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    • Describe the role of families in supporting their child’s or youth’s behavior in the program and at home.
    • Practice difficult conversations with families.
    • Describe policies and procedures for communicating with families.
    • Identify resources to share with families.




    Communicating with families about concerns is one of the hardest things child and youth professionals must do. You might worry that you will damage your relationship with parent(s), put an extra burden on a struggling family, or put the child at risk for excessive punishment or harm. These are often valid concerns; nevertheless, you have an obligation to keep families informed about their child’s progress and well-being. This lesson shows you how to engage families as partners to figure out how best to support their child or youth.

    Communication is key to creating family partnerships. Family members must feel comfortable asking questions, seeking information, and raising concerns about their child’s care, well-being, and development. It is good to be friendly, professional, and helpful when working with family members. A relationship between a staff member and a family member should remain professional and always revolve around the child.

    Think of your relationship with families as following the same pyramid of support that guides your work with children and youth. You would not focus on just a problem with a child. Instead, you build a strong trusting relationship, design environments that work for the child, and provide the right amount of support to help each child succeed. You will want to do the same in your interactions with families. Effective child and youth professionals:

    • Communicate frequently from the very beginning of a relationship with a family. Share what is going on in the classroom or program. Check in personally with each family on a regular basis. Share ideas and resources from the program that might be of interest to families (community events, parenting classes, tip sheets).
    • Communicate that their child is a valuable member of the program community. Families may worry that you do not like their child or that you feel burdened by their child’s behavior. Families may feel guilty, embarrassed, or scared for their child. You must help families see you as someone who is committed to figuring their child out—especially when it’s difficult.
    • See yourself as a learner. Families are experts on their child. Listen and learn about their experiences, preferences, concerns, and celebrations.
    • Share success stories. Positive notes, phone calls, or emails can go a long way toward building trust with families.
    • Invite families to share ideas when you begin to have a concern. Do not wait until there is a crisis to talk with families about their child’s behavior. By starting early and positioning yourself as the learner, you can help families feel comfortable working with you if their child’s behavior becomes concerning, or continues to escalate.

    What Role Do Families Play in the Behavior Support Process?

    Families must be involved in the behavior support process from the very beginning. When you have concerns about a child’s or youth’s behavior, first notify your coach or administrator. At this point, you and someone from program leadership should have a conversation with the family. Review the relationship-building practices and relationship-hindering practices here (adapted from the National Center on Pyramid Model Innovations). You will also find this table below for download in the Learn activity section, Talking with Families about Challenging Behavior.

    Relationship-Building PracticesRelationship-Hindering Practices
    Begin the discussion by expressing concern about the child or youth.Begin the discussion by indicating that the child’s or youth’s behavior is not tolerable.
    Let the family know your goal is to help the child or youth.Indicate that the child or youth must be punished or “dealt with” by the parent.
    Ask the family if they have experienced similar situations and are concerned.Ask the parent if something has happened at home to cause the behavior.
    Tell the family that you want to work with them to help the child or youth develop appropriate behavior and social skills.Indicate that the parent should take action to resolve the problem at home.
    Tell the family about what is happening in the classroom or program, but only after the parent understands you are concerned about the child, not blaming the family.Start the conversation by listing the child’s concerning behaviors. Blame the child and family for the behaviors.
    Offer to work with the family to develop a plan that can be used at home and in the program.Leave it up to the family to manage problems at home or develop a plan without inviting family participation.
    Emphasize that your focus will be to help the child or youth develop skills needed to be successful in the program and to build healthy relationships.Let the parent believe the child needs more discipline rather than needing instruction and support.
    Stress that if you can work together, you are more likely to be successful in helping the child or youth.Minimize the importance of helping the family understand and implement behavior supports.

    Having Difficult Conversations with Families

    You may have some difficult conversations with families about issues concerning child guidance and behavior. It is important that you approach conversations with family members as a listener and a learner who wants to hear the family’s perspective on their child. Families do not want professionals to approach them in a judgmental manner or to question their parenting abilities. All families have strengths, and as partners in caring for their children, program staff should acknowledge the hard job parents have in raising their children. Difficult conversations with families should always begin with an acknowledgement of the child’s and family’s strengths before expressing concerns regarding a child’s behavior, learning, or development.

    It is never easy to talk to families about something they hope to never hear about their child. Therefore, it is important to establish a strong relationship with the family through ongoing communication during regular daily interactions. These conversations may include suggestions of community-based resources that can provide more intensive interventions. Jodi Whiteman (2013) lists some helpful strategies for having difficult conversations:

    • Ask questions and listen. Wondering together with families demonstrates equality between the professional and the child’s family. This also shows your respect for the family. For example: “I was wondering if you have noticed Alyana’s hesitation to climb on the playground equipment? Is there something we should be aware of in order to help her feel more secure on the playground?”
    • Active listening. Active listening involves paying full attention to what the other person says and letting them know you understood their message. (“You told Alyana not to climb on playground equipment because you heard that a neighbor’s daughter fell off a swing at the park and had to get several stitches.”)
    • Show empathy. Showing empathy involves your willingness to accept another person’s experiences and feelings. (“I can imagine it is scary to think that Alyana might get hurt on the playground equipment because of what happened to your neighbor’s daughter.”)
    • Remember behavior happens in context. If a family says behavior is not happening at home or that they don’t have concerns about their child’s behavior, believe them. Engage them in helping you generate ideas that might work in the program. (“It sounds like you don’t have this concern at home. What do you think we could try here to help her feel more secure with us?”)

    Watch as Rosemarie Allen, Ph.D. shares insights on collaboration with families:

    Collaborating with Families

    Rosemarie Allen, Ph.D. describes how to initiate supportive communication with families when children having challenging behaviors.

    Program Policies and Procedures

    Child guidance and behavior supports are directly related to your program’s philosophy, policies, and procedures. Program-level supports can help you and family members have clear and consistent experiences with one another. These supports may include:

    • A written staff handbook containing policies that support the core beliefs, mission, and program philosophy.
    • A written family handbook containing policies that support the core beliefs, mission, and program philosophy.
    • Written hiring, supervision, and staff evaluation policies and practices that are reflective of the program philosophy, with a focus on building a positive community among all employees.
    • A concise set of program-level guidelines that all staff and families know and understand that reflect the program philosophy about positive guidance principles (e.g., “All children have the right to be safe”).
    • Written policy and procedures for crisis management should a child be in danger of hurting themselves or others.
    • Access to evidence-based resources about child guidance for staff and families, such as websites, books, and DVDs that demonstrate positive guidance techniques and effective crisis-management techniques.
    • Written procedures, release forms, and assessment and referral processes to ensure collaboration with community mental health providers and school personnel to address issues that may require consultation services for individual children and families.
    • Regularly scheduled opportunities for staff to self-assess and reflect on their own child-guidance practices and to develop meaningful professional growth plans.

    In addition to these formal program-level supports, work with your leadership team to learn policies and procedures related to communication. Consider the following questions:

    • Which staff member will serve as the primary point of contact with a family regarding their child’s behavior? Many staff may be involved in a child’s or youth’s care, but it is best for adults to have a consistent partner for communication. This ensures consistency and avoids miscommunication or confusion.
    • How will you avoid labeling a child or youth as a “concern”? As children and youth move through your programs, it is important to plan adequately for their transitions while avoiding labeling the child as a problem. Avoid letting a child’s reputation precede them through the program. Use discussion and planning tools that help you identify each child’s strengths, interests, and successes. Avoid venting or complaining about a child’s behavior with other staff members.
    • When and how are families notified of a concern? What documentation must occur? Learn about your program’s formal policies for reaching out to families.

    Resources for Families

    When referring a family to an outside agency or other resource, it is important to have the correct information about the agency’s purpose and services. It is helpful if you have a personal contact at the agency so there is a name the parent can use when initiating contact. For some families, it may be helpful to offer to go with them if they are unsure about how to approach an agency.

    In your outreach to families, you can maintain a parent resource list that includes community agencies. This list should be available in the family corner on the program’s website. You can also provide examples of parent resources about behavior in the program newsletter or create a binder of resources for parents to have onsite in the program. Families are an integral part of your program’s community. You collaborate with families in their most important task—raising their children. As you build relationships with family members, the children see that the adults in their lives work together as a team to provide them with loving care. Consider sharing this resource, from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, with your program families:

    National Association for the Education of Young Children: Teaching Young Children journal. Look for the “Message in a Backpack” series for easy resources to send home. The April/May 2018 edition featured Child Guidance. You may find it online ( or in your program’s resource library.


    You will watch two videos that help you feel the difference between supportive and unsupportive conversations with families. In the first video, you will see many of the “Don’ts” described earlier in this lesson. As you watch, consider:

    • How does it seem like the staff member feels at different points in the conversation? In what ways might nerves or fear influence the ways the staff member talks with the parent?
    • How does it seem like the family member feels at different points in the conversation? In what ways might nerves or fear influence the ways the parent responds?
    • In what ways is power held or shared in the conversation?
    • What evidence do you see that the relationship is damaged?
    • What could the staff member have done differently to make this a more comfortable conversation?
    • How can you avoid some of the issues you saw in this video?

    Difficult Conversation: What Not To Do

    Watch an example of what not to do when speaking to families about children’s challenging behaviors.

    Now, watch a video of a more supportive conversation with the family. As you watch, consider:

    • How is this conversation different from the first video?
    • What evidence do you see of a healthy and trusting relationship?
    • What strategies did the staff member use to help the family member feel comfortable and valued?
    • What can you learn from this conversation and apply to your own work with families?

    Difficult Conversation: What To Do

    Watch an example of a supportive conversation between a staff member and a parent.


    Familiarizing yourself with a variety of communication methods sets you up for success. Remember to always be available for families to offer support, guidance, information, or just to lend an ear.

    • Create a welcoming environment for family members by being kind, respectful, and professional at all times.
    • Communicate with families each day through informal methods like conversations and, when necessary, formal methods (for example, a written memo).
    • Plan opportunities for family partnerships throughout the year.
    • Get creative when it comes to communicating. Don’t let a family slip through the cracks just because you don’t see them every day.
    • Prepare in advance for difficult conversations. The Explore exercise in this lesson will help you do that.
    • Connect families with resources that can help them support their child.



    Review the Sharing Concerns with Families handout to learn how to handle situations in which families share information with you or you need to address a concern with a family.



    All child care professionals eventually must have difficult conversations with families. Use the Preparing for Conversation Guide to think deeply about how best to do this.




    True or false? It’s best to avoid speaking to families about concerns about their child’s behavior because the risk of damaging relationships with families is too great.


    Tommy recently began punching his preschool classmates. Which practice is not helpful to adopt when collaborating with Tommy’s family?


    Select the program-level practice that best supports child guidance and behavior.

    References & Resources

    Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning:

    Dunlap, G., Wilson, K., Strain, P., & Lee, J. (2013). Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Young Children. Baltimore, MD: Paul. H. Brookes.

    Dunlap, G., Iovannone, R., Kincaid, D., Wilson, K., Christiansen, K., Strain, P., & English, C. (2010). Prevent-Teach-Reinforce: The School-Based Model of Individualized Positive Behavior Support. Baltimore, MD: Paul. H. Brookes.

    Kids Included Together (KIT):

    Lentini, R., Vaughn, B. J., & Fox, L. (2008). Creating Teaching Tools for Young Children with Challenging Behavior [CD-ROM], Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children.

    Military One Source: About EFMP:

    Military One Source: About FAP:

    Military One Source: About MFLC:

    National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations:

    Pyramid Model Consortium:

    Rush, D. D., & Shelden, M. L. L. (2011). The Early Childhood Coaching Handbook. Baltimore, MD: Paul. H. Brookes.

    Simonsen, B., Freeman, J., Goodman, S., Mitchell, B., Swain-Bradway, J., et al. (2015). Supporting and Responding to Behavior: Evidence-Based Classroom Strategies for Teachers. Retrieved from

     U.S. Army, Child, Youth and School Services. (n.d.). Operational Guidance for Behavior Support.