Family Engagement: Moving Toward Genuine Family Partnerships in Early Childhood Education

by Barb Volpe

August 19, 2015

Editor’s Note: Running an early care and education program is a big job. It’s not one you have to do alone. Collaborations and partnerships to help you improve the quality of your program for the children and families you serve can be found in numerous places. During the next few weeks, the McCormick Center will publish blogs that offer suggestions and resources for improving your partnerships with families, external organizations, and staff.

“There is no more complex and tender geography than the borderlands between families and schools.” —Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot

Administrators and teachers in early childhood programs often acknowledge the importance of building relationships with children and their families; however, the act of building respectful, mutual partnerships does not happen by accident.

I’d like to share a personal story with you which captures why I–as an early childhood educator and a grandmother–value genuine family engagement:

After several years of preschool “Mother’s Day” cards, I dreaded having my granddaughter come home from kindergarten and explain, yet again, that she had had to tell the teacher her card was for her grandma and ask for help spelling grandma rather than mommy because her mommy had died.

At the start of each school year, my husband and I had talked to each teacher so they would be aware of our situation; we had been raising our granddaughter since the age of three when her mother had died. Our conversations with teachers never seemed to “stick.” Once, a teacher drew a black line through the word “mother” and wrote “grandma” above it. I was continually saddened and frustrated with the lack of understanding about our family situation and my granddaughter’s feelings.

This year, my granddaughter beamed when she brought me a card and a “Grandmother” book! She told me her teacher had made the book especially for her because Miss Megan knew her grandma was taking care of her like a mommy. The card and book had been made on the computer with each page replacing the word “mommy” with “grandma.” This teacher supported my granddaughter’s emotional development by honoring and respecting her unique situation. Even at age five, my granddaughter understood and appreciated the extra care her teacher took to acknowledge and respect our family structure. As for me, I couldn’t wait to see Miss Megan and let her know how much our family had appreciated her kind and thoughtful act.

Early childhood leaders play a huge role in ensuring that families are valued in their early childhood programs.

It is important for staff to be aware of family structure, stressors, and challenges such as worries over money, housing, sleep, and transportation; balancing work and family; and parenting decisions. Families may feel guilt, resentment, or even jealously over the time teachers get to spend with their child and frustration related to all they have to do to provide for their child. They may feel intimidated by the teacher. At times, parents may even feel protective and concerned about their own child, so they may not see or understand the teacher’s responsibility for all of the children in his or her care.

Teachers may not recognize the need to develop a relationship with the families. After all, they entered early childhood to work with children not with adults. They may lack experience or training on working with parents/family members and need support in developing effective communication skills. They also might need guidance around cultural competency.

Children, families, and teachers all benefit from strong family-school partnerships. It is the responsibility of early childhood professionals to take the lead in developing respectful, supportive family partnerships. So, where do you start?

Here are some questions to consider:

  • How do staff view the child’s family?
  • Do staff believe this to be an equal partnership?
  • How do staff recognize and respect the family’s expertise?
  • Are staff genuine and approachable with families?
  • Do staff have conversations with families, not just give reports on the child?
  • Are there parents and/or families whom staff don’t like or understand? How might that affect communication and relationships with the parents/family? What can be done to develop understanding or acceptance of others?

Items 14, 16, and 17 in the Program Administration Scale (PAS) include many strategies programs can use to strengthen family partnerships. Some of them are listed below along with other ideas to help foster positive relationships between program staff and families.

Here are a few strategies you may consider to foster positive family partnerships:

  • Learn every significant family member’s name or nickname. If the family is from a different culture or ethnicity, learn how to pronounce names correctly.
  • Greet each child and family when they arrive.
  • Learn something unique about each family member. Have conversations when possible at drop off or pick up times.
  • Try each day to give each child’s family information about the child’s day that is more meaningful than simply reporting on food and toileting.
  • Examine traditions or activities in your classroom that may be exclusionary or include any form of bias.

Strategies for directors to support family partnerships:

  • Invite parents to participate in program planning and evaluation.
  • Create written materials in family’s home language.
  • Try to develop staff that are culturally and linguistically representative of the families in your program.
  • Provide written materials on community supports and resources for families.
  • Provide staff with training on effective communication skills.
  • Provide time at staff meetings to talk about family partnerships and strategies for building relationships.
  • Look at your program’s entrance and décor. Is it welcoming for all families?

If you’re interested in exploring more about how to put these strategies into action, consider taking Module 8 of the Aim4Excellence National Director Credential: Building Partnerships with Families.  Or, check out these additional resources:

Do you have a story that illustrates the importance of family partnerships in early childhood education? What ideas for supports, actions, or solutions for building family partnerships have worked in your program?

Barb Volpe is the Quality Specialist Coordinator at the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University. In this role, Barb supports the Illinois quality specialists in their technical assistance work with center and family child care programs. She develops and presents trainings on leadership and best practices in early childhood care and education at local, state, and national conferences. Prior to her work at the McCormick Center, Barb was a teacher, site director, and education coordinator at McHenry County Head Start where she worked with children, teachers, and families.

13 Responses to “Family Engagement: Moving Toward Genuine Family Partnerships in Early Childhood Education”

  1. Sharon Enfield says:

    I was aware of many of the strategies and staff development goals. However to have them in one place and so succinctly stated is definitely a bonus. Will pass onto colleagues within and outside of my organization.

  2. Linda Hermes says:

    We so often hear “I love the children…but those parents…” It is a part of our profession to build relationships with children and not always to build a relationship with their families. As Barb has so beautifully written here, taking time to reflect on each child and their family will strengthen and support all of us.

  3. barbvolpe says:

    Hi Sharon,
    I’m glad you found the information useful and thank you for sharing with your colleagues!

  4. Marcia L. farris says:

    I would also suggest searching for the work of Karen Mapp and Joyce Epstein. They have both developed some important models for family engagement. Many teachers seem stuck in the “involvement” mode, and don’t understand the importance of parents supporting their children’s learning. That is true engagement.

  5. barbvolpe says:

    Thank you, Linda, for your kind words. I agree with you that we will all be strengthened and supported in our work when we take time to reflect on each child and family in our care.

  6. Deb says:

    Your story takes me back to our first year as a preschool when one of our young students had lost her mother.
    We were planning a “Mother’s Day” Tea. We decided to change our focus to a “Special Lady” allowing children to identify anyone special in their lives and invite them to the tea. We did the same with a “Special Guys” night as many Dad’s were not available. This has remained our tradition which has allowed for inclusion of many different people important to children and our families love it!

  7. Barbara Volpe says:

    Thank you, Marcia, for posting additional resources. Joyce Epstein’s model of six types of parent involvement has been used to help schools develop successful family engagement programs. I agree that when parent’s support their children’s learning you will have true engagement! Barb

  8. Barbara Volpe says:

    Hi Deb, I love that idea of a “Special Lady and Special Guy” tradition! You not only made a change in the wording but also a subtle but important shift in intention: what is truly important is to include the people important to the children in our program. Thank you for sharing what you do in your program to support families! Barb

  9. This is an excellent and important article with many wonderful suggestions for creating an environment of partnership between families and their education/care provider!
    While it’s important for both family members and providers to “do their part” – it’s in the court of providers to create a climate of openness and hospitality.
    This article includes many thoughtful suggestions. There are also helpful new technologies to assist and support providers working tirelessly to meet the needs of children as well as reaching out to family and community!

  10. Rose Marie Gulston says:

    Linda Hermes, I agree with you, working with the family as a whole put us in a beautiful position. When we help families reach their goal we are uplifting that community and promoting our agency. Those families will share with others how great of a service they received and will recommend others.

  11. Barbara Volpe says:

    I appreciate you all taking time to comment on my blog post and share ideas/resources on family engagement. Children, families, educators and community will benefit when we create an environment where families feel respected and are treated as partners in their child’s care and education. Barb

  12. Karl Brettig says:

    Neuroscience is informing us that the role of parents and caregivers as first educators is huge. Margy Whalley and her team at Penn Green in the UK have done some great work in this area as outlined in ‘Involving Parents in their Children’s Learning’. In South Australia we are finding that working with parents from the perinatal period through to reception is making measurable differences in child development outcomes.

  13. Erma Smith says:

    More information about human growth and development , both physical and cognitive, must be provided the Mothers during the perinatal period.
    Providing an outlet for Mothers to come together and learn and share this information in a non threatening way will go a long way toward helping children to thrive.
    Schools , centers and churches could provide that outlet in creating An after school “Cafe” where mothers can “hang out”. Very little materials would be needed: computer with some web site references, light refreshments and a Person who can navigate the web and the discussion. Preferably; that person could be one of the mothers.