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    • Discuss the significance of establishing and maintaining communication with families.
    • Reflect on your own ideas and experiences associated with communicating with families.
    • Plan activities that promote communication with families of all children in your program.


    “Good communication must be H.O.T. -- H.O.T. stands for honest, open, and two-way.” - Dan Oswald


    Close your eyes and picture the qualities you want in your communication with families. What do you notice about the words you use and the tone, pace, and feel of your everyday actions and routines? Ask yourself, “What am I doing to honor communication and relationships with families?” Your most important partner in this work is the children’s family. It’s helpful to find a common understanding, rhythm, and approach to family communication. The enrollment process is the beginning of this relationship. Future daily interactions are then supported by ongoing communication and systems and policies that invite multiple opportunities for communication and collaboration.

    Throughout this lesson, the term family is used to refer to important people in children’s lives. These people can be parents, siblings, guardians, extended family members such as aunts or cousins, and other individuals who are involved in children’s lives.

    Refer to the Family Engagement course for more extensive discussion on engaging and working with the families of children in your program.

    Importance of Establishing Relationships and Communication with Families

    Several studies show that positive relationships between caregivers, children, and families are essential to learning (Shonkoff, et al., 2000). Relationships can be built and strengthened through communication between caregivers and families that occurs during hellos and goodbyes as well as in more formal activities, such as a planned family meeting.

    These opportunities require you, as a family child care provider, to be aware of such things as tone, choice of words, and nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and body language. When you are aware of these characteristics of communication, you can communicate in ways that are most supportive and respectful of families. Keep in mind that this may be the family’s first experience with a family child care program. Remember that even experienced providers will not know more about individual children than their families—this is important to have in mind when families are younger or seem less experienced than you are. Families will be eager to know how their child is doing, and you can support comfortable communication when you offer encouraging responses and ask for clarification if something is not understood.

    You can also ensure that each moment offers sensitive communication, active listening, and opportunities for making connections. Developing relationships and communicating with families can help bridge the home and family child care setting. Additionally:

    • Programs that demonstrate and support partnering with families tend to have families that feel more confident and comfortable in supporting their children’s development (Wilcox & Weber, 2001).
    • When services incorporate practices that promote partnerships with families, outcomes for family and children are improved, including parenting capabilities and positive child behavior and functioning (Dempsey & Keen, 2008; Dunst, Trivette & Hamby, 2008).

    Listening and Responding with Purpose

    When working with others, you must practice active listening. Listen closely to truly understand an individual’s position, interests, or motivation. Show that you hear and comprehend what is being said, and ask questions and clarify information to ensure you are both on the same page.

    The book Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality lists several strategies crucial to active listening:

    • Furthering responses. These are simple ways to let people know you are listening. Furthering responses include nodding your head, saying “Uh huh” or “What happened next?” and using the speaker’s words in brief encouraging statements.
    • Restating the speaker’s message. This is also known as paraphrasing. You might say, “Let me see if I understand correctly…” and repeat what you heard in your own words.
    • Reflecting the emotions of the speaker. An important part of communication is reading and reflecting emotions. You can show family members that you are listening and connecting with them by reflecting their emotions back to them. Simple phrases like, “I can tell that really upset you…” or “I can see that really pleased you…” can encourage the speaker to continue sharing.
    • Asking open-ended questions. “What” and “how” questions are powerful, nonjudgmental ways to encourage family members to communicate with you. These questions indicate that you are engaged and actively listening. They also show that you want to hear the other person’s opinions. You might ask, “What happened with Sasha’s plan yesterday?” or “How is Davon doing with his asthma?”
    • Summarizing the discussion. Any conversation should end with a summary and a plan. You might say, “So I heard you say…” and “Let’s review our next steps…”

    Being clear and purposeful are important to communicate effectively during a conversation or a family conference, when working with community partners, or while giving a presentation. As a family child care provider, effective communication helps establish and maintain partnerships and relationships that support the children in your care. Your capable communication skills also serve as a model for children and youth.

    Communication with Families of Children with Special Learning Needs

    Establishing communication and meaningful relationships with families is a critical aspect of your work as a provider. Families of children with special learning needs may be simultaneously interacting with several different professionals from varying agencies or disciplines, so establishing strong relationships with them becomes even more important. Your role in helping families develop goals for their children and in coming up with ideas for achieving those goals can have a tremendous impact on their lives. You will work closely with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator to help meet the needs of young children with special needs, but it is important for you to know some key terms.

    The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal education law, mandates the development of individualized education programs (IEPs) and individualized family service plans (IFSPs) for children who qualify for either special education or early intervention. IEPs are completed by the local school district and IFSPs are completed by the local early-intervention agency. Family child care professionals do not complete IEPs or IFSPs. However, you may be asked by the family to participate on the team for a child’s plan. Each IEP or IFSP describes the educational program designed by the team to meet the child’s unique needs and must contain specific information about the child as required by state and federal law.

    For families new to this process, your role can be very important. Families may view you as their liaison or advocate to help them understand the system, access meaningful services, and set goals that can make a difference in their child’s life. 

    Maintaining Ongoing Communication with Families

    Sharing information about children in meaningful ways to families is critical to maintaining ongoing communication. Whenever possible, use data (e.g., observations, examples of children’s work, child assessments) to convey information about children with families. Data can help family members understand that the information you share with them is based on instances where you observed and generated information in an organized manner, as opposed to sharing personal views or opinions. As part of your work as a family child care provider, it is likely that you collect developmental information on children through assessments, and it is critical that families have access to that information. This also enables families to follow their child’s progress over time. Along the same lines, invite families to observe their children in your program. Schedule some time after the observation to talk about what family members noticed and address any questions they may have.

    Families will also help set the pace for their communication with you. It is important to acknowledge it can take time for families to feel safe, comfortable and friendly. Different forms of communication or ways of communicating can play an important role in easing the process. A combination of communication styles, or forms, might work best to meet families’ needs. It’s also important to keep in mind there are likely to be a variety of factors that create challenges to communicating with families, such as conflicting belief systems or overwhelming family problems and crises. Take a moment to think about and list a few of the barriers that you have faced when communicating and building relationships with families.

    Family Conferences

    Family conferences are a great opportunity to engage in valuable conversations with family members about their children’s development and to address questions they may have. You can make this a meaningful experience for families by asking them to respond to or think about a few questions before coming to the conference. For example, you can ask them to think about their child’s most or least favorite aspects of their daily child care experience or about concerns they may have. These questions can serve as great conversation guides and can facilitate dialogue and the exchange of ideas during the conference. In the Learn section of this lesson, you can see an example of a brief questionnaire you can share with families prior to family conferences. By giving families some time to reflect on these simple questions before the conference, you are sending them the message that their input matters and that you value their point of view.

    Involving Families in Children’s Communication and Language Development

    Family members are children’s first teachers, and children learn to communicate by imitating parents, family members, and other significant adults in their home and community environments. Early interactions with family members can set the stage for effective communication and language development in young children. These are reasons why you should involve family members in young children’s communication and language development.

    The interactions that children have with adults influence how they develop and learn. It has become increasingly clear that the more young children experience shared interactions and connection, the more effective they become as communicators.

    Involving family members in young children’s development can also help you understand the diverse communication styles of children and families in your program. This is critical so that you can plan developmentally appropriate experiences for children and families, taking into consideration family backgrounds, traditions, unique needs, and preferences. At the same time, family involvement can help family members understand what and how their children are learning in your program and encourage them to support and promote high-quality communication in the home environment. Involving family members enables you to provide models or effective ways to promote communication in young children’s lives. For example, you may provide recommendations or insights about supporting children’s requests for help, effective ways of talking about a child’s play, encouraging children to talk with each other as well as with other individuals, reading books with children, or supporting a child’s emergent writing.

    Communicating with Families: Creating Partnerships

    Families and providers need to work together to establish and maintain open lines of communication. There may often be barriers to maintaining communication between yourself and some families, and you will find that the right time to speak to family members may vary from family to family. For example, it may not be the appropriate time to try to discuss something that happened that day at pickup, when a family member is in a hurry. It is best to contact families in advance to more effectively discuss concerns or other topics. Choosing the right setting, time, and method of communication can strongly influence the outcome of your conversations with families. Consider these examples of ways to communicate with families (Council on Accreditation, 2015):

    Guidelines for Communicating with Families

    Treat families with respect
    • Greet families by name. Use the greeting the family member prefers (sir, ma’am, doctor, lieutenant). Use first names with permission.
    • Use a friendly voice, expression and gestures.
    • Stay relaxed. Families might be in a rush, but there is always time for a “Hello” and “Have a great night.”
    • Show interest in their lives. Simple questions like, “Do you have big plans for the weekend?” or “When does soccer start?” can help personalize the program for families.
    • Remember that each family has different communication preferences. Some may like direct, to-the-point interactions. Others may prefer longer, more social interactions.
    • Respect boundaries. Avoid talking about personal, confidential, or sensitive issues in front of children or other families. Sometimes children share information before a family is ready to make announcements: a new job, an upcoming move, or a pregnancy may be sensitive topics. Wait until the family shares the information with you.
    Support family involvement
    • Welcome families whenever they visit.
    • Unless you are supervising a dangerous activity like woodworking or swimming, interact for a few minutes with visiting families. Ask a few friendly questions or comment about the great day their child is having.
    • Make extra time to connect with new families. You may have already given a new family a tour, but you can continue to reach out. Take a few minutes to share specifics like where their child’s belongings are stored, where artwork is set to dry, how their child spent his or her time on the first day, or who their child has formed instant friendships with.
    • Reach out to families to share their special talents or traditions with the children and youth. Perhaps you know a parent is a strong guitar player or an avid basketball player. Invite them to share their hobbies.
    • Remind families about special events. Let them know about upcoming family movie nights or other events you have planned.
    Share information with families
    • Ask families about a child’s background, history, and hobbies.
    • Complete required forms like incident or accident reports right away.
    • Answer families’ questions about the program and their child’s experiences.
    • Plan to meet with families and share information about children’s friendships, health, accomplishments, and concerns about behavior or development. Involve older children in these discussions whenever appropriate.


    Communication Do’s and Don’ts

    Watch this video to hear providers share their views on effective ways to communicate.


    Keeping relationships at the center of all your communication efforts with families can help create and maintain an environment where people are seen, heard, acknowledged, and celebrated for their strengths and who they are. How would you describe your approach to first interactions with families? Think about how your efforts immediately welcome families into your family child care program. In addition, consider the following:

    • Review the documents used when enrolling a new child into the program. What other documents are shared with families? How are these documents shared? Think about the ways these documents are connected to the children and families’ strengths and memories as well as how they capture required information.
    • Use photos of children and their families throughout your home, including as a way to identify special places for children’s personal belongings.
    • Ask current families to help welcome new families. Invite all families to share their time or talents with the children in your program.
    • Send home weekly notes or program newsletters about happenings in your program. Ideally, these should be written in the primary language of the children in your care.
    • Establish ongoing communication between home and child care. Communication journals are a great way of doing this. These are usually sent home with each child and returned the following day. You can share noteworthy observations, moments, or events, and families can respond to these or share their own news, notes, or reflections. For children with special learning needs, communication journals can be an especially valuable tool in establishing consistency between home and family child care environments.
    • Hold regularly scheduled family conferences where family members have opportunities to discuss goals, achievements, or concerns related to their children. Use positive language as you discuss each child’s strengths and needs during these times. If you have concerns, bring them up calmly and sensitively after talking about the child’s strengths.
    • Invite family members to volunteer in your program or to share talents, special interests, or expertise.
    • Invite families to talk about their children with special learning needs. For example, a family member may come in your program and talk about their child’s use of adaptive equipment, such as braces, a wheelchair, or a communication device. The family member may explain the use of equipment, and this could help children and other families understand aspects of the child’s life. This also promotes acceptance of differences.
    • During arrival or dismissal times, show enthusiasm and welcome families as they drop off or pick up their children. Use these times as opportunities to communicate with family members and share brief comments about their children’s day in your program.



    How well do you know the families of children in your program? How do you communicate with them? What do you currently do to promote family involvement? How do you encourage families to promote children’s language and communication in the home environment? These are among some important questions to ask yourself.

    Read and review the Knowing and Involving Families activity. Take a few minutes to read and respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.



    It can be helpful for you to ask families about their communication preferences. This includes how they would like to be addressed. Read and review the Family Communication Sheet and use it as a resource to gather information from families in your program regarding their communication preferences.

    Use the remaining resources in this section to encourage family involvement in children’s language and communication development at home.


    Family involvementParticipation of the most important people in a child’s life in program-related events




    A family child care provider friend mentions that she would like to improve communication with the families she serves. What do you say to her?


    True or false? It is not a good idea to invite families to observe their children in the program.


    Finish this statement: Communication with families of children with special learning needs …

    References & Resources

    Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

    Council on Accreditation (2018). CYD-OST Standard 6: Family Connections.

    Global Family Research Project. (2017). Family Involvement.

    Halgunseth, L., Peterson, A., Stark, D., & Moodie, S. (2009). Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood education programs: An integrated review of the literature. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children and Pre-K Now.

    Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (2004). Understanding Families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

    Lynch, E. W., & Hanson, M. J. (2004). Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A guide for working with young children and their families, 3rd ed. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

    Mitchell, S., Foulger, T. S., & Wetzel, K. (2009). Ten Tips for Involving Families through Internet-Based Communication. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    National Association for the Education of Young Children. Extreme Diveristy in Cities: Challenges and Solutions for Programs Serving Young Children and Their Families.

    Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

    Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

    Turnbull, A., Winton, P., Rous, B., & Buysse, V. (2010). CONNECT Module 4: Family-Professional Partnerships. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute, CONNECT: The Center to Mobilize Early Childhood Knowledge.