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Para eLink: Where Minnesota's Paraprofessionals Learn Online
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EC-K3: Awareness of health care providers, social services and other resources available in the community to assist families.

EC-K4: Understanding of the paraprofessionalís role in enhancing interactions between parent(s) and child by using and demonstrating effective techniques and materials to stimulate cognitive, physical, social and speech/language development under the direction of a licensed professional.

EC-S4: Ability to communicate and work effectively with parents, primary caregivers, and education team (IFSP, IIIP, and IEP) members to meet the needs of the child and family.

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Basic ConceptFamily Systems Theory

A father looks at a computer with his two children.Paraprofessionals and other educators working in early childhood settings must recognize that it is impossible to separate children from the context of the family, the community, and society as a whole. Children are a part of everyday life, and this integration is better understood from the perspective of family systems theory. Family systems theory helps us understand several things about children and families. First, we can see how various individuals function within a family. Second, we can observe how the family interacts with individuals and outside agencies. It is crucial that we understand the systems of each family so that we can provide the most beneficial services. The rest of this lesson will describe the basic principles of family systems theory.

The Family is Like a Mobile

A mobile is a collection of objects that are in constant motion within a framework. A family is the most versatile, ever-changing “mobile” that ever existed—it is a living mobile, made up of human personalities. When one part of the “mobile” moves, changes occur throughout the entire family. Because people are always growing and changing, the family mobile must adapt to the needs of individual family members. The family’s ability to make the necessary changes is very important for overall family health.

Families Develop Patterns of Interaction

Families develop and maintain dozens of patterns, including mealtime activities, holiday rituals, ways to manage feelings, and behavior with people or agencies outside of the family system. This pattern is often described as the family "dance." Individuals in the family learn the steps involved and move together in harmony. Many times, the birth of child or addition of another member—with or without disabilities—changes the steps in the family dance. A family may need help adjusting to changes in order to "dance" together again.

Beliefs Influence Others' Behavior

Families often have a set of beliefs that are conveyed to children. These beliefs may relate to how the family views the world in which they live. For instance, the world may be perceived as dangerous or safe or predictable or unpredictable. People outside of the family, such as early intervention service providers, may be trusted or mistrusted. These belief systems often span generations and may affect child-rearing practices and child behavior. For instance, some families may value independence in their children, while others may want all the family members to stick close together. These belief systems will have a powerful effect on the family's relationships with early care providers.

Families Are Part of a Larger Ecology

To truly understand children, we have to examine their ecology. Ecology means the interactions between individuals and their environment. The ecological system of a child includes the influences of culture, society, places, materials, and people inside and outside of the family. Each area has different levels of influence on the child. These areas include the microsystem], the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem.

A microsystem is a setting in which an infant or preschooler spends significant time. Examples are the home, family residence, child-care center, family home-daycare, preschool classroom, or hospital. Mesosystem refers to the interrelationships among the microsystems of which the child is a part at a particular point in his or her life. The mesosystem is made up of relationships between the child's parents (or primary caregivers) and physicians, teachers, or therapists. It also includes relationships between professionals who work with the family. The exosystem is composed of the concrete social structures that influence the activities of the microsystem. This may include local, state, and federal agencies, neighborhood and community groups, transportation systems, media, churches, public health organizations, and school systems. The macrosystem is the cultural, legislative, and judicial context in which the microsystems, macrosystems, and exosystems operate. It includes laws and legal issues, prevailing social attitudes, and ethical or moral principles and concerns.

It is clear from these descriptions of the family and the ecological system that early childhood care providers influence the life of a child on many levels. Paraprofessionals become an additional microsystem with the family and may have an impact on the child by providing direct care, communicating with parents and other care providers, becoming involved in their own or the child's community, advocating for children, being familiar with special education legislation, and approaching their work with an understanding of the family's ecological system.

Information in this lesson is used with permission from:

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32(7), 513-529.

Rush, K. (1999). Early childhood: The role of the paraprofessional. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration.


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