Developmental Specialist Joyce Onafowokan Fosters Parent Partnerships to Promote Early Intervention

Joyce Onafowokan is a developmental specialist in ServiceNet’s REACH Early Intervention program, which works with children from birth to age three who are navigating various developmental challenges.   

Joyce, who has worked for REACH for 17 years, has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field. However, she finds the work’s most significant value rests in the partnerships she forges with the child’s caregivers and the collaborations they foster.   

“It’s not about me coming in as the expert,” Joyce says. “It is about the families and I working together as partners on a journey. My role is about equipping and empowering them to navigate their way.”  

Joyce fosters this collaboration during regular home visits with the families she serves. During these visits, Joyce observes the parent and child interactions and engages in play with the child and their parents, modeling actions that can be useful for the intervention work. The work is always child and caregiver-focused, with Joyce using toys already in the house or bringing toys the child can keep so that the interactions continue after Joyce’s visit. REACH has a space on-site for parents who cannot do home visits. Specialists can also meet in parks and other outdoor spaces, a popular choice during the summer. Wherever they meet, the value is in the interactions of this time together.   

“We really emphasize this shared time,” Joyce says. “I might play with a child in a way that elicits a great belly laugh, and the parent can observe that and mimic it and get that same wonderful result. Because at those times, you see the progress, no matter how small, and you know that progress will continue because the parents are invested and feel empowered.”  

Joyce began her work in early intervention over two decades prior, after completing her master’s in education and child study from Smith College. She was working in an intervention program in Springfield when she met a woman who was deaf and removed from her family as a child to attend a state school. The woman, in her 70s, had since lost all contact with her family. As Joyce became friends with the woman, she discovered that an ear infection as a child had caused the deafness. This set off the chain of events that led her to hearing loss and eventual long-term separation from her family.   

“I just kept thinking how the ripple effect of these issues can grow to become so enormous,” Joyce says. “It is like a dress where a stitch comes out, and if you do not fix it right away, it continues to unravel. The hole gets bigger and bigger. If only you had taken a thread and needle to stitch it back up early. I knew then that this work was my calling.”  

Joyce’s passion for the work is not limited to her role at ServiceNet. She has also returned to her home country of Nigeria to work on developing early intervention services there.   

“I use these same approaches I’ve shared with parents here at REACH and in Nigeria when I went back to work with the government there. Parents are parents anywhere you go. My role is to help them help their child, advocate for their child, and move forward on this journey,” Joyce says.   

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