9 Ways Home Visitors Can Support Parents with Cognitive Disabilities

What are the best ways for home visitors to support parents with developmental delays as they become confident and competent caregivers? Adapted from The Art and Practice of Home Visiting by Ruth Cook & Shirley Sparks, today’s post outlines nine key points to keep in mind when working with parents who have cognitive disabilities. Home visitors, keep this list handy as you help these caregivers bond with their children and develop strong parenting skills.

Determine what’s really important. Parents with cognitive disabilities cannot be expected to focus on the development of parenting skills if they haven’t yet learned to manage their basic needs. As a home visi­tor, you may have to begin by helping these parents plan budgets and connect with available community resources to secure trans­portation and attend to medical needs. Safety for themselves and their child should be at the top of the priority list. Is food being prepared and stored properly? Are doors and latches secured? Are toxic clean­ing materials stored away from little fingers?

Coordinate help. Find out which agencies are extending help to these families. If there are several, assist in the development of a collabora­tive intervention plan. Be mindful that these parents may not want to be labeled in a way that promotes special services for them.

Guide parents in interpreting their child’s behavior. It is easy for parents with cognitive disabilities to misinterpret their children’s behavior and see them as “bad children.” Help parents understand the behaviors they may observe in young children and what their child may be communicating through challenging behavior.

Avoid lengthy explanations. Be brief and clear. Parents with intellec­tual disabilities may have difficulty with abstract thinking, problem solving, and exercising good judgment. Demonstrate, model, and repeat the behaviors that you want the parents to learn. Use concrete methods. Whenever possible, have the parents practice in front of you so that you can offer corrective feedback and make positive comments about their progress. Break down tasks and use visual cues such as pictures and charts.

For more ideas and inspiration, read this post on
Promoting Developmentally Supportive Parenting.

Require little or no reading. Get to know the literacy level of the par­ents to provide resources that can be useful to them. Help them ask their questions and answer them in short sentences.

Make frequent, brief contacts. Telephone calls will likely be more effec­tive than written notes or emails to these families. Consider that the attention span and memories of the parents may be briefer than those of others.

Model appropriate parent–child interaction. Physically point out infant cues and model responsive behavior. Teach parents simple games such as Peek-a-Boo so they can more readily become involved with their child.

Help parents develop their children’s motor skills!

Share these Playful Ways to Support 7 Fine Motor Skills in Babies and Toddlers.

Consider how much family support is available. If the parents are from a background of poverty, fewer family resources may be avail­able to offer assistance. Never assume that just because there is a large, extended family, resources are available. A family’s potential network might be “worn out” or dysfunctional.

Build social networks. Parents with cognitive delays often have smaller friendship networks and rely more on family for social support, if the family is able to provide it. Find appropriate social support groups and encourage parents to become involved. You might refer them to the Disabled Parenting Project (DPP), an online space for sharing experiences, advice, and conversations among parents with disabilities as well as those considering parenthood.

As Cook & Sparks observe, “Parents with low cognitive skills love their children with the same intensity as other parents. This love can provide a powerful motivating force to learn and be as responsible as possible.” Use the tips in today’s post to support the caregivers you work with, and get the book for more essential guidance on home visiting.

The Art and Practice of Home Visiting, Second Edition

By Ruth E. Cook, Ph.D., & Shirley N. Sparks, M.S., CCC-SLP

Presenting a collaborative, family-centered approach to home visiting, Cook and Sparks prepare professionals to form respectful, productive partnerships with caregivers. Home visitors will get in-depth guidance on complex issues, including implementing evidence-based practice; providing trauma-informed care; and addressing challenges with sleep, feeding, and behavior.

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