SPECIAL REPORT: EDUCATION

Rainbows United overcomes challenge of hands-off work with special-needs infants and toddlers 

By Kirk Seminoff 
Associate Editor, Wichita Business Journal 

You think you have had it tough working remotely during Covid-19? Think about the challenge of working with babies and toddlers who are developmentally delayed as part of Rainbows United's early intervention program.

Where before mid-March those educators were sitting on the floor, teaching and laughing with babies and toddlers and their parents, those meetings are now restricted to half-hour video get-togethers.

"I do miss my toddler hugs and being able to be right there with them," said Mindy Brockmeyer, an early childhood special education teacher for infants and toddlers with Rainbows United in Sedgwick County.

Rainbows offers early intervention services to more than 1,000 children and their families in Sedgwick, Butler and Sumner counties. Services in Sumner County began last week.

Children from birth to age 3 are identified with a developmental delay in one or more areas and assigned to special education teachers and specialists in areas such as physical therapy or speech pathology. In-home visits usually last an hour, where the educator works with the parents as much as the child, teaching techniques that work on development.

But once Covid-19 started showing up in Kansas in mid-March, Rainbows United leadership quickly made the move to teletherapy. With educators seeing as many as seven or eight families in a day, there was a need to end any risk of possibly spreading the virus.

"I've had to literally let go of the child," said Angela Pulaski, a Butler County-based physical therapist in Rainbows' infants/toddlers program. "So maybe I'll have mom or dad show me what they're doing (via video), and I might tell them, 'What if we try it with your hand here or hand there?'"

Pulaski laughs and says there are times during virtual meetings that she'll notice her own hands moving and twisting, as if she could reach through the computer screen to work with the child.

Rainbows' program model, similar to other associated programs around Kansas, is to teach the parents to be the coach's child instead of relying on the educator.

"What it's done is made us all better at communication," said Alexia Foster, a infant/toddler services coordinator in Sedgwick County. "I have to be purposeful with my conversations because you can't catch people as they're walking down the hallway. Then for our staff, they have to verbalize their thinking when interacting with a family instead of just reaching out and doing." 

But the hands-off result of online-only meetings has actually, in many cases, accelerated the amount of learning by parents that turns into teaching with their children.

"The staffer would have normally done something that would have engaged the child, but now the staffer has to tell the parent how to engage and interact," Foster said. "That works out great because the parent has learned a new way to engage."

Other challenges were created by moving to teletherapy. Not all familes have sufficient wireless setups, and some parents with multiple children must carve time into their schedules to focus only on the virtual meeting.

Even so, Brockmeyer says, parents have become even more invested because of teletherapy. There's no hands-on teaching by the educator — the parent is solely responsible for coaching the infant or toddler.

"Parents are pretty good reporters," Brockmeyer said. "If you ask a parent whether their child can do something, they'll know right away whether they can or not."

For the educators, initial hesitance because of being unable to be on the floor working with children has turned into some advantages, and some disadvantages.

"The interesting thing about providers in the infant/toddler program is because they can do six, seven, eight visits a day, they're all about being up and moving," Foster said. "They're in the home, on the floor, moving around with the toddler, then they're in the car and on to the next home.

"Now I'm hearing complaints about having to sit still for so long. It's difficult for anybody in my department to sit for too long in one spot. It's exhausting in a different way."

With Covid-19 cases again on the rise in the Wichita area, there's been no timeline given educators and parents on when in-home visits might begin again. For Brockmeyer and other teachers, they would gladly give up some new-found perks for some old ones.

"Not having a commute is nice," she said, "but once I can get out with families again, the commute will be worth it."