Staff As Facilitators

Hear from Experienced Families

The control and flexibility to individualize supports brings families to choose FMS. This means that families organize supports in different ways that match their circumstances, their family’s values, and a person’s ways of getting things done. There is no single right way to discover, welcome and guide staff, but experienced families have learned lessons worth heeding.

A vision and a plan define and animate staff member responsibilities

Developing a vision brings awareness of what makes life rich and meaningful for a person. The plan identifies what it takes for a person to be immersed in the inclusive pathways that realize the vision. This is the context for defining staff member responsibilities and animating staff in performing their duties.

If not clearly connected to the family vision, staff member responsibilities can begin to seem routine and so done mindlessly. Showing up at 6:30 AM every work day to make sure a person leaves home ready for a good day at work can become rote unless the staff member recognizes the good life at work they are helping to make possible. This broadens the task so that conversation about the day’s possibilities, problem solving, and maybe a bit of relationship coaching enlivens the morning routine. Disconnection from the vision can also make staff too timid. When the going gets tough while prospecting for career expanding opportunities, clarity of vision energizes the next try; disconnection permits giving up.

No matter how carefully a job description is drafted, no matter how clearly the vision is explained when a new staff member is oriented, families have found that continuing conversation is necessary to communicate the vision and reinforce staff member responsibilities for doing their everyday work in the spirit of the vision. Orienting staff to family values and preferred ways of working strengthens their understanding of why the vision and plan are as they are. Regularly debriefing what comes up in their work brings vision alive in the details of the work and allows situation specific guidance or problem solving.

Facilitation makes an FMS-funded job distinctive

Human service work usually involves doing things to people with developmental disabilities or doing things for them. In providing typical services, staff follow a service plan approved by professional experts and carry out prescribed tasks either to supervise a person in planned activities or to provide assistance to them. The job typically reflects what one person now supported through FMS disapprovingly calls “the caregiver mentality”.

Supporting a person to benefit from immersion in inclusive community pathways is a different kind of work. The core of the job is facilitation: making it possible for the person to participate fully and build relationships in places and roles that have meaning for them.

Some responsibilities bring staff into direct contact with the people and places a person interacts with at work or as a member of a community group. Other responsibilities assure that the person is fully prepared for participation. Depending on individual needs and family instructions, staff may:

  • Scout for new opportunities: a job that offers the next step in a person’s career; a community group that matches an interest; a great place to hang out, meet new people and enjoy karaoke; someone they can learn a useful skill from.
  • Open doors: connect the person with opportunities for engagement in work, education and community life.
  • Assure that a person crosses the threshold of a chosen place and mindfully facilitate relationships. This often involves mindfully stepping back to make room for relationships to develop.
  • Help the person take the next steps toward belonging and friendship and sustain a schedule of social contact with others who matter to them.
  • Support others to welcome and include the person by example, by offering respectful interpretation, by negotiating accommodations.
  • Help the person make sense of difficulties, support problem solving and offer coaching.
  • Provide necessary assistance with personal and household routines with an active awareness of the social context. Talking about who will share the lunchtime for which they are packing the food; who would enjoy coming over to share the space they have just finished cleaning together.

When a person is supported by more than one worker many families have found regular meetings with all workers a useful way to update each other, reflect together on events and problem solve. These meetings keep facilitation responsibilities in the foreground.When there are multiple workers, some families have defined a team leader role. Team leader responsibilities can include managing the schedule, orienting and training new staff and coaching staff in their responsibilities for relationship facilitation.

Good hiring decisions are critical

To hire effectively families need to decide how they will answer at least five questions about a potential staff member.

  • Is this person trustworthy and do they have good judgment?
  • Is this person open to serving the family vision and plan?
  • Does this person have, or can they develop, a network of connections relevant to their responsibilities?
  • Does this person have, or can they learn, the knowledge and skills necessary to carry out their part of the plan?
  • Does the person this prospective staff member will support feel that they are acceptable and that a good relationship is possible?

Families have a variety of strategies for making these decisions. The process begins with clarity about role and expectations. Exactly what do we want this staff member to contribute to implementing the plan? Who and what should a staff member with these responsibilities know or demonstrate ability to learn? What might we ask this person that will allow them to show their capacity for good judgment and other qualities we want in a staff member? What questions should we ask those who provide the potential staff member’s references? Is there someone else in our network we can ask to be part of the selection process?

Considering the best way for the person with developmental disabilities to be involved in the decision is essential. This depends on family knowledge of what works to enable the person’s best judgment. Conversation with other family members after one or two coffee dates or shared activities gives some people access to their best assessment of whether a potential staff member is right for them. Playing an active role in the interview process works for others.

The family’s approach to recruiting also matters. Sometimes families find staff among people in the family network or by referral from family network members. Those who have assisted the person well at school or university* and their contacts are a good source. Others use Indeed or another job posting service. Over time, many families come to use both person-to-person referral and advertising. Some families look for people with disability service agency experience who are committed to inclusion. Many others put more weight on connections and openness to a vision of inclusion. They reason, for example, that a person looking to expand a career in media will be best served by someone already established in that world.

Plan for turnover

Many people who work as FMS funded staff find the work meaningful and the relationships rewarding but very few will make providing individualized support their career. There are several reasons for this. Most of the work is part time and often outside ordinary work hours. More often than not FMS funded work is only a part of the staff member’s income. Staff hired for their connections to a pathway of interest to a person have their own dreams to pursue when opportunities present themselves. Life unfolds as staff members go back to school, get married or take up new responsibilities.

Robin Acton: It’s always been a bit of a struggle to (establish) that staff are not there to be Erin’s paid friends. They are there to facilitate relationships with the people around her.

The loss of a good staff member can be difficult for the person they have supported and replacing them a source of anxiety for the family. When a person sees the staff member as a friend the loss can be more difficult, especially if the staff member doesn’t maintain contact after leaving. Most families make a point of emphasizing that the staff member is doing a job for pay and shouldn’t be considered a friend. A good match and sharing life often produces friendly feelings. Being friendly–welcoming, amiable, social– is appropriate but this is not the same a being a true friend. It’s by no means typical to pay a friend for their time.

Experience shows the importance of at least three responses to this relationship dilemma if it comes up:

  • Don’t let friendliness cover up staff member performance problems. It’s a breach of trust to ask a person to overlook persistent lateness in the name of friendship. It compromises staff member responsibility to facilitate relationships if the person and the staff member form the habit of simply hanging out together. Working these issues through can involve difficult conversations, especially if the person feels loyal to the staff member and enjoys what they do together.
  • Maintain and expand the person’s network and actively support a variety of friendships and relationships to increase resilience to loss.
  • When a staff member who has been close leaves, support the person by acknowledging the loss and offer help to work it through.

Families have developed a variety of ways that suit them to reduce the challenge of recruiting a new staff member:

  • They stay alert to identify potential staff (almost) everywhere they go. When they spot a promising candidate they may have a conversation about future possibilities.
  • They may offer a trial in the role by hiring a potential staff member to fill in for a limited time.
  • As part of the hiring process they may ask for a non-enforceable commitment to a year or more in the role.
  • They avoid rushing to fill a position. Letting anxiety lead to poor choices risks repeating the process too soon or tolerating poor performance too long. Sometimes this means filling in or doing without some forms of assistance for a time.

The Support Relationship is Complex

It takes focused attention and sustained effort to build and maintain good relationships and faithful friendships. Powerful social forces conspire to shape a slippery, uphill path to the diverse network of friends and connections that enable people with developmental disabilities to thrive.

Facilitating relationships is a core responsibility of staff, a responsibility that can make the work complex. Good support is founded on a good relationship with the person and their family: respect, trust and security in each other’s presence, concern for the other’s wellbeing, willingness to learn, and commitment to the vision. These qualities lay the foundation for a staff member to facilitate growth in relationships and friendships. It can also generate feelings of friendship that can distract from the core responsibility to support the person to bring and keep a diverse network of friends and connections in their life.

Signs of distraction include these. The relationship with staff fills much of a person’s time. Even when there are opportunities to meet and spend time with others, the staff member is centrally engaged with the person. Hanging out with the person and accompanying them to events and activities drives out purposeful efforts to strengthen a growing network of diverse others. The staff member’s role as relationship facilitator collapses into sharing time and tasks that the staff member and the person enjoy, perhaps with the staff member’s friends.

People and their families can get stuck in the illusion that the person has found a life long friend in a staff member who is very likely to move on from their job –a life change that often results in losing touch with the person they are no longer paid to be with. This untested belief draws attention away from the difficult and challenging process of making and keeping friends.

There is no simple way to deal with this complexity. Asking a person and a staff member to deny their good feelings for each other is counterproductive. Ignoring breakdowns of the agreed responsibility for the staff member to facilitate relationships leaves the person without attention to an essential dimension of a good life. Awareness, clarity, and continuing –sometimes difficult– conversations are the only way to stay on the path to diverse, lasting, sustaining, meaningful friendships.