Parents Need Webs of Support, Too

By Dr. Jonathan Zaff, CERES Institute for Children & Youth

When Shannon Varga and I developed the Webs of Support framework, we focused our attention on the lives of young people. We described how young people need an anchoring relationship; an adult they know they can turn to when they need help to solve a problem, guidance in pursuing their goals, and sometimes, a roll of quarters when they need to do their laundry. However, and importantly, this one relationship is not enough to support the multitude of needs and goals a young person has. Instead, young people, like all of us, have a constellation of people around them who, together, provide the variety of supports that a young person needs to thrive throughout their lives. Although we focused on young people in writing and talking about webs of support, we have recognized that each one of us, no matter age or state of life, needs a web of supportive relationships.

Our recent report, Choices and Challenges, shows the essentiality of webs of support for parents and guardians navigating the educational challenges that their children face. Our team of researchers worked with families throughout Florida to understand how they navigated the confusing, complex educational choices for their children with disabilities.  Too often, parents talked about a journey without a roadmap, navigating supports on their own. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have robust support networks around them; indeed, families talked about the right school, with the right resources, for the specific child’s need to be the missing piece in their web of support. Instead, parents talked about needing help in navigating these complexities; suggesting that although they had the opportunity to choose the schooling that they believed matched the needs of their children, the process to get there was at times overwhelming – “a full-time job”, as one parent described it – with few resources to help them navigate the process.

Education leaders are beginning to understand the power of relationships inside schools. During COVID, this understanding has been amplified as schools throughout the country had difficulty finding their students and engaging them in substantive, meaningful ways. Learning starts with connecting; building a relationship foundation can keep students connected even during the most trying times. Big Picture Learning, The BARR Center, and City Connects are just a few examples of relationship-focused efforts. What is less known and less appreciated, though, is how important relationships are for families as they seek out the best school and other supports for their children.

The idea that families need relational help to navigate the overwhelming choices for their children’s education probably makes sense to most people. Taking a more focused look at one family can illustrate how necessary these supports can be.

Consider Mary. Mary’s 8 year-old, Sam, has multiple learning challenges, including being on the Autism spectrum and having a language impairment. Diagnosed at 4-years-old, just a year after his father died, Sam received support from the school for speech and potty training, but his subsequent kindergarten experience was filled with emotional abuse from his teacher. A social worker at a community-based organization informed Mary of the McKay Scholarship program. After hits and misses (including a school with unlicensed, abusive teachers!), the social worker intervened to help guide Mary toward the school where Sam is currently happy and supported by caring teachers.

What does Mary and Sam’s journey teach us? For one, the social worker was Mary’s anchor, always there to support her and Sam, always there to provide guidance on the types of resources and school that would fit Sam’s needs. We also see a web that was not always fully supportive for her and for Sam. Through Mary and Sam’s journey, though, they developed the full constellation of relationships that they both need to thrive in school and in life. As we suggest in Choices and Challenges, states could design and fund a deeper set of resources and opportunities for relationships that could have resulted in Mary and Sam’s reaching their destination sooner.

Relationships are central to who we are, who we become, and how we travel through life. When thinking about the design and implementation of policies, decision-makers should consider more intentionally how relationships are implicated in the hoped for impacts.

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