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True Confessions: Checking My Biases with Family Centered Practices

I will admit it.  When I see a friend whose toddler is rocking the paci all day every day, I struggle not to judge.  This, from a mom whose 7-year-old climbs in her bed with her each night.  Parenting is a series of tough choices, choosing the battles worthy of fighting and those you can win, all while under the scrutiny of others like me who feel so strongly about the evidence regarding what is best for young children.  When I see a young child at the store at night, my first thought is, “oh, poor little guy, should be home in bed.”  And then I check myself.  I have no idea what that child’s day is like regarding schedule, family routines or priorities.  I know I am not alone, though.  I know there are many of us who struggle to honor families who make choices contradictory to what we believe to be best for young children.

Check Your Biases

There are many “hot topics” in parenting and early childhood development.  It’s arguably the period of development best supported by research and most flooded with tips and tools for navigating.  Popular sites like Babycenter cover all these topics including sleep, feeding, potty training, play, technology, and behavior with listicles for solving all your parenting struggles.  As early interventionists, we are only one source of parenting support, and we may not always be able to compete with grandma, environment, and the internet.  So, how do we strive to honor families who make child rearing choices in conflict with our professional beliefs?  I have developed my own listicle to add to the mix!

  1. Check Your Biases. Is this a safety issue?  If the answer is no, consider your biases.  We hold our professional beliefs dear, as we should!  However, truly family centered practices build on family strengths and priorities.  If the 2-year-old’s pacifier is not a priority or concern for the family, it does not need to be one for us either.
  2. Understand The Why. Talking with families about what motivates their decision making provides us with insight into why others do what they do.  Why does the family choose co-sleeping?  Are there enough sleeping spaces in the house for all family members?  Is co-sleeping standard practices in the family’s culture?  Listening first allows us to present the facts in a way that may support the family need while also addressing the concern, particularly if it is a safety concern.
  3. Broaden Your Lens. There is no one right way.  Truly family centered practices trust families to be the expert on their own needs which simultaneously requires professionals to follow families’ leads.  If we approach each unique family with our own narrow lens for what is best, we miss the opportunities each family presents to problem solve together, to extend our views, and to find strategies that work.

I know it isn’t easy.  I know our professional and personal experiences have led us to these beliefs for good reasons, with a grounding in evidence and in best practices.  The challenge, then, is in how we make ourselves available for the beliefs of the family, particularly when they are contradictory to our own.

How do you honor families in your work who make choices that conflict with what you know to be true?

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For more info on this topic, be sure to watch Jen’s archived webinar, Unpacking our Biases in Early Intervention, on the Virginia Early Intervention Professional Development Center’s 2017 Talks on Tuesdays Recordings page.

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Jen Newton is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood/Early Childhood Special Education in the School of Education at Saint Louis University. She worked as an early interventionist with infants and toddlers with disabilities or at risk for school failure in home settings before entering the classroom as an inclusive prekindergarten teacher in North Carolina’s More At Four program and later as a parent educator on an Early Reading First grant. She earned a doctorate in Special Education from the University of Kansas in 2011 and spent four years preparing inclusive educators at James Madison University prior to joining faculty at SLU. Her research examines inclusive teaching and learning, early childhood teacher preparation, and university/school partnerships.

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59 Comments to “True Confessions: Checking My Biases with Family Centered Practices”

  1. I’m learning to wait for questions, rather than to provide my opinion. Especially when the family is not concerned. Its so much easier. Liberating!

  2. One thing I try to remember is that I will best tap into these families’ motivations and goals by following their lead and adapting my support to their routines. Suggesting radical changes to what is their “normal” from day one will likely backfire for everyone! But if I learn about them and work with them, they are more likely to come to the same conclusions that I have over time (e.g., getting rid of the pacie or leaving bowls of snacks all around the house).

  3. Liberating! I love that as a concept for changing practice, Belkis. Sometimes we do get bogged down in the burden of changing everyone to fit our beliefs when it could be easier to partner with families for the journey! Lauren, I absolutely agree that it is all in the relationship – partner and collaborate to work on the family’s identified concerns together. Thank you both !

  4. It is kind of funny. I am 38 weeks pregnant and started working as Developmental Specialist almost two years ago. The things I think are important BECAUSE of the evidence and best practice, my friends and family members constantly want to challenge because they think their way is better. Even though my baby isn’t here yet, it has given me a unique perspective on the concept of trying to change a family. It makes me more empathetic and willing to work with families because I understand how they will feel if I try to force my personal/professional ideals on them without them asking for it.

    • Yes, having our own children certainly can give us a new perspective! I had the same experience, Gabrielle. It can be a hard balance between doing what you think is best and being open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Our families in EI probably feel very much the same way.

  5. Whenever I find myself in challenging situations I think of a quote my father always told me growing up: “Live and let live.” I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all have our own biases and that it’s ok to be passionate about our individual beliefs. However, we can’t let our own passion invalidate someone else’s beliefs. As people, it’s our job to be understanding and have faith that the choices being made by families are being made on the notion that that is what is right for them.

    • Thanks, Sarah, for reminding us about such a simple phrase. I think awareness like you describe goes a long way with building rapport and collaboration with families.

  6. This is an interesting post because it brings to light the biases that we subconsciously deal with every day. I agree that it is difficult to accept others’ beliefs and priorities sometimes, especially when they don’t align with your professional or personal views. However, I agree that it is important to get to the ‘why’ of many of these practices. Knowing why someone chooses to do something gives is justification. It also allows you to listen to the parent while they explain their side of things, and allows you as a professional to have a bit of empathy. It can also be powerful in educating parents. If they are telling you why they do something is just because they thought they read something that said to do that, they might be mistaken and actually looking for more guidance in this area. However, this is tricky, because you have to feel out the situation and be sure that the family is wanting this advice. If not, as mentioned above, it’s best to follow the parents’ leads as long as there is not safety concern involved.

    • I really like your idea about exploring the “why.” What we think of as why a parent believes or prioritizes something could be VERY different from the parent’s perspective, so it is really important to try to understand his/her point of view. Without that, it is really difficult to collaborate and provide support that is meaningful to the family. Using opened-ended questions and statements like “Please tell me more about that…” can help open the door to exploring the parent’s “why.” The trick is, as you said, to stay balanced, nonjudgmental, and open to wherever the parent’s explanation leads you.

  7. I don’t think it is possible to fully remove all of a person’s biases, however it is possible to keep our biases in check. You should go about this by identifying your biases and making sure they aren’t interfering with your work. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and biases but it is necessary for us to respect the beliefs of the people we work with as well. I would also remember that the best way to motivate families is to show them that their thoughts are heard and respected.

    • Very well-said, Emily! Awareness and respect for others goes a long way in early intervention – and really just in life in general, don’t you think? 🙂

  8. I think that rather than presenting it as a “you’re doing this wrong thing,” I would present it as a “have you given much thought to doing it this way?”
    In my own personal experiences as a mom, If I learn something new, I generally share it with my mom friends because it’s interesting information. I do what I can to refrain from making it a judgey remark and just an aside of information from what helped me.
    I think biases are inescapable but if your present them the right way, they can be very helpful to others.

    • Thanks Ava. I think another thing to consider, too, would be what the family thinks about what they are doing. Maybe even before presenting them with your idea, you might want to ask them a few open-ended questions to find out more about why they are doing something, where they learned about it, what they think about it, etc. Understanding their perspective can really give you some good insight and help you determine if your suggestion may be appropriate or helpful to them. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  9. I personally think that checking your own biases is the first step. I do not think is possible to move past biases if we don’t first acknowledge them. It is also important to understand that we can never completely know what is happening within a specific family or why they made the choices the do. This is why respecting other people’s beliefs and values is critical. At the end of the day, we only know as much as they share with us or as much as we are able to observe.

  10. This is a great post! Really made me realize how often we unconsciously judge others’ parenting styles and techniques based on what we know to be true. Although we all have internal biases that we can’t fully eradicate when considering a family’s dynamic, it’s so important to incorporate the ‘golden rule’ with families — a sense of treating others the way we’d like to be treated — with respect and kindness. Identifying our biases with a family should not interfere with the way we should work with them. We should instead try to understand WHY they believe in what they do — their parenting styles can be a reflection on their culture, socio-economic status, or any other factor that, just by looking at them surface-level, cannot be judged wholly without knowing the whole picture. We can honor families by not judging them to the best of our abilities and listening to their priorities that make them who they are, and focusing our work around their individualized family needs.

    • You make some great points, Loana. I don’t think we can completely avoid biases but we can use our awareness to monitor our judgments. Knowing the “why” for the family – and for ourselves – really helps keep us in check!

  11. I feel like this situation is closely related to teaching in the classroom as well. As an educator, you must look at the child as a unique individual and different from others. There are many ways to teach the same thing at it is important to know what works best for each individual.

  12. I work in an intervention program in which I work in a private preschool at a church. I provide support for a child that is three at that school that has autism and I struggle to watch the teacher make him sit for over a hour at circle time every day. He is not interested in the reading of any books or in watching her speak as the other children are, and the hour long circle time is too long for even the other three year olds. However, I am lucky to be able to provide services within the school and I have learned to be patient with the teacher and respect her teaching philosophy even though I know that it is not developmentally appropriate. I support her by sitting next to the child and providing him direction when he becomes too distracted from her lesson.

    • Nicole, I’m so glad you are there for him! I think I would have trouble sitting through an hour long circle time. 🙂 I’m not sure that what you are feeling is a bias since, as you noted, this isn’t developmentally appropriate. You are wise to respect the teacher because you are a guest in her classroom. Have you had any opportunities to talk with her, or the family, about what you observe? I wonder if the child you support is feeling stress in that environment?

  13. I would definitely ask questions to understand more of their reasoning behind their choices, but I would be sure not to overstep my boundaries! I feel like it is important to understand each other in order for a smooth team interaction to occur, but I would not want the family to feel attacked or overly questioned for their own choices and beliefs. I would state my questions in a way that expresses my curiosity rather than a condescending tone.

    • Great ideas, Yvonne. It is a balance of being respectfully inquisitive in a conversational way and not making the family feel like they are being interviewed. What kinds of questions would you ask?

  14. I think that I wouldn’t go into the conflict thinking that the different perspective is wrong. There are many safe and responsive ways that parents, well parent. I know that as a human being I am biased but I have to take the time to listen to other perspectives. Especially, when I’m expecting others to listen to mine.

    • Yes, it’s a reciprocal process! Leaving our biases and judgments at the door can be hard but is so important as an early interventionist!

  15. I think as a professional I would try to check my biases as soon as I felt myself beginning to feel like I was judging (a) parent(s). I liked to the 3rd point on the list entitled Broaden your Lens. You never know what a family is going through or values until you get to know them and build a trusting relationship. It’s important to acknowledge that their beliefs and practices may not align with your personal beliefs and practices and that’s okay.

  16. Usually I try not impose my beliefs and views on other parents while they’re parenting. If there is something that I see a parent doing that isn’t the best choice, depending on who it is, I try to approach with caution. Usually I would say “maybe you can try it like this” or “have you tried this?”. If it’s someone that I’m close to I offer my opinion, but mostly I let them just approach me with the questions.

    • Caution in the kind of situation you describe, Candice, is very wise. You can very easily offend a parent by judging what he/she does. I think it can be very helpful to try to learn why the parent is doing something that you think isn’t the best choice before offering an alternate suggestion. If you have the opportunity to ask about why the parent made that choice, why she thinks the child reacted a certain way, etc., you can often get some very helpful info that opens the door to a deeper discussion.

  17. I am often confronted with situations that would have driven my dad up the wall. My bias definitely comes from culture. I have to remind myself, often, that I do not have all the facts about anyone’s situation and sometimes I am not the one to ask. In a professional way, I can often ask because I want to understand differences.

    • I think coming from a perspective of wanting to understand, rather than judgment, is what can make a huge difference. You bring up a great point – we don’t ever have all the facts. I often think about all that we DON’T know about families. When you have a strong relationship that is built on mutual respect with the family, it is easier to ask those questions that help you support them better!

  18. Whenever things like this arise, I would make sure that I ask myself about why I feel this way and check myself of my bias. Like you have written, unless it is a safety issue, I’m going to need to broaden my horizons and research and read up on things like the benefits of co-sleeping etc.

    • Excellent point, Shion! Pausing to reflect on why you feel that way is something I bet many people forget to do. Checking in with yourself is the first, and maybe most important, step in learning about your own biases and beliefs.

  19. Openmindedness is so important! I agree that understanding why parents do things a certain way is important. In most cases, we know that parents who seek these services care very much about their child’s wellbeing. Although everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, I think knowing how to respect another’s beliefs are also important. Because in the end of the day, the child takes priority.

    • Yes, an open mind and a healthy respect for and willingness to learn about other’s beliefs are great attributes to bring with you as you walk in the door of any family’s home (or classroom)!

  20. I believe that understanding why certain cultures do certain things with their children is the first step into research about developmentally appropriate practices. We should have parents be open other practices, while continuing respect their traditions and values. When working with a family it is best to understand and ask why a parent teaches or informs their children the way they do. Understanding that would allow for planning the best course of action for that family.

    • Yes, that understanding will definitely help you plan for the most meaningful, useful, and appropriate intervention strategies. After all, it is the parent who is going to use them within the context of the family’s interactions where those beliefs and traditions play out.

  21. This goes along with understanding the why, but I would focus on active listening and observation of the family to gain more insight into their cultural and personal practices, values, and beliefs. This would help me to keep an open mind and to try to put myself in the family’s shoes when providing interventions and appropriate services!

  22. We know that parenting is HARD. Parenting a child with special needs is even harder. Instead of placing judgement on the way a family does things, I believe that the best thing that you can do is to offer unconditional support. Sympathize with families and try to understand the burdens the family has without them even having to tell you. Then, use your skills as an ECI provider to help the family lessen their burdens instead of turning a blind eye because you believe they shouldn’t be struggling with something.

    • Parenting is hard. That is a great reminder Charlotte! Our job is to help support the families throughout the early intervention process.

  23. If a family does something that contradicts with what I believe is best for a child, I would remind myself to take a breath and not speak before listening. I’d try to always step back and always listen to the parent’s point of view before I share my opinion.

    • Great strategy Rachel. Being aware of our biases and when we may be judging a family requires us to self-reflect as to not complicate our relationship with the family. Sometimes, the family’s reasoning for things may be an answer we never expected. Listening is key.

  24. We all catch ourselves judging someone’s actions or choices from time to time. This is human nature and is inevitable. With that being said, I feel like we need to constantly remind ourselves that there are a million factors governing a person’s choices. A lot of time we come to realize that it was our own lack of knowledge about a person’s situation rather than a shortcoming of the individual. Unless its harming a child emotionally or physically, I think we should refrain from passing judgements on someone’s parenting. There are a lot of situational circumstances that can alter a caregiver’s behavior or different cultural practices.

    • Absolutely Bushra! It is human nature to have biases based on our own experiences, beliefs, or lack of knowledge. Sometimes parents have their own stress factors that can affect their behaviors or priorities we may not know about. It can be simply how they are going to buy diapers or receiving a shut-off notice for an electric bill. Caregivers may be less likely to disclose this information when looking for resources when they sense someone passing judgment.

  25. I believe that you must honor families in your work by making sure that you listen to what they’re struggling with first before making any quick judgments to “fix” the situation. I would personally listen to families list their concerns that they believe is a problem for their child that way you can see and know what the family is struggling with first. Coming in with no expectations of the family is better than coming in with “typical solutions” others have used. It’s true when they tell you to not put the cart before your horse because if you put your bias first, it becomes apparent that you are not to be trusted. Establishing out loud what the parents’ needs are for their child helps make sure that you are both on the same page. Then after building this rapport with the parents, then see if your solution for the concern will work or if it can be compromised to meet their needs.

    • Great tips Natalie! This strategy helps individualize services based on the unique needs of the family and meeting them where they are.

  26. I think this blog post is a great reminder to be open and non-judgmental when interacting with families, and really all individuals. To honor families I believe it is important to actively listen and observe before sharing and responding with your own ideas, remain open-minded, and constantly exhibit empathy.

    • Well said, Kori! I love the phrase you used – honoring families. That’s such a fundamental concept to early intervention, making sure that our behavior and our interactions with them honor their rights, opinions, priorities, and values.

  27. I believe this is a great thing to keep in mind, we are always, even if just at a subconscious level, influenced by our own biases. I think it is important to provide the best, evidenced based care that we can for every individual family. That care can look different for every family. Although in every case, safety is really the biggest priority. So often we act upon our own biases that may not align with other’s beliefs and being aware of that is crucial.

    • Great point, Sarah. EI looks different for each family but should be grounded in our field’s best principles and practices. Each family we meet will affect us in a different way. We want to be sure that the effect we have on them is unclouded by our own biases and judgments. That’s not always easy, but if we come from a place of respect and awareness of best practice, we are more likely to have that positive effect we hope for.

  28. In my opinion I feel that instead of forcing new things onto a family if they are not familiar with it is better to ask questions and see how this way works for them. It can be a hard balance of trying to do what you think is best and being open to new ideas. If there is evidence based information that one way works better than another I might make a suggestion, but I don’t want the family to feel like at the same time I am intruding on something they feel is working for them.

  29. Each and one of use our experiences, values, and perceptions to shape our beliefs and opinions. Throughout life we believe certain things but time gives us lessons, and it allows us to constantly shape our opinions. I do think that making snap judgments is part of being human and not much in our control but the way we react consequently is. In terms of working with families, I do think it’s important to keep an open mind and acknowledge that we have different truths because we have different value systems. It’s okay to give some suggestions but it’s also important to listen to the family and learn about their values.

  30. Suspending judgement can be extremely hard- especially when it comes to something so personal and important as raising a child. I think as humans we tend to believe that our way is the right way, if we’ve done it and it worked, then that’s the way it must be done. For something like this, I think its is important to remember that there is so much information out there, so much research and methods, and that every family is different. Different schedules, resources, family dynamics, etc… all of these can help shape and determine how a child is raised and as long as the child is safe and cared for, the family should never be shamed for it.

  31. I think it is immensely important to go into each meeting with a new or current family with a clean slate. Clear your mind of all opinions and focus on what is best for the child and their family. Service providers are not only available for the child, but it is also their job to provide support and comfort to the families. We should always structure everything around the families goals and expectations, not our own.

  32. I think one of the most important aspect to remember is that the parents are the experts on their children. So if it not an issue of safety, than taking into account of what the parent values is important.

  33. If I was a provider, I would honor the family’s choices by asking and listening to them to why they would make that choice for their child. I would also explain to them to the choice I would make, and try to make a compromise if possible. I would always respect the family’s decision and they have the final say in the decision making, I could only give them recommendations and guidance.

  34. I would honor the families wishes regardless of my own opinion. Families have many different ways of approuching things and it is not our place to tell them differently just because it conflicts with our own ideas.

    • Yes, honoring the family’s wishes is always our priority. The family members are the ultimate decision makers within what the early intervention system can offer. This can be a careful balance, though. I think we are there to find out what families think, what they’ve tried, and what they want for their children. We can share information, and sometimes that info is different from what the family thinks, but when shared sensitively and without the expectation that the family HAS to change or do what you say, can provide info to families to help them grow. We just have to be sure we aren’t sharing it from a biased point of view.

  35. I practice cultural sensitivity. I try and take on the passenger role and let the person tell me about themselves. I have to remember that they are the ones that know best.

    • Love that image – the passenger role! Do you ever struggle with what the person says about themselves? I think sometimes, we almost have to take the same perspective with ourselves and really listen to our inner voice to detect any biases. Not always an easy ride but you are starting from a good place, being culturally sensitive.

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