As a TeleSLP, working with families is often part of the job description. This is especially true if you service students who attend virtual online schooling, or students after school, in the home environment. Similar to most settings, our job requires us to build strong rapport with the families we support. Often, we are privy to nuances that make up a home during our virtual sessions. We can quickly infer information about family dynamics from a single appointment, as we quietly assess the physical environment, communication style, and caregiver support during treatment.
During the school year, it is not uncommon for us to encounter families who are perceivably “in crisis”. Similar to other settings, we service families that experience financial difficulties, loss of a loved one, threat of homelessness, or perhaps, addiction. Truancy is commonplace, and stress is evident.
As virtual service providers, it can become challenging to support families from where we sit. And, if you have a personality like me, it’s difficult for me not to absorb their pain and suffering. Especially when you’ve established a strong bond with a student or family after months or years of treatment.
How can we help families in crisis from a virtual setting? Recently, I’ve spent time researching this topic l, and I wanted to share what I’ve collected from experts in empathy and crisis management.
When a family is perceived to be “in crisis”, here are 3 things that you can do as a virtual service provider to show support and help keep a student on track.
1.) Simply show up, stay present, and listen. Remember that a person going through a hard time doesn’t want or need you to try and talk them out of their pain or solve their problem. Don’t try to “relate” by bringing up something that happened to you, or a story you’ve heard, as it can prevent the opportunity for you to learn how the person is actually feeling about their situation. If you anticipate that a caregiver or learning coach might take up an entire treatment session discussing a crisis, take time to make a phone call directly. When speaking to a child, it’s equally important to listen. Schedule an individual session if needed, so that the child can discuss feelings openly and honestly, when asked. Let your student express himself without using “fix it” phrases like “what you need to do is….” Instead, try reflective phrases like, “It sounds like you…” or “I hear that you….”
2.) Avoid judgement. It’s easy to become irritable when a student has inconsistent attendance, or a parent fails to communicate important changes that can affect your treatment. Remember that, when in crisis, families are in “survival mode”. This means that speech therapy is most likely, at the bottom of their list of priorities. Avoid sending harsh emails, or leaving voicemail messages that constantly remind them of missed sessions or incomplete homework. This will create a more stressful situation for a family, which might harm the relationship you have established, or lead to further withdrawal from the system. Instead, offer caring support and flexible service provision, when appropriate. Work towards understanding their situation, so you can continue to provide services and support around their current need.
3.) Help create a support community for your student and family. Involve school administrators, and work to establish support from local agencies, or online support services. Make sure you communicate with a supervisor or person in charge of coordinating services for the family. Offer to gather resources for a family, with help from the educational team, so that your student can quickly get back on track with academics and related services. Create a system where team members can rotate daily or weekly check-ins with a family, to ensure safety and progress. Perhaps, it may become important to enlist stable family members, if available, to help keep a student moving forward through a crisis.
By being an active listener, avoiding judgement, and helping to establish a support system for a student, you create a healthy communicative environment for all involved. The goal is to prevent a student from falling behind in this temporary situation, while creating a flexible plan that supports all members. When you remain empathetic, and enlist the help of all team members, you can effectively support your family until the crisis subsides.