Haring Center

June 24, 2019

Centering Family Experiences

Unique student project provides valuable experience for future teachers

Providing family-centered care, when educators intentionally develop meaningful, reciprocal partnerships with caregivers with the goal of strengthening family functioning, is a critical practice in high-quality early learning programs. Yet, preparing future educators to effectively collaborate with families, especially those who have backgrounds that are different from their own, remains a challenge for many university teacher education programs. The UW College of Education special education program has developed a unique project for its students that is aimed at providing future educators with the opportunity to develop these important skills before they begin their teaching careers.

The Families as Mentors Program (FMP) is a required part of the coursework for all students who are earning a special education graduate degree from the College of Education. The goal of the FMP is to provide students with an authentic opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about the daily lives of families who have a child who is neurodiverse – to learn about family rituals and activities, family strengths and challenges, and to understand the unique experiences of families who have children with diverse needs and abilities. The UW is the only teacher preparation program in the country with an experiential family-centered project like this as a graduation requirement.

The FMP not only addresses core competencies for future educators, but supports an important mission of the College of Education, says Dr. Ariane Gauvreau, special education field director and instructor. “For a long time, the College of Education and the special education degree programs have prioritized equity in education. A huge part of this is centering the perspectives and lived experiences of families from diverse backgrounds, including neurodiverse families. The Families as Mentors Program is a systematic way to prepare family-centered educators, by exposing them to the daily lives of families. This gives students the chance to learn about family strengths and priorities, as well as the reality of the everyday lives of families. In particular, we think this experience is critical to help educators acknowledge and truly understand the balance required when parenting a neurodiverse child.”

The FMP, which has been a program requirement for early childhood special education (ECSE) graduate students for over 20 years and is now a requirement for all students in the special education teacher preparation programs, is a project that positions families as partners in teacher preparation programs, and considers them just as essential as the professors, field supervisors, and mentor teachers that students work with during their studies.

Over 9-month period, students are expected to join families in at least 5 different activities or experiences, such as doctor visits, therapy appointments, playground outings, or school meetings. An important aspect of the project is that it is family-driven, with families determining what they feel is most important for the student to learn and experience as part of their daily life. As a result, the experience for each student is highly individualized, based on the strengths, challenges, values, and beliefs of the family they partner with.

Gauvreau, as the director of the project, makes it a priority to partner with families who represent the diversity of our region. She works with local organizations such as the ARC of King County, parent support groups, and parent-teacher-student associations from school districts across King County to recruit families, and has received an incredible response. “Families are eager to participate in this project because they know the value of working with a teacher who has strong family-centered beliefs. Many of our mentor families tell us how they wish their child’s current teacher would have had the opportunity to do a project like this before they became a teacher We have been so fortunate to partner with a range of families, who have graciously opened their homes and communities to our students.”

As a result of her outreach and the strong reputation of the UW Families as Mentors Program, families from all over the area who represent diversity in family makeup, ethnicity, cultural and linguistic background, and child’s disability participate in the program. Many families volunteer as mentors year after year, with several families on their 7th consecutive year in the project.

Graduate students also recognize the value of this experience. Haley Fidler, a recent graduate of the Early Childhood Special Education master’s program, said “The Families as Mentors project was my favorite part of the entire two-year program. I got into this field because of how much I enjoy working with families, but it’s been several years since I had the opportunity to get to know a family outside the walls of a school on this level. This project was so meaningful and important, and I know I’ll use the perspective I gained from my partner family when I have my own classroom.”

At the culmination of the project, students submit a paper with a log that describes the different family activities they joined, as well as a summary of the important lessons they learned through their experiences with families. Gauvreau says that students consistently comment on the level of advocacy that neurodiverse families engage in. “We know that our families are constantly advocating for their kids, from advocating for an appropriate school placement or classroom support, to advocating for their child to be able to join a community class or lesson that their sibling can go to but they can’t. Our students have told us that they didn’t realize just how much families must advocate for their children on a regular basis. Entering the teaching workforce understanding this important aspect of parenting a neurodiverse child is crucial for special educators.”

Another common insight from the project is the student’s realization of the amount of balance required for families of neurodiverse children. Fidler notes that this was a main takeaway from her FMP experience, as well. “I knew that, as a student, I had a busy schedule. But, I quickly realized that my mentor family had multiple priorities and schedules to balance, and that really helped me understand where families are coming from. I immediately started to think about how I might adapt my future teaching to accommodate the needs of families, and make our classroom experiences meaningful to them and not just another box that they had to check off”.

Gauvreau says this is an important goal of the FMP experience. “We want to help future educators learn that it is their job to be part of the solution when providing support to families, not add to the endless list of responsibilities and tasks that parents are juggling.”

Providing family-centered care, when educators intentionally develop meaningful, reciprocal partnerships with caregivers with the goal of strengthening family functioning, is a critical practice in high-quality early learning programs. Yet, preparing future educators to effectively collaborate with families, especially those who have backgrounds that are different from their own, remains a challenge for many university teacher education programs. The UW College of Education special education program has developed a unique project for its students that is aimed at providing future educators with the opportunity to develop these important skills before they begin their teaching careers.

The Families as Mentors Program (FMP) is a required part of the coursework for all students who are earning a special education graduate degree from the College of Education. The goal of the FMP is to provide students with an authentic opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about the daily lives of families who have a child who is neurodiverse – to learn about family rituals and activities, family strengths and challenges, and to understand the unique experiences of families who have children with diverse needs and abilities. The UW is the only teacher preparation program in the country with an experiential family-centered project like this as a graduation requirement.

The FMP not only addresses core competencies for future educators, but supports an important mission of the College of Education, says Dr. Ariane Gauvreau, special education field director and instructor. “For a long time, the College of Education and the special education degree programs have prioritized equity in education. A huge part of this is centering the perspectives and lived experiences of families from diverse backgrounds, including neurodiverse families. The Families as Mentors Program is a systematic way to prepare family-centered educators, by exposing them to the daily lives of families. This gives students the chance to learn about family strengths and priorities, as well as the reality of the everyday lives of families. In particular, we think this experience is critical to help educators acknowledge and truly understand the balance required when parenting a neurodiverse child.”

The FMP, which has been a program requirement for early childhood special education (ECSE) graduate students for over 20 years and is now a requirement for all special education degree programs, is a project that positions families as partners in teacher preparation programs, and considers them just as essential as the professors, field supervisors, and mentor teachers that students work with during their studies.

Over a nine-month period, students are expected to join families in at least 5 different activities or experiences, such as doctor visits, therapy appointments, playground outings, or school meetings. An important aspect of the project is that it is family-driven, with families determining what they feel is most important for the student to learn and experience as part of their daily life. As a result, the experience for each student is highly individualized, based on the strengths, challenges, values, and beliefs of the family they partner with.

Gauvreau, as the director of the project, makes it a priority to partner with families who represent the diversity of our region. She works with local organizations such as the ARC of King County, parent support groups, and parent-teacher-student associations from school districts across King County to recruit families, and has received an incredible response. “Families are eager to participate in this project because they know the value of working with a teacher who has strong family-centered beliefs. Many of our partner families tell us how they wish their child’s current teacher would have had the opportunity to do a project like this before they became a teacher.”

As a result of her outreach and the strong reputation of the UW Families as Mentors Program, families from all over the area who represent diversity in family makeup, ethnicity, cultural and linguistic background, and child’s disability participate in the program. Many families volunteer as mentors year after year, with several families on their 7th consecutive year in the project.

Graduate students also recognize the value of this experience. Haley Fidler, a recent graduate of the ECSE master’s program, said “The Families as Mentors project was my favorite part of the entire two-year program. I got into this field because of how much I enjoy working with families, but it’s been several years since I had the opportunity to get to know a family outside the walls of a school on this level. This project was so meaningful and important, and I know I’ll use the perspective I gained from my partner family when I have my own classroom.”

At the culmination of the project, students submit a paper with a log that describes the different family activities they joined, as well as a summary of the important lessons they learned through their experiences with families. Gauvreau says that students consistently comment on the level of advocacy that neurodiverse families engage in. “We know that our families are constantly advocating for their kids, from advocating for an appropriate school placement or classroom support, to advocating for their child to be able to join a community class or lesson that their sibling can go to but they can’t. Our students have told us that they didn’t realize just how much families advocate for their children on a regular basis.”

Another common insight from the project is the student’s realization of the amount of balance required for families of neurodiverse children. Fidler notes that this was a main takeaway from her FMP experience, as well. “I knew that, as a student, I had a busy schedule. But, I quickly realized that my partner family had multiple priorities and schedules to balance, and that really helped me understand where families are coming from. I immediately started to think about how I might adapt my future teaching to accommodate the needs of families, and make our classroom experiences meaningful to them and not just another box that they had to check off.”

Gauvreau says this is an important goal of the FMP experience. “We want to help future educators learn that it is their job to be part of the solution when providing support to families, not add to their burden.”

For more information on the Families as Mentors Program, contact Dr. Ariane Gauvreau.