Relationship Building Strategies

Jun 22, 2023

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of being invited as a guest speaker at the 2023 Summer Institute for Kansas early intervention professionals. It was truly an honor to connect with like-minded colleagues and engage in deep conversations about caregivers' experiences in early intervention (EI), grounded in the important reminder that IDEA Part C aims to increase the capacity of caregivers to support their children.

 All caregivers can experience various levels of stress, anxiety, grief, fear, and depression, especially when facing challenges related to a child's chronic health condition, their developmental differences, and/or disabilities. To best support these families, our work in EI primarily focuses on implementing three types of strategies.

The first set of strategies consists of evidence-based early intervention strategies, which many of us are already familiar with. These strategies include things like following the child's lead, providing visual supports, modeling language, and creating environmental arrangements that support the child's success.

The second set of strategies, which I have often discussed in my previous work, revolves around coaching strategies, which are based on adult learning principles. These strategies include things like problem-solving, guided practice, and reflection. For more information on coaching strategies you can visit my instagram, products' page, and youtube channel. 

However, there is a third set of strategies that often goes unnoticed in professional development workshops. That may be because EI professionals intuitively use this set of strategies to foster trust and connection with caregivers. These are relationship-building strategies and they encompass qualities such as patience, flexibility, willingness, empathy, endurance, and coping skills. It is important to recognize that despite our best efforts, humans often struggle to fully utilize these skills when we are tired, hungry, stressed, or overwhelmed—conditions that many parents of young children with differences and disabilities face repeatedly. 

By employing relationship-building strategies, caregivers not only nurture their bond with their child but they also contribute to the well-being of their child's nervous system, regulation, and the formation of secure attachments. These actions additionally foster long-term health and development. 

Here are three ways in which we (EI providers) can support caregivers in honing their own relationship-building skills with their children:

  1. Self Reflect on how and when we (EI Providers) model relationship-building strategies in our home-visits. You’re probably already modeling varying degrees of patience, flexibility, empathy, willingness, etc. You can also be intentional about your application of these skills through self-reflection. For example, you might reflect that: Last week I didn’t say much when mom mentioned potty training again, because I’d already explained previously that her son isn’t showing readiness yet and I think it will be too disregulating for him. This week I’m going to patiently explore mom’s concern. Maybe we can find one step in the potty-routine that her son is ready to participate in now (e.g. flushing the toilet). Or maybe we can talk about what other readiness skills he can learn/practice now, which will support him during potty training later (e.g. understanding new concepts like “wet” and “dry”). 
  2. Listen and validate caregivers' experiences. By acknowledging their frustrations or concerns—for example, saying, "I hear you saying that it's frustrating when he keeps dropping his berries on the ground"—we reassure parents that we are there to support them and address their priorities. Furthermore, by modeling validating language, we create a foundation for caregivers to employ relationship-building strategies such as validation and empathy with their own children. While a young child may not comprehend every word when a caregiver says, "I hear you banging your cup. You're being so patient, and I'm bringing your milk now," the child may still attune to the calm, patient, and supportive energy conveyed through the caregiver's validating statements.
  3. Verbalize caregivers’ strengths. We already do this as part of our coaching strategies (e.g. “great job, I love how you're waiting for him to take a turn before you help him with his sock”). But, it’s also important to provide specific, strengths-based feedback regarding parents’ utilization of relationship-building strategies. This might sound like: “he’s crying, and your flexibility in this routine is helping him co-regulate first.” Or “Thank you for your willingness to model the word, sign, and a picture for him to have all-access to communication. I know it’s not easy. I appreciate you practicing this during our time together.” Caregivers truly value and benefit from positive feedback that recognizes their child, their own skills, and their dedicated efforts.

By remaining mindful about the significance of relationship-building strategies in our work, we, as EI providers, can empower caregivers in developing and honing these skills. This not only fosters caregiver capacity, but it also brings us moments of joy, connection, and gratitude while we witness beautiful relational-outcomes that unfold between a caregiver and their child.