Starting with the PlayConnect Facilitator, we will now outline some of the practical considerations for those facilitating a PlayConnect group. We will take apart the role of the Facilitator and what this should actually ‘look like’ on the ground.
A PlayConnect Playgroup Development Worker works directly with families attending a local PlayConnect Playgroup. The PlayConnect Playgroup Development Worker’s role includes:
- Develop and implement a supportive playgroup for young children (0-6 years) with ASD or ASD-like traits and their families, inclusive of play-based activities and learning experiences that are responsive to the needs of the children and their
- Support families by providing opportunities for parents and carers of children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics to foster social networks and support each
- Provide families with appropriate information regarding other early intervention services, relevant family support services and agencies within their local community
- Foster positive working relationships with local service providers and partnering organisations
- Promote community and professional awareness of the PlayConnect program
- Meet other organisational requirements, including: Collecting data and preparing local evaluation reports as required; participating in training and professional development activities; Adhering to relevant policies and procedures, including duty of care.
At first glance this list of roles can appear intimidating and non-specific. Let’s consider what these roles actually require and how the Facilitator can best respond to them.
Develop and implement a supportive playgroup for young children with ASD or ASD-like traits and their families, inclusive of play-based activities and learning experiences that are responsive to the needs of the children and their families.
Essentially, this is at the heart of the program. Below we will break this down into some smaller elements and how best to approach each component.
- Developing and implementing a playgroup routine and structure
- Supporting the development of children through purposefully planned play-based activities.
- Determining and implementing transition strategies between activities
- Creating an appropriate physical environment
Because this is such a significant element of the PlayConnect Facilitator’s role, we have also developed a Development and Play for Children with ASD guide within this toolkit. Thisdocument will outline some specific strategies and tools, as wellasprovidesomemorepertinentbackground.
Developing and implementing a supportive playgroup routine and structure
While most playgroups will follow an established routine, it is important to recognise that children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics tend to have a preference for sameness and predictable routines. As such, it is particularly important for PlayConnect playgroups to have a well- established routine and structure.This consistency is likely to allow participants to feel more comfortable and encourage their engagement, as well as supporting continued attendance.
Most sessions of any playgroup will include indoor play, snack time, outdoor play and group time, or any (many) combinations of these.
Below is an example of a routine that may be appropriate, though this will depend on the venue and specific needs of participants.
Sometimes it may be necessary to change the routine of the group. When introducing change, do so gradually. This can be achieved by using similar materials in slightly different ways. Supporting the transition between activities is an important consideration when providing for children withASD.
A key role of a PlayConnect Facilitator is to develop a program of planned play activities for each PlayConnect session. These play activities fall into several, often overlapping, categories:indoor play;outdoor play;sensory play; craft activities; music time; and story time. The activities within these categories of play should work to address one or more the developmental domains of play that is a particular suite of developmental outcomes. Confused yet?
Refer to our Development and Play for Children with ASD guide within this toolkit. This will explain these concepts in much more detail and provide direction to appropriate play activities.
Determining and implementing transition strategies between activities
Transition to a new environment requires the use of social and communication skills. For a child with ASD or ASD-like traits these transitions can be very stressful and anxiety provoking experiences. Transition planning provides a greater opportunity for those with ASD to be successful and helps prevent behavioural issues that are a result of unexpected change, anxiety and/or phobia. Preparation and consistency are key when supporting a transition to a new environment.
Being consistent in providing direction will, over time, help children understand when is time to change activities or pack up. We have put together some strategies to support transitions, which can again be found in our Development and P lay for Children with ASD guide.
For children with ASD or ASD-like traits the physical space in which the playgroup is run is very important. A well planned and structured play environment allows children with ASD or ASD-like traits to focus on the relevant information in the environment and get the most out of their play experience.
The space should be set up with clear physical boundaries for different areas to allow each separate activity to be conducted in its own independent space. This may involve the use of carpets or furniture to segment space, even tape on the floor may be used to delineate space. Clearly defined boundaries help the children grasp the function of the specific space (I. e. what to do there) and allow them to better focus on a specific task.
Refer to our Development and Play for Children with ASD guide for more information.
Increase opportunities for parents and carers of children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics to foster social networks and support each other.
One of the key facets of the PlayConnect program is the provision of support to families. It is important that the program Facilitator should work to develop positive relationships with both children and parents and to encourage communication between parents. These social connections are vital for families within the PlayConnect playgroups. They provide support to families, who are often experiencing stress and social isolation, and promote community and social connectedness.
While this seems straight forward enough, there are some key steps to facilitate the development of these relationships.
- Make new families feel welcome. Greet family members as they arrive and show them around. Introduce them to other families. Explain the basicroutinesandexpectationsofthe Ask about their child’s interests and guide them to the activities they like most. Wear name tags until people are familiar with each other. Have a brochure or welcoming letter prepared for new families. Be sure they know they will be welcomed back next week.
- Remain Welcoming. Welcoming shouldn’t last for just one week. Actively include new members beyond their first weeks. Be watchful for those that may feel left out at playgroup. A friendly smile and chat could make an enormous difference to their playgroup experience.
- Build and maintain a positive group culture. A quality playgroup is a safe place that nurturesthewell-beingofadultsandTo create an encouraging,supportive environment, interactions need to be nurturing, caring, friendly, relaxed, non-threatening, non-judgemental and fun. Develop a culture that celebrates these things. Ensure each person’s unique participation and contribution is respected, acknowledged and appreciated. When setting up a group work with members to establish some guidelines around the behaviour expectations and group rules.
- Identify common interests between Work to foster relationships between families. Identify commonalities between families, whether this be the area they live in, their experiences with their children, their work, their interests. Encourage conversation and discussion.
- Seek feedback. A great way to determine how people are feeling about their playgroup experience is to ask them. Periodically talk with longer term participant families and after a few weeks’ chat with new families.
- Follow up. Contact new families after their firstattendancetomakethemfeel If a regularly attending family is absent follow up. Ensure group members feel valued and ‘part of something’ within the group.
Their needs are being met at playgroup.
The play activities are appropriate for their child
They have any concerns and how they think they could be addressed
There is anything about the playgroup they would like to change
They have any ideas or contributions to make playgroup more fun for everyone.
Sometimes families may come through groups that are displaying signs of distress and anxiety. They may find solace in confiding with the Facilitator, or with the group, about situations that are taking place in their life such as a marriage breakdown, struggles coping with diagnosis or the news of multiple diagnoses within a family. As a Facilitator, it is ok to ask them if they are ok, listen to their concerns and provide them information on suitable supports and services available.
Remember to maintain professional boundaries and acknowledge the limitations of knowledge and/or experience.
- Listen quietly and recognisefeelings. If a family vents at a group session about a situation such as a communication breakdown in a marriage, listen quietly and allow them to speak. Avoid offering drastic advice, blaming or attacking other parties simply listen and reflect back their feelings during pauses. “I can hear that you are feeling frustrated, angry or confused”
- Offer information on support and practical advice. Facilitators are not counsellors or psychologistssowhereapersonmayrequire additional support, give them information on suitable supports as necessary. This can include speaking to their local GP who can refer them to a counsellor or psychologist (some free sessions available through Medicare) or contacting other services please see additional servicessection)
- Empower people to make choices. As tempting as it can be to tell people how they should fix their problems or do everything for them, it is far more important to empower people with their own set of options where they are able to make decisions as to what is a suitable strategy to support their circumstances.
- Contact your state STO’s If you are ever unsureonwhattodoinasituationorfeel you need to debrief, contact your state/ territory coordinator immediately they are there to support you in your role
The boundaries of a PlayConnect Facilitator’s role
When dealing with families with complex support and communication needs it can become difficult to remember the limitation of your role. Try to remember that a PlayConnect Facilitator:
- Is not expected to provide 1:1 counselling/support.
- Is not expected to make assessments regarding therapeutic requirements for individual children
- Does not make recommendations regarding therapeutic intervention
- Is not required to provide opinions about individual service providers
It is also important to remember that supporting families extends beyond just supporting parents of primary carers. The PlayConnect program strives to support all family members. While this clearly includes parents and the child with ASD or ASD- like traits, siblings and extended families can often be overlooked especially by other service providers. A key role of PlayConnect is to take a holistic approach to family and ensure that the needs of all members are considered and supported.
Often siblings of a child with additional needs demonstrate tolerance, compassion and maturity well beyond their years. However, this is not to say this is an easy role for them to fill. Some children will experience mixed feelings. On the one hand, they feel loving and protective toward their sibling, but at the same time some siblings may feel more difficult feelings such as resentment, fear, guilt, embarrassment and sorrow. As children, they are likely to lack the understanding, emotional maturity and coping skills required to deal with their experiences. As a result, they can feel isolated and confused and become ‘at risk’ for a range of mental and physical health problems of their own, which can continue into adulthood.
At PlayConnect it is important to support siblings so their adjustment can become more positive. Through support siblings will often show inspiration, competence, resilience and independence leading to improved self-esteem. Some ways to support siblings at PlayConnect are listed below:
- Include activities and games specially designed for siblings
- Celebrate relationships, achievements and milestones
- Be there when they want to talk about their feelings
- Share with parent’s ideas and activities that siblings can be part of
- Acknowledge sibling’s emotions and needs
- Create a safe environment
- Give siblings opportunities to connect with peers
Supporting grandparents and other carers
Within the PlayConnect setting, in addition to parents and siblings there may also be grandparentsorothercareproviderspresent. Often,grandparentsareimportantsourcesof supporttochildrenwithdisabilitiesandtheir families. This support will vary from family to family, but may include financial and emotional support and often direct caring support for the child with the disability.
As grandparents and carers rather than parents the needs of these carers may bequite different.
Grandparent carers may experience some of the following concerns and feelings:
- They may feel afraid and not quiteknow how to get help or get involved
- They may not fully understand therapies, diagnosis or the disability so may feel a level of anxiety and distress as to how to support their grandchild
- They may feel excluded from information networks available to parents
- Grandparents may be experiencing a mixture of emotions including fear,shock, disbelief, sadness and worry about their grandchild with a disability
Some ways to support grandparents at PlayConnect may include:
- Provide a welcoming environment
- Listen and support
- Offer information, linkages and referrals
- Take time to develop relationships
- Encourage grandparents to focus on the child, not the disability
- Provide information about grandparents support services
- Connect grandparents with other parents and grandparents
- Model and share activities, ideas and resources with grandparents and their grandchildren. Focus on strengths, connection and building capacity
It is important to recognise that these families will sometimes have additional challenges and barriers in accessing groups, services and supports for themselves and their child. These may include:
- Language barriers
- Racism or discrimination
- Cultural/religious obligations and customs
- Different interpretation or lack of awareness of support services
- Lack of identification as a carer by professionals, and subsequent lack of referrals due to the perceptions made about the carer’s role in their family
- Problems with the cultural appropriateness of assessment processes and eligibility criteria
- Lack of choice between mainstream and culturally-specific carer services, such as respite, carer counselling, and support groups
- Concerns about the cultural appropriateness and competency of services
- Lack of individual and systemic advocacy
- Lack of involvement in service planning, implementation and evaluation
- Lack of availability of bilingual and culturally and linguistically diverse staff
- Lack of carer information and resources translated into different languages and
- Issues relating to the quality of interpretation services.
It is important that Facilitators actively make space for families of vary in cultural backgrounds within the group. Strategies may include:
- Encouraging families to discuss their culture
- Sharing traditional foods and recipes; using toys with different skintones
- Sharing in traditional crafts
- Asking families that speak other languages to teach the group a simple song in that other language
- Using role play, dress up, home play, language games, dance and movement from different cultures
The support needs of CALD carers may also diverge slightly from other carers within your group. Some strategies to support CALD carers may include:
- Linkage and support to CALD support services
- Providing a welcoming environment
- Offering support and advice
- Being sensitive to diversity
- Taking time to develop relationships
- Making it visual:Remember that there are many ways of communicating, so even if someone has limited English they can still join in.