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“Policeman or Physician?”

The roles that family members assume when they have someone in their “circle” who has some type of learning/behavioral challenge are often varied and can change quickly.  Parents/caregivers often joke about being the taxi driver, cook, housekeeper, counselor, nurse, etc. for their children.  Having a child/family member with a disability can add any number of new “roles” for them to play.

In those cases, parents are often told by professionals what to do to help their child at home.  Suggestions are often made about how to handle certain circumstances, what to say, do or plan.  That’s when the “professionals” are the Policeman…setting up rules and guidelines (“When Jaime throws a tantrum, try ignoring his behavior…”).

Family members try to obey those suggestions (rules) but sometimes they don’t always work.  Some family members may be distracted from those “rules” due to other, more urgent problems.  That could be a sick child, additional work responsibilities, etc.  If their child doesn’t make the progress they had hoped for, they might feel that it is their fault because they weren’t able to follow through on the “rules” that suggested that their child would improve if they followed the “rules.”

When we see that our student isn’t responding the way we hoped… such as a continuing struggle with reading, math, communication or a behavior, we might forget that the parents may be struggling because of issues that they may be going through.  In that case, we need to reach out to the parents/family members, comforting them and encouraging them as best we can.  That’s when they need a good emotional Physician to take care of them.  We must learn to be the best emotional physician for the families we serve.

When I first began working in Hawai’i, I quickly learned how business is typically conducted.  Beginning with a busy agenda with a school district, I sensed a gentle ‘push back’ where my goals seemed secondary to their needs.  Before we could start, they needed to know who I was. Hawaiians like to “talk story;” spending time with each other so that things can go forward.  Its’ the same when we work with a family.  Getting to know the family in an informal way can help us care for them in a number of ways…

Listen effectively.

Without staring, an occasional eye gaze shows you care.  Your posture matters, too.  Leaning in to the conversation, or subtle turn of your head, could mean you’re interested in what they have to say.

Then, watch their facial expressions.  What might they be feeling?  Are they becoming overwhelmed with information or not understand what is being said?

We also need to monitor our own facial expressions!  What non-verbal cues might we be sending unconsciously?


What a great opportunity this is to clarify what they are telling you.  One mother was feeling guilty because she simply couldn’t find time to follow through on all of Mohammed’s exercises.

“So, you did everything right.  Just what the therapist told you to do!  Doing his exercises when you wake him up in the morning and when he goes to bed at night is a great time to spend with each other.  Good for you!  Maybe we can work those other exercises into his school routine?”


The use of “pregnant pauses” (4-5 seconds when nothing is said) can be very helpful.  It allows them to regroup, process what has been said or think about what they want to say.

Use genuine, authentic, positive comments.

Evaluations shouldn’t be just a list of what they can’t do, but also a chance to discuss the things they are good at or how you think about their child.

“Tandy had a great big smile when I met him!  I had no idea he knew the scores for all the games his football team played this year!”

Saying good bye (at the end of an evaluation, IEP meeting, etc.)

Ask them about something positive.

“What do you think is his biggest strength?”

You say something positive

“Alli is such a pleasure to work with.  She is so polite and patient. I wish more students were like that!”

Set a simple goal.

“Will you have time to chat again next week/month?”

Keep the lines of communication natural and open.  That gives you a quick chance to see how your suggestions are coming along.  Sometimes our best laid plans need to be tweaked or modified to better suit the needs of the family.

I had the opportunity to work with an incredible man who worked with a national family support network.  I will never forget his concern about “therapizing” families.  When our interactions are normalized, we tend to get better follow through than when families feel like ‘clients.’

Check on them before you end the conversation/meeting.

“Are you OK?  Do you need a restroom break before you head out into that crazy rush hour traffic?”

Follow-up phone call or text.

A quick voice mail or text will show that you are interested in supporting that family and that you want to help them as best you can.

It’s all about the little things.


Dr. David M. Finn
Samford University

“Students with disabilities present a unique set of challenges for educators, researchers, and policy makers as, frequently, they experience academic and social challenges that significantly impact achievement … “

Scheuermann & Hall, 2008 – Cited in Hott, B. et al. (2015). It takes a village: Counselor participation with students, families, and other school personnel in serving students with special needs. National Forum of Special Education Journal, 26(1), 9 pages, retrieved from

David Finn

Dr. David M. Finn is a Professor of Special Education and also serves as the Chair of the School of Education Committee on Global Engagement. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Multiple Disabilities, a Master's in Educational Psychology and a doctorate in Special Education (Generic with a concentration in Orthopedic/Health Disabilities).

David is a frequent keynote speaker at state, national and international conferences most recently in Beirut, Lebanon, Dubai and Taiwan. His research interests include serving refugee children in the Middle East who have special needs, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Educational Neuroscience, and school safety. His publications include a co-authored textbook on special education, books chapters, research articles and a variety of tests for families of young children with special needs. He recently collaborated with several colleagues on a study related to the familial effects of COVID19.

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