Parent Support in an Early Childhood Specialty School
My name is Gabriela Ibarra Ramirez and I am a school social worker with Chicago Public Schools. I have spent this academic year implementing my school change project as part of my participation in the School Mental Health Advanced Practice Program at Loyola University-Chicago. This project was born out of a desire to better support parents of children with identified special needs.
Setting The Stage
Blair Early Childhood Center is a specialty school in Chicago for children between the ages of three to seven years old with various disabilities, including, but not limited to: developmental delays, autism, seizure disorders, cerebral palsy, cognitive impairment, and rare genetic disorders. The school is a warm, welcoming, and supportive environment that lives up to its wonderful reputation. Needless to say, I am proud to work there! The initial goal was to decrease parents’ overall levels of stress by providing them with valuable information, practical resources, and a supportive social network. I chose the Parental Stress Scale (Berry & Jones, 1995) to measure the effectiveness of my intervention and administered the pre-intervention scale in October 2019.
Prior to our current pandemic and the sudden need to close our schools, the parent support group was in full swing. I conducted the group on Wednesday mornings, alternating between an English and a Spanish session. I discovered that having a separate English and Spanish group helped with increasing parent participation as well as creating an environment where rapport and social support were more easily established. Leticia Iniguez, our school’s bilingual coordinator, co-led the group with me and was an amazing, compassionate, and resourceful partner.
The group sessions followed a similar format. We began each session by doing parent introductions and check-ins for those that wanted to share. Parent introductions were always important in response to new parents joining the group depending on the topic being presented. We then spent time with our main topic for that session and ended the group by sharing a community resource. On average, about 6 parents participated in the English group and about 10 parents in the Spanish group.
The topics that we discussed in the sessions included: the importance of social support, creating healthy boundaries, self-care and positive coping strategies, supports for bilingual students, mindfulness, implementing visual supports in the home, and safe use of technology for learning. Other topics that we planned to cover this school year include behavior intervention strategies, sensory play ideas, video modeling, and organizational tools for IEP paperwork.
Where We Are Now
Implementing the parent support group has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
It has been great to see parents offering each other validation, compassion, and a sense of community.
At this point in time, there is so much uncertainty in our city, nation, and world. We have a tentative return date of April 21 for our school system, however, emphasis on the word tentative. The current situation is challenging us as school social workers to think of new ways to support our students and families. In the next week, I will be meeting with my school principal to discuss a plan to continue supporting our school community. I am planning to set up a Google Classroom to provide information and resources for parents to navigate this difficult time. The goal of reducing parental stress that I set out at the beginning of the school year still stands and is now even more vital, however, the process will look quite different.
The following are some of the resources that we shared with our parents!
Resource Center for Autism and Developmental Delays
Division of Specialized Care for Children, UIC
City of Chicago, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Home Modification program
Prioritization for Urgency of Need for Services (PUNS)