Supporting Parents of Children with Special Needs

At the Watson Institute, we share the goal of our students’ parents – helping their child succeed. We know that in order for our students to be successful, we also need to support their families. One of the ways we do this is through our parent support groups.

Parent Support Groups at Watson

Nearly 30 years ago, the Watson Institute’s social workers started a parent support group at our school in Sewickley. They were looking for ways to support parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in our program and thought bringing everyone together would be a great way to share resources and ideas.

The group has evolved as our programs have expanded to serve children with a broader scope of diagnoses and with the opening of locations such as the Education Center South; yet the core purpose remains the same: sharing resources and providing support for one another.

Despite the name, groups are not limited to parents; extended family members are also welcomed as they are often directly involved in the lives of our students.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, support for families is even more critical as they have been managing major changes to their child’s routine and remote education.

Impact of Support Groups on Parents of Children with Special Needs

Over the years we’ve heard from parents that the support groups have had a positive impact on them, personally, and in their role as parents.

“Groups give parents a comfortable environment to learn and to connect with other parents with shared concerns.” says Charlene Zlokas, the Family Service Coordinator at the Watson Institute’s LEAP Preschool program.

As the old proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child” and that phrase couldn’t be truer for the parents of children with special needs. Oftentimes, caring for a child with a disability can be an isolating experience. A child’s needs are unique to them and many times parents can feel like they are going through it alone or can’t find resources that relate to their situation.

One of the main benefits of the parent support groups at the Watson Institute is the sense of community the families who participate get from each other.

Prior to the pandemic, parent groups often met monthly during the school year, with Watson Institute social workers and the Family Service Coordiantor organizing and leading the groups.

Some months the parent groups host a guest speaker who will address relevant topics, while other months Watson staff members such as Speech, Occupational, and Physical therapists from the Watson Institute to cover specific topics and to teach parents how they can continue to work with their child at home on their therapy goals.

Over the years, the groups have welcomed guest speakers such as county officials to provide information about accessing resources, employees of human service agencies, adult care providers, and secondary transition coordinators.

When guests speakers are not on the agenda, parents in the groups are encouraged to talk about resources they’ve used and their experiences with one another to start a dialogue on the topics that are important to them.

Lorie Turian, a Social Worker at the Education Center South, says that they welcome feedback from the parents involved in the groups and encourages them to raise questions to help inform the topics discussed in each meeting.

Building a Community for Parents

When asked why she thinks the parent groups are important for families, Ms. Turian shared that this group can offer a sense of belonging and community. “Our families may have shared experiences and challenges raising a child with special needs and the group provides them with a comfortable place to discuss what they are going through.”

Parents and families are encouraged to connect with one another outside of the group setting, which can be especially valuable for a parent who may have to miss a gathering from time to time.

Sal Schlieper, a Social Worker at the Education Center Sewickley, recognizes how important these groups are to her and her colleagues at Watson too. “At a school and as social workers, we know that we don’t just work with the students.” They also have the opportunity to get to know these families on a more personal level.

“To have the best outcome, parents, guardians, and the people who support them are the most important part of a student’s success.”

Maintaining Connections Remotely

Throughout the pandemic, Watson’s educators and social workers maintained close contact with the families of our students, providing support and resources to help their child continue learning at home. Social workers at the Education Centers in Sewickley and Bridgeville heard from many families about the challenges of transitioning their child from in-person learning to remote learning and knew they wanted to help.

The idea to host virtual parent support groups came from a Watson parent and took off from there. The team of social workers at the Education Centers set up a series of video support group calls as well as a group messaging chat for families who were looking to stay connected with the social workers.

families of students at Watson gather for a parent support group brunch in the decorated cafeteria
This photo was taken at a Parents’ Group Brunch in May 2019

The group video calls were a hit with the families and even a few students joined in on the calls at times to say ‘hello’! “I think the parents really appreciated being able to share with one another.” said Ms. Turian.

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