Our Highs are Higher

Carrie Woodcock and her family posing in front of a lovely rural stream

Carrie Woodcock and family

Carrie Woodcock is director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.

This summer, I attended a conference alongside doctors, nurses, physician assistants, therapists and other medical professionals, all of whom work with children with special healthcare needs and disabilities. I was there to represent parent voices as the director of the Maine Parent Federation, an OSEP-funded Parent Information Center. I am a big supporter of, and was very excited for, the keynote presenter that day, Dr. Brian Skotko.

Dr. Skotko is a genetic specialist and co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Down Syndrome Program. He has also gone on to facilitate the creation of many such clinical programs throughout Massachusetts. I was first introduced to him at the annual Massachusetts Down Syndrome Conference. I was so impressed with our first encounter that now, whenever I attend events at which he’s speaking, I always attend his sessions—regardless of their subject matter—and  always walk away having learned something new.

At the conference we attended this summer, Dr. Skotko discussed the impact of a Down syndrome diagnosis on the immediate family. He and his staff had conducted some of the first surveys of parents, siblings and individuals with Down syndrome. To say that I was thrilled that a physician and sibling of an individual with Down syndrome himself took this opportunity to raise awareness for family engagement, a crucial subject many times overlooked by medical professionals, was an understatement. His data were brought to life by his personal experiences, and were overwhelmingly positive. They indicated that a large majority of surveyed immediate family members love and are proud of their family member with Down syndrome.

During a question and answer period following the presentation, a professional in the front of the room challenged some of the data Dr. Skotko had presented. She brought to his attention that perhaps the data were positively skewed because parents and family members would have guilt associated with speaking negatively about their experiences and, ultimately, their own family member. Well, I am not one to hold my tongue, but I did have to pause to ensure I reigned in my “mommy” emotions and represented the parent voice in an assertive yet positive way.

In that moment, memories from my 10 years of being a mom to my precious gift rushed back. Some of the first feelings to come back to me were those that I have been ashamed to admit as a parent. For example, the diagnosis at my daughter’s birth had me thinking that I would always be a parent to a child living at home. The hours in the hospital enduring her open heart surgeries had brought me emotionally to my knees, wishing my child was healthy. I recalled the times her anxiety caused bathroom accidents in public places, which had me wishing for normalcy. Listening to friends talk about their gifted and talented children had me feeling like an outsider. I remember feeling sad because the birthday party and play date invites were few and far between, if at all. For a second I thought that maybe this woman was right; maybe I do sugar coat my family’s reality because I am too ashamed to admit otherwise.

But in the next moment, I saw Sami’s hand reaching for my mom’s face, days after open heart surgery. This was the first expression of her personality shining through. I remembered my toddler son translating her words and being so proud that he was the only one who could understand her. We celebrated her first everything and then celebrated her first everything all over again when she regained a lost skill. I recalled the way that, no matter where we are, she makes people smile, no matter what kind of day they may be having. And the oh-so-many little things in life I would have completely overlooked were it not for her.

I gathered my thoughts, raised my hand, and explained this concept to the group. In fact, the professional that asked the question was right; the challenges are hard and often. We do have doubts about our ability to parent and yes, horrifyingly enough, we will ask “why me?”

However, we celebrate and appreciate all that is positive. We do this in a way that is bigger than any outsider could know, and we do it time and time again. The impact has been so positive—my family completely changed for the better the moment Sami came into our lives. In addition to the daily joy we experience with her, all of us are dedicated to her cause, and the cause of others. My professional career has shifted from sales and marketing to assisting families with their own special loved ones. My husband, who was and still is a physical education teacher, has brought her spirit to the way he interacts with his students, including those with special needs. Lastly, but perhaps my proudest family accomplishment, is how Sami refers to her 13-year-old brother as her hero. No matter the circumstance, he shows no embarrassment towards her, only love and admiration.

I summed up my comments that afternoon, and I’ll leave the same simple thought for you here. “You see, our lows may be lower at times, but our highs are more often, and they are always so much higher. We wouldn’t dream of trading it for anything!”

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Carrie Woodcock and daughter, Sami.
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Director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.

Voices from the Field Interview with Kelly Bentley, Michigan Department of Education

“Family engagement shouldn’t be a box to
check or a step in the process,
it is crucial to the work.”

Kelly Bentley

Kelly Bentley

Kelly Bentley joined the Michigan Department of Education in June, 2015 as the Project Manager for the Early Learning Challenge grant. She is responsible for leading cross-agency efforts to provide high quality early learning and development opportunities for children age birth to five. She works in close partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, and the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children implementing a range of activities within the grant, such as leading innovative efforts around family engagement. Prior to working for state government, Kelly spent over 15 years working with children and families, including as an administrator of a non-profit organization providing mentoring opportunities for disadvantaged children and youth.

Note to readers: Given the importance of high quality early learning opportunities for young children with disabilities, OSERS will periodically highlight voices from the broader field of early learning in our blog.

ED: How did you begin your career in early learning/early childhood?

Kelly: I am relatively new to the early childhood field. I graduated from college with a degree in counseling and knew that working with children and families was my primary interest. I had the opportunity to work with adjudicated youth and their families and with Big Brothers/Big Sisters as a case manager. After a few years under my belt I saw there were larger issues causing these families to struggle. Gradually I moved more into administration and became interested in systems change and the school to prison pipeline, and went back to school to earn my Master’s in Social Work (MSW). Through my MSW program, I interned at the Michigan Department of Education, focusing on issues related to suspension and expulsion, including the development of social emotional learning standards for the state. Through all of my experiences I grew to believe that it is so critical to intervene early with at-risk children and struggling families. Our systems and programs are set up to be so reactive; instead we need to shift our attention and invest more in prevention. That is why I believe focusing on high quality early learning opportunities is so important. There is a direct tie between early childhood experiences and whether kids are proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

ED: Why do you and your state believe that family engagement is so important in early learning/early childhood?

Kelly: The Michigan Department of Education has a goal of our public education system becoming one of the top 10 educational systems in the country within 10 years. Family engagement is a core component of the strategy for getting us there. Our Office of Great Start, which is our early learning office within Michigan’s Department of Education, has a long history of emphasizing the importance of family engagement. One of our core values is that families are primary to all children’s growth and development, so family engagement has always been central to our work. We’ve had a long history of engaging stakeholders, including providers and families, in every aspect of our work and the various programs we oversee. Family engagement is part of the culture of our office and we’ve had strong leadership that values promoting meaningful family engagement for early learning programs, and ensures we are being intentional with engaging families in the work at the state level.

ED: What are the strategies your state is using to promote family engagement in early learning? Have you experienced any challenges to implementing these strategies?

Kelly: We look for multiple opportunities to engage our stakeholders, including families. We have an advisory council that meets regularly and helps to guide our work, and this council includes families. An instrumental report, Great Start, Great Investment, Great Future: The Plan for Early Learning and Development in Michigan, was developed in 2013 with significant input from stakeholders, including parents with young children, and this has been foundational to our comprehensive state plan for early learning and development.

Michigan has helped develop an infrastructure to gather meaningful input from the field, and also to promote the importance of family engagement at the local level—we have 54 local Great Start Collaboratives that are connected to intermediate school districts and include one or more Great Start Parent Coalitions. These have been in place the last 10 years! The parent voices have been critical to the local Great Start Collaboratives and ensure strong Great Start Parent Coalitions. As part of the the launch of the Parent Coalitions, parent liaisons from the Great Start Collaboratives worked specifically with community parents of children birth to kindergarten entry to identify ways to improve their community.

More recently, through funding from the Early Learning Challenge grant, we are developing “Trusted Advisors.” The 60 statewide Parent Coalitions can apply for $5,000–$60,000 (depending on the strategies they propose) to work with their local community and to identify Trusted Advisors—individuals who are connected to local families and may have inroads to help reach the hard to reach families. In their applications, Parent Coalitions are looking at their local data to identify their high risk populations, asking who are the families that aren’t connected to our early learning efforts?, what are the community’s strengths?, and what’s already in place that we can build on and engage these families in meaningful ways both in the learning and development of their young children and in the local early learning programs? We believe that relying on the local communities to generate strategies for how to engage the hardest to reach families will be the key. We know that trust is so important, so if we can identify the right individuals or organizations in a community to help us reach families, we will be much more successful. We are also in the process of hiring eight “Family Engagement Consultants” that will be trained in the Strengthening Families™ approach. These consultants will be available to early learning programs and will provide training, tools and techniques for improving family engagement. These consultants are starting with parent and community cafés (invited gatherings) for some of our unlicensed providers (family, friends or neighbors enrolled to receive our child care subsidy) helping them to build partnerships with families.

Another effort we have underway is working collaboratively with Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to ensure that their Pathways to Potential Success Coaches (eligibility specialists placed in schools) are trained to understand the importance of family engagement, and to view families from a strengths-based approach. The Success Coaches are on the front lines working with families to determine if they are eligible for various social programs, including the child care subsidy. They often don’t have backgrounds in family-centered services but because of their important role, they have the opportunity to help empower families. We are working with DHHS to develop an on-going training model to ensure these folks understand the importance of family-centered services; it is really about shifting the mindset, and understanding how empowering families ultimately helps the child.

ED: What recommendations do you have for other States or communities interested in promoting family engagement in early learning?

Kelly: Coming from an organization that has been upholding family engagement as a core value for the past 20 years, I think it is important to develop a culture that sees family engagement as crucial to the work, that it shouldn’t just be a box to check, or a step in the process. Seeing families from a strengths-based lens, and valuing their role and their input, will help programs build meaningful partnerships with families around individual children and the administration of local and state programs.

Another recommendation is to engage families early so the family-school partnership transcends their child’s educational experience. Be sure you build family engagement into your early childhood program standards, and then build them into your Quality Rating and Improvement System. The time and attention that we spend on planning for, and ensuring, family engagement should be equivalent to the time and attention programs spend on planning for other critical pieces of early learning, such as curriculum, facilities, assessment, etc. One of the challenges to this work is ensuring funding for the development and implementation of strong family engagement plans, and this is where cross-agency collaboration, public/private partnerships, and innovation can help.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.