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Tips for Coaching Caregivers: How to Increase Caregiver Engagement

Parent/caregiver engagement and participation is crucial to the success of the parent coaching approach. But occasionally you may meet a family that appears disengaged during therapy sessions. In this post you’ll learn how to increase parent/caregiver engagement in your parent coaching sessions.

Picture of a father and his child playing together. The child is sat on the dad's shoulders. The child is looking down. Both are visibly happy.

What is parent coaching?

Parent coaching (aka. coaching, or caregiver coaching) is a well-established evidence-based approach often used in early intervention.  Coaching is a capacity-building approach which is used to support parents and caregivers to learn and develop knowledge and kills that support their child’s development in a range of areas. It is a collaborative approach; the therapist and parent/caregiver work together to support the child, as opposed to the therapist working directly with the child.  Caregiver coaching has been shown to be effective across a variety of contexts, settings, and with a variety of individuals (Rush and Shelden, 2020).
To learn more about the strong evidence base around parent coaching, check out the Early Intervention Handbook, available from my TpT store.

Why is caregiver engagement important in parent coaching?

Parent/caregiver participation during coaching sessions is crucial to success.  The child is with their parents/caregivers for far longer than they are with the therapist, so the parent/caregiver needs to be actively engaged in the session in order to learn the necessary skills and strategies to support their child.  The more engaged and involved a parent/caregiver is, the more likely it is that they will use the skills and strategies after the session when the therapist is not there.

However, the levels of engagement and participation from parents/caregivers can vary significantly from family to family (or that is the typical perception).  As professionals, it is our responsibility to reflect on the reasons behind this perceived disengement and to work with parents/caregivers to find a solution and a way forward that works for them and their family.  Since, as we know, every family is unique.

Picture of a mother on a laptop while her child is sat on the sofa, upside down, next to her. Demonstrating how parents can be disengaged in parent coaching sessions.

What does a lack of engagement look like in parent coaching sessions?

Rush and Shelden (2020) explain that “disengagement has been described as parents either doing nothing at all during the visit or focusing on other activities rather than involving themselves with the child and the practitioner”.

Examples of perceived disengagement include sitting on the sofa, doing other household tasks, interacting with other children or adults, using their phone, etc. Does any of that sound familiar to you? I’ve definitely had sessions where parents/caregivers have been on their phone more than they’ve engaged with me. Tbh, as a newer SLT (SLP) I struggled to address that, but now I’m more… seasoned, shall we say… I feel much more confident in addressing these “behaviours” in the session, so we can move forward together.

How to increase caregiver engagement in parent coaching sessions

Usually, when parents/caregivers appear disengaged during therapy sessions, there is a reason. It is our responsibility as therapists to work with parents/caregivers to get to the root of the problem, and re-engage them in sessions.  It may be an ongoing process, rather than a quick-fix. However, even small increases in the amount of caregiver engagement during parent coaching sessions is positive for the child.

So, if you’re working with some parents/caregivers that are difficult to engage, here are some things you can do to increase caregiver engagement in your parent coaching sessions.

In the session itself:

  • Enquire about how they are feeling. Kindly ask whether they need to reschedule or if they’re happy to continue.  Be kind and positive when talking. Show understanding and empathy for their individual situation, even though it may feel frustrating for you at the time.
  • If they’re happy to continue with the session- Discuss with them what the plan for the session was. Remind them of the importance of their involvement in the session. Check if they understand your individual roles in the parent coaching sessions and why this matters.
  • Encourage the parent/caregiver to reflect on the situation- Ask whether the planned activity still works for them, is it something they’d usually do, is there something else they’d rather work on instead?  Problem solve together to reach a solution.
  • Respond positively to their contributions and affirm them throughout your discussion.

You as a therapist should consider:

  • How involved was the caregiver when you set the plan/activity in the session?  Are you effectively joint planning, or did you take the lead?
  • Is the activity something they would be doing as part of their daily routine, or have you suggested a novel activity that they’re struggling to relate to?  If it isn’t part of their usual routine, it may be helpful to discuss their daily routine with the parent/caregiver, and together identify activities which may be more appropriate.
  • Have you been actively encouraging the parent/caregiver to be involved, or have you inadvertently taken a more direct approach with the child?
  • Does the parent/caregiver truly understand the coaching approach? Have you been clear with your roles and expectations for the sessions? If not, make time to revisit this in your next session.
  • Have you developed a positive working relationship with the parent/caregiver?

(Tips based on own clinical experience and adapted from guidance shared by Rush and Shelden, 2020)

These considerations are important because when activities are not realistic or familiar to the family, then the likelihood of them engaging in the sessions, and practising in between visits, is low. Regularly reflecting on your sessions and the plan, both with the parent/caregiver, and on your own, means you are keeping aligned with their priorities and following best practices for parent coaching.  Win, win.

For more ideas and tips for delivering effective parent coaching sessions, check out this 4-part mini-series.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful.  Have you encountered this challenging situation before? How did you proceed? Let me know in the comments!

Rush, D.D., and Shelden M.L. (2020). ‘The Early Childhood Coaching Handbook’, 2nd ed. Paul H Brookes Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD.