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Partnering with Families

Family members are the most important people in young children’s lives. Partnering with families will help to create an environment that meets the needs of each child. This lesson will define aspects of family partnerships, focusing on honoring and celebrating individual and cultural identities and experiences that are essential to your work and your program.

  • Describe what it means to equitably partner with families.
  • Identify experiences and activities that support culturally responsive family engagement.
  • Explore ways to honor and celebrate the identities and experiences of all children, families, and the community.



Take a moment to think about what it means to be a good and meaningful partner. You may find it helpful to imagine traits about someone who is a current partner. What words come to mind when you think about that person? Is it someone who you trust, rely on, or feel comfortable with? Maybe it is someone with whom you can be vulnerable, silly, or outgoing. Now, think about how a current partner (personal or professional) might describe you. Would they describe you as someone who is open and honest? Would they describe you as someone who is flexible in your thinking and willing to learn and grow in your ideas?

Consider how you currently collaborate with families in your classroom or program. Do your relationships with families align closely with what you envisioned above? What is the same and what is different? One definition of the word “partner” as defined by Merriam-Webster online is “either of two persons who dance together.” People who dance together well need to be in unison and follow the beat or rhythm of the music. Imagine how interesting it would be to see dance partners incorporating wildly different steps or moving to their own beat. It would probably appear as though the dancers were not working together very well.

In the same way that dance partners need to work together to perform seamlessly, child care professionals and families will also need to collaborate and work in unison for the benefit of the child. Use the following questions as a guide to examine how you are currently partnering with families:

  • What are the characteristics of your partnership?
  • Does your partnership look the same with each family or does it look different depending on the child and family?
  • Why have you chosen your method or methods for partnering with families and are your current methods working for every child in your care?
  • What opportunities are there to improve and build upon the partnerships that you have already developed with families?
  • Is there a power dynamic involved in your partnership where one person has more power over decision-making?
  • Are there additional people that you need to consider in the partnerships you have with each family (staff, grandparents, other child care professionals)?

Educators know children well in terms of what child development looks like at a certain age and how to support the developmental needs of children. This makes teachers and child care professionals experts in education. However, it is important to acknowledge that families are experts too. “Every child’s first and most important teachers are the family members who nurture their development and learning,” according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). While families may not have educational backgrounds and formal degrees in child development, they should always be considered an expert on their child. Families know their child in multiple contexts, including at home, in the presence of friends and family, and in the larger community. Schools and programs, however, typically know children in a very specific context, which may limit their perspective about who a child is and the child’s strengths and interests. We can’t truly understand and be responsive to children and youth if we only rely on the parts of them that we can see. Recall from the definition of culture in the previous lesson that how we view the world is affected by our own identity and experiences. Therefore, it is essential that we partner with families to gain a richer sense of who their children are in and outside of the program. The information that we can learn from families is invaluable. Rather than see each other as competitors and strangers, it is in the best interest of the child for educators to see families as allies and partners in education in order to help children thrive in school.

NAEYC also says, “Families and teachers both have information that can be exchanged as part of an ongoing reciprocal relationship. Together, you support the healthy development and learning of each child.” Families must have opportunities to be involved in programs to the extent that they choose, and in the ways that they can, given their resources and circumstances. This will strengthen both your relationship and partnership. Educators can develop a better understanding of who the child is so their identities can be honored and celebrated in schools and programs. Families can offer educators valuable information about their child that the educator would not have access to otherwise. In the same respect, families can get a better understanding of who educators are and learn more about how their child is being cared for.

As providers, we recognize that children always enter programs with information and experiences that educators are not aware of. Before a child arrives at a program each day, they have already had several experiences (both positive and negative) that they bring with them. Maybe a child had a hard time sleeping the night before, so they are still tired; or they didn’t want to eat breakfast, so they are still hungry. There are other factors that can affect children’s experiences in your program. Perhaps the child’s family is preparing for deployment, a relocation, or they have recently migrated to the country. Children may also be affected by the incarceration of a parent or other family member, or they may have recently experienced a death in the family. Children have multiple layers to their identity, and child care professionals and programs can honor and celebrate those identities through the curriculum as discussed and illustrated in previous lessons. Educators can support children and families as they navigate challenging times by being there to listen when children and families need someone to talk to. Educators can also provide important information about local resources and services that can assist families in need. By connecting with families regularly, you are not only supporting the child’s development, but also the development of the whole family, as well as your own.

Building Equitable Partnerships with Families

Partnering with families should begin on day one and be a continuous process. Strong partnerships require time and care. For example, in year-round programming where children can enroll at any time, the enrollment process might begin with an in-person tour of your facility or a virtual visit where potential families get to see how the program operates. This creates an opportunity for families to ask questions. During this time, it is important for families to engage with child and youth professionals and administrators. It is equally important for you to get to know families, during this time. Consider how you might include administrators, coaches, and child care professionals in the enrollment process. Below are some questions that support equitable relationship building with new families. Think about how you might adapt these to fit your program’s needs.

  • What is your child’s preferred name or nickname?
  • Has your child had previous experience in a child development or youth program? If so, was this experience positive?
  • How do you and your child handle separating from each other?
  • Are there ways that we can make the separation process easier? What is the best way our program can support this transition?
  • How often will your child attend our program and what does their daily schedule look like?
  • What are some things that your child enjoys doing at home?
  • What does your child enjoy doing outside of your home?
  • What do you enjoy doing together as a family?
  • Who are some of the important people in your child’s life?
  • How do you prefer to be addressed? How does your child address you?
  • How do you prefer to give and receive information?

Gathering this information in person is helpful in establishing connections with families; however, it is important to recognize that some families will have limited time which may lessen their ability to provide detailed information during the visit. To support families in multiple ways, you could also offer an online form or a printed document (in their home language if possible) for the family to complete regarding their children’s interests, schedule, and family preferences. Additional questions to get to know the family and child better might include:

  • How does your child act when tired or upset?
  • What strategies do you use to soothe your child that might be helpful in our program?
  • Are there specific words or phrases that you use to help your child when they are having a hard time with directions, transitions, or activities?
  • What are some of your hopes and dreams for your child during this upcoming year in our program?

If the child speaks another language at home, it would be a good idea to have the family share some frequently used words with you in their home language. Engage families in ongoing two-way communication and create opportunities where they know their knowledge is valued. If your program has an open-door policy where families can check in with child care professionals on a regular basis, then great! You may find that some families may not use this option very often, and that is OK.

In previous lessons, we discussed the importance of understanding the different values, beliefs, and traditions of families. The role of teachers and child care professionals may vary in different cultures. Some families may see the role of the teacher or child care professional as an expert and someone who should not be questioned. As a result, families may hesitate to reach out with questions or concerns. Other reasons that families may hesitate to reach out may be based on the time that an educator is available. Because your goal is to create strong equitable partnerships with families, it important to offer different scheduling options to meet varying needs. It’s most supportive to ask families when they are available and which format they prefer to use when meeting. Location, timing, and the availability of child care are things providers must factor into planning meetings.

Connecting with Families Around Conflict

Conversations with families that center on a challenging behavior that you are seeing from their child or another concern that you are having should not be the first communication between you and the family. Families need to hear information about their child that is balanced, includes things the child is doing well and working hard to get better at, and opportunities for you to work together to help their child develop further. Imagine how you might feel if you began building a new relationship with a pediatrician or a dentist for your child and, as you’re describing important aspects of your family’s diet and lifestyle, the doctor tells you all the things you are doing wrong without acknowledging the efforts that you are making to ensure a healthy lifestyle and plan nutritious meals for your child and family. While you may appreciate the doctor's insight and expertise you might also feel as though it is hard to develop trust with this individual based on your first interaction. You may begin to feel upset or experience other emotions that make it difficult to hear anything else the healthcare provider says, even the positive comments. Everyone is different, so it is possible that the pediatrician or dentist’s candid approach may not bother you. However, it is important to acknowledge that the way you share information and when you choose to share information will affect the relationship that you are building with families. The timing of your message matters. Be careful to avoid causing harm or doing anything that might create barriers in your relationship. Trust, honesty, and respect should always be foundational in your partnerships with families. This will allow the lines of communication to remain open and it will allow for healing and restoration to take place in moments when harm has been done. When you partner with families, it helps to remember some of the words that define a partner, especially collaboration.

As you progress in this lesson, consider what you might need to have a healthy collaboration. In the same way that you have needs as a collaborator, families also have needs in terms of collaboration. To build your relationship on a strong foundation, you should have a conversation about the way that you hope to partner with families early on. It’s important for educators to discuss preferences for how and when information is shared and identify policies around what information can be shared and with whom.

When engaging families in difficult conversations, it is important to collaborate to find one or more solutions that might work, and to make sure the family agrees with the idea(s). In an ideal and preferred situation, families and providers will devise a plan together. Additionally, set plans for moving forward, such as a timeline, ways you will communicate, and alternatives if a plan is not working. During these conversations with families, remember that culture plays an important role in interactions. You may find that one parent does most or all the talking. This may be a cultural norm and one that must be respected. Language is another factor that must be considered. If the family’s home language is not English, you will need to consider the best way to approach the conversation, without involving the child. A child should not be expected to translate information that might make them feel uncomfortable or participate in a conversation they should not be involved in (e.g., finances, upcoming deployment, etc.). For that reason, a trustworthy translator should be used to increase the likelihood of mutual understanding.

Honoring and Celebrating Identities

Remember the cultural iceberg that we discussed in Lesson 2? When it comes to culture, there will always be things that you can see (although they may not always match how a person sees themselves), as well as things that will remain unseen. To get a better sense of who children are, we need to consider how we connect with families. Families can offer a tremendous amount of information about children in our programs. This is information that we would often not have access to otherwise, so their support and collaboration is crucial. We can partner with families as we honor and celebrate a child’s identity. We live in a racialized society where some races and ethnicities are valued and prioritized over others. Our society also marginalizes groups and people according to other aspects of their identity. People may be treated differently if they do not conform to the gender binary, meaning they do not identify as male or female. People may be treated differently because of their socioeconomic status or social class, their religion, their abilities, or their appearance.

As child and youth professionals, it is important for us to have explicit conversations that intentionally place identity out in the open. Conversations about identity should not be on the sidelines or at the margins of our curriculum. These conversations need to be placed in the center. No one should feel ashamed to walk through the world as their true selves, and educators and families can play a central role in making this true. Imagine how challenging it might be if you felt like your language assets were not valued, so you remained quiet for most of the day rather than express yourself for fear that someone might tease you for your accent. Imagine if the person doing that was your teacher. How might it impact your relationship with them or how you felt about the program? How would it make you feel if an aspect of your identity garnered a lot of attention, both positive and negative. What if you attended a program where you were one of the only people of color and your skin color or hair made you stand out. Would you feel comfortable in that program, or would you need the program staff to ensure your comfort through their intentional practices to honor and celebrate different identities? Instead of making children and youth feel the need to hide some parts of who they are, educators can honor and affirm the identities of students by making sure they have diverse books and materials in their program, incorporating different languages throughout the day, and partnering with families.

In order to honor and celebrate families in your program, consider starting conversation around special family traditions, languages spoken at home, and how the child identifies in terms of their race and ethnicity. While the question about race and ethnicity may initially feel a little sensitive, it does not need to be. Discussing race is often looked at as a negative thing, however, child and youth professionals can help children and youth develop and affirm positive aspects of their identity, including their race. Likewise, ethnicity is another aspect of identity that might feel sensitive to discuss, but it is something that should be celebrated and honored since it is connected to our unique history.

In Lesson 4, the idea of ‘All About Me’ activities were introduced. These activities can be a great opportunity for families to reflect and create something special together. They can share as much or as little as they feel comfortable sharing. Family traditions might include religious practices, which can lead to conversations about different religions and ways that they are similar or different in your program. An All About Me curriculum that digs below the surface can honor a child’s identity and demonstrate to children and youth that you value centering these conversations in your program. Books and other materials like diverse dolls or toys (depending on the age of the children) can be great learning resources for your program. Toys can feature people with different abilities, religions, genders, or races and that can lead to important conversations around diversity. Books are another way to enter these conversations. With all materials, we must be both explicit and direct in our language when teaching about race and other differences to help reduce the discomfort around these conversations and to create an inviting space for ongoing discussions. It is important to remember that adults usually struggle with conversations about diversity much more than children because children simply see their question or observation in a similar way that they may see any other question or comment. Adults can carry uncomfortable memories and experiences around diversity, and they often bring them into conversations with children.

The reflective work that you engaged in previous lessons is ongoing work you should continue as you examine your biases. If you feel that it is too difficult to engage in some of this work alone, it might be helpful to work with a trusted colleague or a small group of colleagues so you can have a thought partner. Working with a therapist might be helpful if some memories feel particularly painful to unpack on your own. Like the children we work with, child and youth professionals carry lots of memories about our families and specific moments in our lives. We need to be able to reflect on those memories to see how they have shaped our identities and inform and influence our work. Our silence and avoidance of important topics that impact us and the way we engage with children, youth, and families allow biases and misinformation to remain in place. We need to move past the idea that talking about diversity is “not nice” or is “taboo”, and find a way to have honest, brave, and open dialogue around this topic. Partnering with families is one way to do this work.

Societal Effects on Individual and Group Identity

Another reason partnering with families around identity development and affirmation is so important is that families are typically doing this work already. This is especially true in families that identify as people of color. Families that are marginalized due to their race, religion, or social class often deem it important to provide their children with positive messages about their identity to counter the negative stereotypes and narratives from society, including schools and programs. Black children may hear negative things about their hair, their language, their attitudes, or their style of dress. They are receiving messages, both good and bad, every single day. The same is true for Latine, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous children. Latine children may receive messages that associate their families with undocumented immigration or hear other negative messages that play out in the media and society. Asian children may be told that they are naturally bright, so they may hesitate to ask for help. Or they may receive indirect messages that they need to assimilate by changing their names to sound more American and rejecting other parts of their identity to fit in. Indigenous children may struggle to see many narratives about their culture. And when they do find such narratives, they may derive from a perspective that does not offer a full picture of who they are. While White children are naturally centered and considered the norm in society, it is important to remember that their identities are also layered and need to be developed so they can understand their race and ethnicity, in addition to other aspects of their identity like religion, gender, social class, ability, and appearance. All aspects of identity development are important for all children.

Consider how often identity development was intentionally taught to you as a child and think about how often you teach it as an educator. Since identity development is one aspect of child development, how can we authentically, responsively, and equitably teach children if we don’t see them for who they truly are? How can we help prepare children and youth for life if we don’t prepare them for some of the stereotypes and assumptions that they will face because of how society views different identities?

Centering Families’ Goals and Preferences

During meetings and conferences, child and youth professionals often share information about children through narratives, portfolios, and pictures. By the time an educator meets with a family member, they may already have specific goals in mind for the rest of the year; and while families are often included in the conversation, this will look different depending on each educator and each program. 

As an alternative to starting a conversation with a family with predetermined goals in mind, educators can create a powerful shift in the dynamic by beginning a conference or meeting by asking the family how they would like to start the conversation. Another option would be to ask the family if they have anything specific they want to discuss. While child care professionals may be thinking about the academic side of child development, families may be thinking about other areas of development. They may be more focused on their child’s adaptive skills, which will allow them to be more independent at home and at school. Families with younger children may wonder if their child seems happy during the day, and they may want to know how educators soothe their child.

Partnering with families means that child and youth professionals and programs need to have open and direct conversations, even when they feel difficult. It means that educators and families need to learn from each other and allow themselves to be vulnerable as they work together to benefit children. Families may feel that it is important for programs to help their child develop different aspects of their identity and they may want to learn the details of how that might look on a daily basis. Families may also want to share how they develop their child’s identity at home. It is important to note that child and youth professionals should never be expected to have all the answers during a meeting with a family, and it is appropriate to ask for additional time to consider a question more fully or check in with a colleague for additional insight.

Educators and families may find that their goals and desires for a child’s learning and development are already closely aligned, or that they have very different ideas about what that might look like. When we begin with the questions and concerns of families, we send the very important message that their voice is critical to our work as child and youth professionals, and it shows that we value their opinion in their child’s education. This approach should make it much easier to move into a discussion of what families are hoping to see during the year regarding their child’s learning and development. As the child and youth professional, you can agree with the goals and desires shared by a family, or you can provide additional information that may make the goals more realistic based on what you know about their child. For example, if the parents of a 3-year-old expressed their desire for you to teach their child how to read by the end of the year, it would be appropriate to acknowledge their wish for the child to build literacy skills, but also to provide the parents with developmentally appropriate expectations. In this sense, you can address their ideas and thoughtfully share your professional opinion. You could share the preliteracy skills that you are teaching children each day, such as reading books aloud and facilitating more in-depth conversations. This could help families see all of the important skills that are being taught in your program that they may not be aware of. When appropriate, children and youth should be included in conversations about goals and desires if that matches the culture of a family and the child is old enough to process the conversation. Overall, the important thing is to listen to families and ensure that they feel valued and heard. At the end of the day, families and child and youth professionals should always be on the same team working together so every child can learn and thrive.


A vital aspect of a child and youth professional’s role is establishing and maintaining strong family partnerships that are equitable and culturally inclusive. Listen as Iheoma U. Iruka, Research Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, addresses practices for building and improving these partnerships.  

Partnering with Families

Iheoma Iruka, Ph.D., discusses the value of strong family partnerships. 


In order to establish and maintain strong family partnerships that are equitable and culturally inclusive, direct-care staff and program leaders should:

  • Reflect on the ways that you partner with families and how you can enhance these opportunities.
  • Provide opportunities for families to share information about their culture, values, preferences, interests, etc.
  • Plan and attend professional development opportunities around building and supporting family partnerships.
  • Ensure that program policies address culturally responsive family engagement.
  • Consider adding family engagement specialists to the staff.
  • Build partnerships within community organizations and make resources accessible to families.


Cultural beliefs and values influence caregiving behaviors and the decisions that families make about children. Understanding your own perspectives and learning more about how a family's cultural beliefs and values influence their choices and goals are important. Read the article, Family Engagement and Positive Goal Oriented Relationships, then complete the activity Practices Influenced by Culture to explore the ways that families' perspectives and values may differ from your own.


Review the resources listed in the Family Partnership Resources activity to identify additional ways to connect with the families of the children in your care.


Being treated as insignificant; to render someone or something powerless or unimportant in a group or within society.


Which of the following is an example of an equitable partnership with families?
All of the following are ways to celebrate and honor cultural identities, except...?
What are some reasons families may not partner with educators in regard to their child’s learning and development?
References & Resources

Banks, R.A., Santos, R.M., & Roof, V. (2003). Discovering family concerns, priorities, and resources: Sensitive family information gathering. Young Exceptional Children, 6(2), 11-19.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.) Working with immigrant and refugee families.

Diffily, D., & Morrison, K. (1996). Family-friendly communication for early childhood programs. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Glascoe, F. P. (1999). Communicating with parents. Young Exceptional Children, 2(4), 17-25.

Gryphon House. (2018). Engaging culturally diverse families in early learning.

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

Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center. (2022). Relationship-based competencies to support family engagement.

Iruka, I., Curenton, S., Durden, T., Escayg, K. (2020). Don’t look away: Embracing anti-bias classrooms. Gryphon House.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2003). The essential conversation: What parents and teachers can learn from each other. Ballantine Books. 

Nemeth, K., Koralek, D., & Ramsey, K. (n.d.). Building a partnership with your child’s teacher. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Stringer, K. (2018). When families and schools work together, students do better: New report has five ways of engaging parents in their kids’ education. The 74.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, professionals, and exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust. (5th ed.). Pearson Education Inc. (n.d.). Tip sheet for teachers (Pre-K through 12): Supporting children who have an incarcerated parent.