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Families: An Introduction

Family members are the most important people in children’s lives, and impact how children develop and learn. To effectively develop partnerships with families and to help create an environment that meets the needs of each child, it is important for caregivers to understand families as a system and the impact of parenting in early childhood. This lesson shares perspectives for understanding families and provides an introduction to family-centered practice. 

  • Identify personal views and the importance of families.
  • Recognize family-centered practice as a key component of early-childhood education.
  • Examine individual family systems in which children grow and develop.
  • Recognize the diversity of families.



What are Your Views about Families?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word family? Perhaps thoughts of individuals who have influenced and shaped your life, or images of people coming together to celebrate holidays and other significant cultural events; maybe smells of home-cooked food, memories of conversations or arguments you had with loved ones, feelings of love, joy, or even sadness.

Family is central to an individual’s life. Particularly when it comes to young children, family members assume critical roles that significantly affect children’s well-being and development.

As a professional working with young children, it is critical that you appreciate and understand children’s families. This lesson will familiarize you with current perspectives on how families are viewed and how they function. This information will provide helpful context for you to better understand your work and interactions with families.

The Meaning of Family

What does family mean to you? Who makes up your family? What kinds of things do you do together? What role do you play in your family?

Every family is different, and it is important to keep an open mind about what and who makes up a family. Each person defines family in their own way. For some, family may represent those individuals living in the same home (under one roof). For others, family may be parents and all of the important adults who help care for a young child, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, or even a best friend. Because family is a consistent part of most every child’s life, family can be one of the most important sources of information about each child in your care.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines a family as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together."  The National Association for the Education of Young Children suggests that “the term family may include those adults, besides parents, with the responsibility of being involved in educating, nurturing, and advocating for the child.” Researchers studying and working with families define family as “two or more people who regard themselves as a family and who carry out the functions that families typically perform. These people may or may not be related by blood or marriage and may or may not usually live together” (Turnbull, Turnbull, Erwin, & Soodak, 2006, p. 7).

What are some things that stand out to you as you read these definitions? You may notice that the first definition is quite specific in terms of how relationships are described, whereas the other two definitions are broader. As a professional working with young children, it is important to acknowledge that your own experiences influence your views about families and working with families. You will encounter individuals who define family differently than you do and who may share values, customs, or codes of behavior that are different from yours. When you encounter differing views, it is important to keep an open mind to better understand how each person’s family may have affected and shaped them into who they are today.

Like individuals, families are varied. Family structures have become more diverse through shared custody, same-sex couple families, families where members have different immigration statuses, and when a parent has children with multiple partners. While these circumstances do not always bring challenges, research suggests that children whose family structures are complex may be more likely to experience negative consequences, such as less caregiving from a parent. Today, 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents. Like the concept of ‘family,’ the concept of family well-being is also challenging to define. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that family well-being occurs when all family members are safe, healthy, and have chances for educational advancement and economic mobility. Support services such as early care and education, housing and food assistance, and physical and mental health care positively contribute to the well-being of families and their children. When families face challenges that cause stress, including poverty and homelessness, their health and wellness can be negatively impacted. Engaging families as active participants in problem-solving and goal-setting can help them identify and use their own strengths to address the challenges they face. When families are healthy, safe, and economically stable, their children's health and well-being can thrive. As you think about how best to engage with and support the families in your program, consider your role in strengthening families’ protective factors. The good news is that many of the behaviors that correspond to positive family functioning can be “taught and strengthened with education.” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019, p. 42).

How are Families Viewed Today? Introducing Family-Centered Practice

Families are central to their children and youth’s development. They are partners, active participants, and decision makers in their children’s education process. As a result, a family-centered focus is considered one of the indicators of quality in early-childhood education, programs, and services. At the heart of family-centered practice is the belief that families are the most important decision-makers in a child’s life. Therefore, professionals must respect, support, and enhance the strengths and unique characteristics of each family (Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith, & McLean, 2005).

Family-centered practice also means that you understand the important and large effect all family members have on each other and on the child. All family members are interconnected, and affect each other and the ways that the family functions. From our family, we learn skills that enable us to engage and learn in school and excel in the workplace.

When considering family-centered practice, you view children as part of a larger system; and you view their family as a whole. You become aware of and sensitive to the interactions and relationships that take place within the family, as well as outside interactions and supports that affect them. To maintain relationships and to work effectively together, you learn, respect and understand characteristics of each family and its support system. You can also consider the characteristics and stressors of families, which may negatively affect their involvement in your family child care home. What affects one family member can affect all family members. A family is a system in which no one member is viewed in isolation.

Throughout the Virtual Laboratory School, we consider family-centered practice as an umbrella term that encompasses the beliefs and actions of the people in your program. Consider this table:



Families are the most important decision-makers in a child’s life.

  • We ask and learn about families’ ideas and preferences.
  • We provide choices in programming.
  • We involve families in program leadership.
  • We involve families in decision-making.

Families are unique and their differences enrich our programs.

  • We honor and respect diversity.
  • We involve all the important people in a child’s life.
  • We engage and involve families.
  • We develop responsive and reciprocal relationships.
  • We represent families in our programs.

Families are resilient. 

  • We learn about families’ strengths, needs, and circumstances. 
  • We connect families with resources.
  • We build families’ strengths.

Families are central to development and learning.

  • We share information with families. 
  • We listen to families.
  • We view families as their child’s first teacher.
  • We respect families’ expertise about their child.

Families are our partners.

  • We use respectful, responsive, and two-way communication.
  • We reach out to families.
  • We involve families in all aspects of our program.

Making an effort to understand children and their families can create opportunities for you to better support the children in your care.

Honoring Diversity in Families

Culture and diversity affect all ages and stages of development—infancy, preschool, school-age, and beyond. It is important to recognize and incorporate a child’s culture into their learning environment. Culture refers to the shared experiences, traditions, and history of different groups of people. Cultural differences may include differences in views of family and community, expectations of children, roles of parents and children, and value placed on education.

Some very important learning occurs during the first years of life. For example, infants and toddlers learn new words, ways of interacting with others, how to communicate, self-help skills, and how to play. Preschoolers are learning how to interact with peers and adults, how to express their emotions, and how to become more independent. During the school-age years, children learn a great deal about backgrounds, heritage, and culture from their family and their peers. Many of their behaviors are also influenced by their culture, for example the age at which they can stay home alone, the nature of hanging out with friends, and their interactions with adults.

Culture is a significant factor in the ways families raise their children and how you, as a caregiver, provide care for each individual child. Examine your own cultural experiences and consider how these experiences affect your practice with children and families. Each individual brings specific values, beliefs, and assumptions about child rearing and development to their work. In almost every type of routine you perform, your values about it were shaped by your family, childhood, and training.

Cultural Differences

As you work with children and families, it is important to recognize your values and beliefs and the ways in which they may differ from others. For example, a parent might expect his child to use a pacifier at naptime, and you expect a child to stop using a pacifier during the toddler stage. Or a parent might expect a toddler to begin using a spoon and fork around age 3 when you might expect this behavior around 20 months.

Sometimes, you might feel unsure about how to care for a child or how to engage families who have very different experiences and cultures, including those who speak an unfamiliar language or practice unfamiliar religious customs. You can acknowledge these differences and demonstrate an interest in the family to build a relationship and learn ways to provide support for their children in your care. For example, you can learn how and when families share meals, which is influenced by culture and affects development.

When differences are viewed through the lens of culture, respectful conversations can lead to an agreement in how these practices will be supported in your home.

Family child care and other learning settings provide an environment in which adults and children can learn about and honor differences in values, beliefs and perceptions. Learning one’s culture occurs primarily within the family; however, in family child care, children also learn about culture and experience relationships that influence their sense of who they are and who they will become.

To help children develop, you must honor and celebrate the diversity of families. Diversity exists on a variety of dimensions:

  • Composition (who is a member of the family)
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Language
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ability or special needs
  • Educational background
  • Values and traditions
  • Child-rearing practices
  • Religious preferences
  • Gender roles and responsibilities

Family Beliefs

Being a responsive and engaged family childcare provider also means that you avoid making assumptions about different groups of people and the ways they may act or think. As much as it is important to acknowledge differences between various groups of people, it is also important to recognize differences within groups. While there may be commonly shared characteristics, values, and attributes among people who come from a particular geographic region or cultural heritage, there is still considerable variability within the same group in terms of values or ways of doing things.

Also remember that families will differ in the way they approach parenting. Families may use parenting styles with which you aren’t familiar or you do not agree. Unless you feel that abuse or neglect is occurring, it is important to support each family in your care. If you are working with a family that uses a parenting style you are unfamiliar with, try to learn the characteristics of the style. If you are working with a family that uses parenting styles that differ from the rules of your program, consult your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. Understanding how a child is cared for at home will help you to understand the child’s personality and behavior in your home.

Working with families whose values and beliefs are different from your own may, at times, make you feel uneasy or uncomfortable. Embracing diversity in your work with children and families does not happen overnight. On the contrary, it can be a long and often messy process in which people from various backgrounds are challenged to face and understand different points of view, accept unfamiliar ways of doing things, and ultimately work together toward a common goal. It is important to understand that this is a two-way process. In the same way you may occasionally feel challenged or confused, families may feel the same. Researchers in the field of family and diversity remind us, “the challenge is not so much for providers to give up their own beliefs as to cultivate a habit of learning to understand and respect those of others” (Harry, Rueda & Kalyanpur, 1999).


School-age children offer a unique perspective on their cultural heritage because they are old enough to understand the differences between cultures. As a family child care provider, you can use this to your advantage by allowing older children to teach you and their peers about their family traditions and culture. Remember, though, that being a family child care provider means being sensitive to children’s preferences and needs. It is not uncommon for school-age children to want to fit in with their peers and minimize differences. School-age children might be embarrassed to share traditions or practices that make them appear different from their peers. Respect the children’s preferences while continuing to encourage each child to explore and express their own culture.


Spend some time watching the video below and reflect on your families and the ways you honor and respect them. You can do this by listening to families’ experiences and concerns and by showing them that they are a valued and appreciated part of your family child care program.

Appreciating Children’s Families

Watch this video to see how a provider expresses interest and concern about her children’s families.

In the next video you will hear from family child care providers as they describe how they work to honor the diversity of their families.

Honoring Family Diversity

Family child care providers discuss the importance of honoring all families.


There are many ways to show that you value the families of the children in your family child care home. Consider the following guidelines that reflect family-centered practice (Johnson, 1990; Turnbull, Turbiville, & Turnbull, 2000). Then think about how you can use these guidelines in your work with children and families.

  • Recognize the family as the constant in the child’s life and that they have the largest impact and influence on that child.
  • Facilitate collaboration between families and yourself as a child care professional.
  • Encourage family-to-family support and networking.
  • Honor and respect family diversity in all dimensions (cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic, spiritual, socioeconomic, or in terms of family members’ sexual orientation). To do this:
    • Ask families about their home language and if they would share key phrases they use at home.
    • Provide children’s books in the language each child in your care hears at home. Also try to provide information about your program, and/or pamphlets about parenting in the same language.
    • Invite the family to visit your program to sing songs, tell stories, and show books or pictures that demonstrate their culture, and introduce culturally specific foods.
    • Observe how a family interacts with their child.
    • Ask families to create a family or neighborhood storybook.
    • Meet regularly with families to learn about their hopes, dreams and goals for their child.
    • Celebrate a variety of holidays and traditions important to those children in your care.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, the Family Engagement Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Family Child Care Family EngagementCourse Guide.

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Read and review the activity, Things to Consider, which outlines questions providers can ask themselves when considering assumptions and family-centered practice in their work. Answer the questions and then share your thoughts and responses with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


In this lesson, you were introduced to family-centered practice. In the Family-Centered Practice: First Thoughts activity, take a look at the guidelines and record your thoughts and ideas of how to incorporate the philosophy into your program. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.

Families provide valuable information on ways to improve  program practices. Use the Family Questionnaire handout to gather feedback from families in your program on ways to improve your current practices and support your professional development goals. CDA candidates should use the CDA Family Questionnaire for this activity.


A set of shared values, attitudes, or practices that characterize certain groups of individuals
Family-centered practice:
A set of beliefs and actions that influence how we engage families, at the heart of which is the belief that families are the most important decision-makers in a child’s life and that service systems and professionals must respect, support, and enhance the strengths and unique characteristics of each family
The inclusion of different types of people in an organization
Parenting Style:
Strategies, methods, and behaviors that parents use to raise their child


A family is always defined in the same way.
The philosophy that families are equal partners in the care and education of their child is:
Which is not an example of family-centered practice?
References & Resources

Broderick, C. B. (1993). Understanding Family Process: Basics of family systems theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Dunst, C. J. (2002). Family-Centered Practices: Birth through high school. Journal of Special Education, 36(3), 139-147.

Dunst, C. J., Trivette, C. M., & Hamby, D. W. (2008). Research Synthesis and Meta-Analysis of Family-Centered Practices. Asheville, NC: Winterberry Press.

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

Hanson, M. J. (1998). Ethnic, Cultural, and Language Diversity in Intervention Settings. In E. W. Lynch & M. J. Hanson (Eds.), Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A guide for working with children and their families (pp. 3–22). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Harry, B., Rueda, R., & Kalyanpur, M. (1999). Cultural Reciprocity in Sociocultural Perspective: Adapting the normalization principle for family collaboration. Exceptional Children, 66(1), 123-136.

Harvard Family Research Project (2013). Family Involvement. Retrieved from

Howard, V. F., Williams, B. F., Port, P. D., & Lepper, C. (2001). Very Young Children With Special Needs: A formative approach for the 21st century, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Johnson, B. H. (1990). The Changing Role of Families in Health Care. Children’s Health Care, 19(4), 234-241.

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 Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Strengthening the Military Family Readiness System for a Changing American Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Engaging Diverse Families. 

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment. Retrieved from

Poston, D., Turnbull, A., Park, J., Mannan, H., Marquis, J., & Wang, M. (2003). Family Quality of Life: A qualitative inquiry. Mental Retardation, 41(5), 313-328.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Strengthening the Military Family Readiness System for a Changing American Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Trivette, C. M. & Dunst, C. J. (2005). DEC Recommended Practices: Family-Based Practices. In S. Sandall, M. L. Hemmeter, B. J. Smith, & M. E. McLean (Eds.), DEC Recommended Practices: A comprehensive guide for practical application (pp. 107-126). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Turnbull, A. P., Turbiville, V., & Turnbull, H. R. (2000). Evolution of Family-Professional Partnerships: Collective empowerment as the model for the early twenty-first century. In J. P. Shonkoff & S. J. Meisels (Eds.), Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention (pp. 630-650). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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.

U.S. Department of Commerce, United States Census Bureau: Current Population Survey (CPS) – Definitions. Retrieved from