between six months and 90 days before a child turns three, the children are assessed again to see if they are potentially eligible for services to be continued through their school district.
At this point, the CIS Early Intervention team notifies the school team of a child’s potential eligibility and the transition process begins with the family and the school district team. The school district team then uses their own criteria to determine a child’s eligibility for school services based on information that the Early Intervention team provides and their own observations. Each CIS-EI team is composed of the family, a family advocate, service coordinator and whatever therapists (Speech Language Pathologist, Occupational Therapist or Physical Therapist) are providing direct therapy and coaching services to the child and family. This is the team that then meets with the school staff to make a plan for the child’s services and to facilitate a smooth transition for the child and family from one system to the other.
How to support families through this transition is the point I want to magnify here and asked Robin to help explain.
Robin Hood is the Director of Support Services and Early Learning for Winooski School District and has been working for the District for 36 years. She has worked as a first grade teacher, middle school Reading Specialist, College Professor, Special Education district evaluator, Elementary Assistant Principal, managed services for English Language Learners and Special Education Director. At Winooski School District, they partner with Head Start and have several part-day preschool classrooms. In our interview, Robin talked about the District’s focus on early childhood, investment in relationships with CIS-Early Intervention to build a positive transition process, and strategies to engage the diversity of of families in Winooski.
Schools Invest in Early Childhood
Beth: Can you talk to me about how you approach work with the City’s youngest children?
Robin: Early Learning to me is not just about three, four and five year olds; it is also about our youngest children. I taught first grade for ten years, so in some ways I’ve gotten back to some of my roots in my role as Director of Support Services and Early Learning in Winooski. It is so important to work with young kids and their parents. In Vermont we have great Universal Pre-School that improves access to preschool for all children.
Beth: Can you share a high point for a kid or a family that shows what a successful transition from CIS Early Intervention to School based early childhood programs looks like?
Robin: The purpose of Special Education in Early Ed is to continue on with the intervention (delivered by CIS-EI) and to change the outcome for kids. When the kids get to kindergarten, they will be that much further along. We recently worked with a little boy with Autism. His parents were very concerned about this child coming to school and if we could meet his needs. Everyone came together, and we listened to what the child’s needs were from the Early Intervention team who was providing services. They were providing speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and direct service as well. We listened to what the child needed and placed the child in one of our on-site pre-school classrooms where we are able to give the most intensive services for that child.
Right from the first time when you see families, it is about building the relationship. We reach out to the family, talking with them, and use the transition meeting (with CIS-EI staff, Pre-K staff and parents) for a chance to observe the child and connect with them. In this case, it was important to let the family know that we can make the transition on their own terms and make sure the child will be safe. I recognize it’s scary for parents to think three and four year olds are going to be on a campus with 900 other children of all ages.
Transitioning a Child from Community to School-Based Services
Robin: A successful transition is about communication to know what they need. It’s getting all the players involved who need to be involved, whether there is a health care team, whether the child has had other evaluations…it’s getting everyone on board and listening to the recommendations. The thing that sometimes caused issues in the past was that I’m not sure some schools really valued the information that was coming to them. We can be really quick to say, ‘this is what we do, this is how we do it.’ I’m not sure that transition time was always a warm, fuzzy place to be. I think it goes back to, how are we going to work together? What are the expectations?
How Are We Going to Work Together?
As I spoke with Robin, I could hear how important it is to get everyone around the table. Building successful collaborations is about doing all the behind-the-scenes work to create an environment that invites participation from families and service providers. But making this happen isn’t easy, either. I know from working with the collaborative group composed of CIS-EI and Special Educators that realized transitions, and the teams that have to work together, were strained. Robin continued to talk about how a small group of leaders from Chittenden County school districts and from CIS- Early Intervention invested time and energy to improve the system.
Robin: Megan Roy, Special Education Director for Chittenden Central Supervisory Union and I were both part of the Students First Collaborative Leadership training sponsored by the Snelling Center. I feel that we have brought some of those important components to this work. They are:
- Attributing the best of each other
- Learning about each other’s organization
- Finding that kernel of truth into what each other is saying
That becomes your starting point of what you are going to agree on and how this collaboration is going to work.
Chittenden County Special Education directors meet monthly. I joined a group with other district directors and the Children’s Integrated Services-Early Intervention director to work on how we collaborate. We would talk about the state of affairs with our teams, staffing capacity, how we were meeting goals set in the regional plan, etc.. Collaboration is about relationships of professionals.
I thought a lot about it, Beth, and you hear me bring it up in Building Bright Futures Council meetings that I’m really proud of this work we did together. I think part of why the transition work with each collaborative team is going as well as it is now, because people are on the ground doing the work and the leaders are putting a value on relationship building. Parents’ needs and kids’ needs are really important. Above that, we went through a prickly time where the CIS-EI team didn’t understand our organization and we didn’t really understand their organization.
Robin: We stopped and backed way, way up. We worked to build positive connections and relationships with each other. We began collaborating outside of formal meetings, and really listened to each other and talked about both what’s working and the areas that are the sticky wickets and causing the issues for families, CIS-EI staff, or for our teachers as we’re transitioning children into our school program.
We went through a process to review and build regional agreements between CIS-EI teams and Chittenden County school districts. Then we invited some of the Early Intervention staff that work with families and heard their stories. We could see there was a real disconnect. We all care for children and parents and put them in the center, though there was sometimes concern from both staff that schools would not be able to provide the same level of support CIS could.
So we really stepped back, and thought about who was sitting at the table at those transition meetings. How do we want to present ourselves in a positive way? What do we need to do to keep the child in the center? How do we build a process so the transition is not a turf war but something that can be joyful, exciting, and positive?
Retreats with Collaborative Teams
Robin: That’s where we had the idea to hold retreats to bring together CIS-EI and school district staff. We invited Early Intervention staff including anyone providing direct service to kids like Occupational Therapists, Speech Language Pathologists, and developmental educators. From the school end, we invited teachers and early learning coordinators who oversee transitions. We asked for their perspective on the state of affairs and they walked us through the regional agreement. From there, we came up with ideas on how to do our collaborative work.
In the retreats, we broke into small groups and worked together on scenarios of the sticky problems. We mixed up the teams across the region so staff could really hear from each other and how we would address different situations. The more they could hear each other’s voices; we ended up with a stronger voice for kids. The other thing is, the relationships we have built make people feel safer to bring up an issue when it occurs. I think articulating the expected procedures are really helpful and we have a one-page guidance document on how to deal with different types of situations.
Articulating a Vision and Expectations
Robin: It is helpful when we, as Special Education Directors, go back to our school and bring the clear expectations as stated in the guidance document. As you know, not all schools were doing well even with the retreats and you know how you [Beth] did some technical assistance with one in particular. To me, that shows good faith. It would be easy to continue to carry on and think ‘this is never going to work’ but when people can say, ‘we need help to make it work,’ that is the beginning of it really working! In the end, I think we feel who really wins are the children and families.
Now, if you have a parent who comes to a meeting and there is any disagreement between staff and programs, part of our work is to discuss this ahead of time so there are no surprises for the family. Now, our transitions are going much smoother because we’ve all talked, we’ve all been at the table together, and everyone knows how we are going to work together.
Beth: We talk about collaboration between services but what do you see as the role of families as kids’ first teachers? How do you welcome and engage such diverse families to school?
Robin: In two of our preschool classrooms, they have over 50% of students who are English Language Learners. So language, number one, can be a barrier to a family engagement. Poverty can also be a barrier for families. I think just the newness of going to school can be a barrier, and then sometimes parents have their own challenges.
To help people feel welcome, one thing we do is to ensure there is an interpreter. If possible, we include one of the District’s on-site multilingual liaisons to the transition meetings to begin to build the relationship. We have liaisons that can interpret in Bhutanese-Nepali, Somali, Maay Maay, French, Arabic, and Vietnamese.
To address another barrier, Winooski provides transportation for our preschoolers; this is not something we do for the rest of the school population but we are committed to this. Even though the district is small, if you are on the other end of town and have a mile to walk and you have a three or four year old, it is going to be a barrier to getting here. We are really committed to Universal Pre-K and offered on-site Pre-K long before it was a requirement by Act 166.
We make sure parents know they can ask for a meeting any time and we’re happy to do that. It’s really important to see children thrive and make gains. If they are not, we want to sit down with parents. We want to celebrate the good things but if you’ve hit a wall, how can we work that out?
Beth: What advice do you give for new or seasoned staff about the value of working with families?
Robin: The guidance I give is that we are service providers. This isn’t our school. This is the family’s school. This is the community’s school. We provide service with a smile. We assume the best of people. We find out what it is they need for help and do our very, very best to be sure they get it and we follow up. Whether it’s the parent who is coming in for a preschool application, or whether we are receiving a referral for an evaluation over the summer because a doctor’s office has concerns about a child’s development. It’s about accepting that referral, reaching out, and doing things in a timely manner.
It’s assuming the very best of parents and it’s understanding and anticipating what barriers parents might have in front of them; whether it’s financial, transportation, or language, and addressing them the best we can. It’s up to us to be the learner about what it is they need and to help them.
I also think about our school climate. Ten years ago when we had many refugees and American-born families, who lived alongside each other, there were a lot of ‘parallel play’ and not a lot of interaction across cultures. The difference now is that we have had some families who came as refugees but have been in the District for most of their education. The kids who are now in high school together were also three- and four-year-olds in preschool together. It’s different. Are we where we want to be? No, I think there is a lot more that we can do. To help us be better educators, we are learning more about implicit biases as well as making sure all our teachers are trauma informed. This is important for us to be informed about trauma experienced by children who came to Winooski as refugees, and for our children who are living in poverty and under chronic stress, daily. The more we can equip ourselves Pre-K and up, the better we will be able to serve children.
We are always learning about ourselves: about how to be part of a team and engage with the world. That is what I thought about when I ended my conversation with Robin. As parents, family coaches, pre-school teachers, and school administrators, we are all a piece of this system. Here are some questions that guide my thinking on collaboration in support of our early childhood system:
- How do we hold the child and family in the center?
- Even if the system is complicated or there are competing priorities, how do we listen and provide children and families the support they need?
- As service providers, how do we stay engaged and do the hard relational work behind the scenes so when the child and family is in the room, we can truly create an environment that invites trust and collaboration?
I am interested to hear your thoughts on how you value collaboration and build an environment for engagement.