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Families: An Introduction

Your program is more than a place where families leave their children while they are working. Your program supports family well-being. You not only impact individual family members but the overall functioning of the family as well. You are responsible for creating a respectful environment where families have access to information, services, and supports they need to fulfill their roles as the most important people in their children’s lives. This lesson will define the term “family,” describe the importance of families in your programs, and define family-centered practices. This lesson also describes the role you have in creating a climate that promotes respect for all families among program staff.

  • Recognize that families are unique and the importance of valuing diversity among families in your program.
  • Ensure program staff utilize family-centered practices in their daily work with children and families.



What are Your Views about Families?

When you think of the word “family,” what does it 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’s important to keep an open mind about what makes up a family. Each person defines family in their own way.

The Meaning of Family

The U.S. Census Bureau defines family as a group of two or more people who are related by birth, marriage, or adoption, and who live 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.” Another commonly used definition for family is “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). As you can see, there is not one single, concise and agreed upon definition of what makes up a family. For one person, a family could include a close friend not otherwise related by marriage, adoption, or biology. For another person, a family could be a married couple living apart.

Families are central to children’s lives. They are a child’s first teachers and are valuable sources of information about the child. Particularly when it comes to young children, families assume critical roles that significantly affect children’s well-being and development. As a result, it is critical that you and your staff appreciate and understand children’s families.

Through your leadership, you create an environment in which families are valued partners in the care and education of their children. In fact, your program only exists because of families; without them, there would be no program. It only stands to reason that families must be valued. However, families are not valued simply because you and your staff say they are. Their value is demonstrated in what you and your staff do each and every day.

When we talk about encouraging the well-being of families, it’s helpful to step back and think about the changing dynamics of family structure. As associations between marriage, partnering, and childbirth have changed over time, family structures have become more varied or diverse through same-sex couple families, families with shared custody, families where members have different immigration statuses, and families in which a parent has children with multiple partners. Today, 40 percent of children are now born to unmarried parents. Note that some of these shifts in changing family structures are not always challenges for families, but family complexity is sometimes associated with a greater risk of maltreatment from parents’ unmarried partners, less caregiving from a non-residential parent, and other factors. Like the concept of ‘family,’ the concept of family well-being is also challenging to define. You may recognize it when you see it in your program. Or you may recognize when families lack some aspect of family well-being. As you think about how best to engage with families and model to staff how to do the same, consider your program’s role in strengthening your program families’ protective factors. 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

Because families are central to their children’s development, particularly during the early-childhood years, they are partners, active participants, and decision makers in their children’s education (Dunst, 2002; Dunst, Trivette, & Hamby, 2008; Trivette & Dunst, 2005). As a result, family-centered practice is considered one of the indicators of quality in early childhood education, programs, and services (Hanson & Lynch, 2004). At the heart of family-centered practice is the belief that families are the most important decision-makers in a child’s life. Professionals must respect, support, and enhance the strengths and unique characteristics and culture of each family.

Families know their children best and want the best for them. When it comes to their children, they are the experts. The chart below identifies the family-centered practices that show respect as you and your staff support families in their role.

Families are the most important decision-makers in a child’s life.
  • We 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 learn about individual families, including their cultural values and beliefs.
  • We honor and respect diversity.
  • We reflect on whose voices are systemically marginalized and take steps to center them in our program. 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 in families’ home languages.
  • We listen to families.
  • We view families as their child’s first teachers.
  • 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.
  • We provide a variety of opportunities for family engagement that consider family needs and availability.

Family-centered practice promotes competence, consistency, and continuity. Children’s development and learning is supported when families feel competent in their roles as parents. You and your staff support family competence when their skills are strengthened as a result of collaboration and shared decision-making. Children and youth know what to expect and feel more comfortable when there is consistency and predictability between the ways things are done at home and the ways they are done at your program. Consistency keeps everyone on the same page and strengthens the home-school connection, which is good for children, youth and everyone who cares for them. You and your staff support consistency when the preferences of families are solicited and included into the daily routine. Additionally, continuity is important to children and youth, particularly in times of crisis, as it minimizes disruptions that can affect their development and learning. You and your staff support continuity by establishing networks of support to link families in times of need.

Honoring Diversity in Your Program

Respecting the families your program serves is at the heart of the work you and your staff do every day. Families are unique. Their structures, beliefs, and parenting practices are shaped by their own experiences and culture and can be very different than those held by you or your staff. Being part of a responsive program means that you demonstrate sensitivity and consideration for the diverse backgrounds, experiences, values, and contexts in which children and families live. Honoring those differences is essential as you build relationships and engage families in meaningful ways to promote positive outcomes for everyone.

Families come in all different shapes and sizes, and our diversity should unite us rather than divide us. Responsive managers demonstrate sensitivity and consideration for the diverse backgrounds, experiences, values, and contexts in which children and families live. It is important for staff to learn about individual families to better understand their culture and be able to provide culturally sustaining environments that include and celebrate family differences. Awareness of diversity brings with it the realization that the way we act and what we believe in can be different from the way other people act and what other people believe in.

Responsive managers avoid making assumptions about groups of people and the way they act or think. While it is important to acknowledge differences between various groups of people, it is also important to recognize differences within-group. While there may be commonly shared characteristics, values, and attributes among people who come from a particular geographic region or who have a particular cultural heritage, there is still considerable variability within the same group in terms of values or ways of doing things. This is especially evident when it comes to parenting practices. 

Respecting the diversity in parenting styles is just as important as respecting other types of differences. Parenting practices are influenced by many factors. Those who work with families must be sensitive to practices that are different from how they were parented or how they parent their own children. When it comes to parenting, there is no right way or wrong way that must be followed by everyone; there is only the family’s way. Families and staff want the same things for children and youth – to grow up to be healthy, happy, and successful. At times, staff and families have different approaches and expectations to achieving these goals for their children, which can sometimes lead to misunderstanding and conflict. 

Embracing diversity in your work with families and staff will not happen overnight. It is a life-long process in which people from various backgrounds are challenged to learn and understand different points of view, accept new or unfamiliar ways of doing things, and ultimately work together toward a common goal. It is important to understand that this is a collaborative process; just as you may feel challenged or confused, families may feel the same. As researchers in the field of family and diversity remind us, “the challenge is not so much for service providers to give up their own beliefs as it is to cultivate a habit of learning to understand and respect those of others” (Harry, Rueda & Kalyanpur, 1999).

Supervise & Support

It is your responsibility to establish expectations regarding the involvement of families in your program. These expectations should be clearly laid out in staff and family handbooks, shared during orientation for new staff and families, and reinforced during staff meetings. Unmet expectations must be addressed. In most cases, these types of issues won’t get resolved without some level of intervention.

You and your program can model family-centered practice each and every day. As a role model, it is critical that you demonstrate a positive, family-centered approach throughout your program. You can be the bridge that helps build and maintain family engagement across classrooms and programs. For example, you can support families and staff members as children transition across age groups and buildings. Think about what staff members and other adults learn from watching your interactions:

What a staff member sees:What a staff member learns:What a family member learns:
The manager greets families by name as they arrive.Each family is valued, and this is a friendly place. The program values building relationships with everyone.I am respected and valued by everyone here.
The manager greets a family member who arrives unexpectedly and walks with them to the classroom to visit their child.Families are always welcome, and the program supports an open-door policy.I am welcome here anytime.
The manager sends thank-you notes to families who volunteered at the Family Movie Night.Families are appreciated here.I have important things to contribute, and I am a valued member of this community.
The manager asks a parent if they have had time to fill out the family survey. The T&C reminds them of where and when they can return it.Getting input from families is a priority here.My voice is heard here, and people care about what I have to say.
A manager encourages a family to attend a Parent Advisory Board meeting.Families are partners and help make program decisions.I can be a leader here and help make program decisions.
A manager participates in a community event or takes interest in a family’s traditions.We are all part of the same community.My child’s program is a part of my community.

Now think about some different behaviors you demonstrate towards families. What might staff members learn from these behaviors?

  • A manager remains silent when a staff member complains about a family.
  • A manager focuses on paperwork and ignores a family as they walk down the hall.
  • A manager discourages a family from checking on their child during the day.
  • A manager encourages a staff member to plan family education events without assessing families’ interests.
  • A manager joins in gossip about a family in the program.
  • A manager reassures a staff member that an angry parent will be fine and says they “complain all the time just to hear their own voice.”

It’s your responsibility to model and set the tone toward families in your program. Make sure clear expectations for working with families are established. These expectations should be clearly laid out in staff and family handbooks, shared during orientation for new staff and families, and reinforced during staff meetings. Family-centered expectations include:

  • Families are always welcome; they don’t need invitations
  • Families are the experts when it comes to their children and you and staff should value their opinions
  • Families provide valuable input for continuous improvement
  • Families need to know everything regarding their child; they are not on a need-to-know basis
  • Families are decision-makers; not just information sources
  • Families require differing levels of involvement; a lack of involvement doesn’t mean they don’t care
  • Families may not be able to ask for what they need; we may need to ask them

Listen to the following families as they share what’s important to them in regards to the care their children receive. What’s important to the families of children in your program becomes what’s important to you and your staff.

Invested In Us!

What's important to us

As the manager of the program, you set the tone and the expectations when it comes to respecting families. If you want your staff to demonstrate respect for families, you must do the same in all of your interactions. Staff members take their cues from you. You support your staff in their respect of families when you:

  • Model respectful relationships.
  • Acknowledge and value diversity.
  • Encourage staff to reflect on their personal values, experiences, ethics and biases and how these affect their work with families.
  • Solicit the preferences of families in the care of and goals for their children.
  • Encourage two-way communication between families and staff.
  • Promote positive interactions between families and staff.
  • Utilize formal and informal communication methods.
  • Provide an emotionally safe place for families and staff to share their feelings.
  • Create an environment that is welcoming and supportive of interaction.
  • Ask families for their input and feedback.
  • Provide ongoing professional development on topics that support relationships.

Completing this Course

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

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


Take some time to reflect on the roles of families in your program.  How does your program stand in terms of family engagement?  Download the Reflecting on Families Activity and answer the questions that follow and reflect on what they mean for your program. The Training & Curriculum Specialist in your program has completed the same exercise and will bring it to you for discussion. Share your thoughts to begin thinking about how to improve experiences for families in your program.


There are many experiences and beliefs we hold that shape the way we think about families and family engagement. Reflecting on how your own beliefs and values shape your attitudes toward families in your program is an important part of your work as a Program Manager. The Elements of Culture Activity is adapted from the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations and will have you to reflect on multiple aspects of culture that apply to families and family engagement. It may surprise you how some of these cultural elements show up in your work with families. After you have completed this activity on your own, share it with your staff or discuss it at a staff meeting to explore how your program responds to different cultural elements and what steps you and your staff might take to make your family engagement practices more inclusive.


Family-centered practice:
A philosophy or way of thinking that supports practices in which families are considered central and the most important decision makers in a child’s life. More specifically, this philosophy recognizes that the family is the constant in a child’s life and that service systems and providers must support, respect, encourage, and enhance the strengths of the family (Division of Early Childhood Recommended Practices, 2005)
Family well-being:
A framework for understanding the family as a system; viewing a family as more than the sum of its parts. In other words families are made up of individuals who function interdependently as a result of their relationships and interactions


True or false? Families are the most important decision-makers in a child’s life.
Which of the following is not a family-centered practice?
Before the new school year begins, a staff member shares with you that they have planned the entire year’s family education nights. Is this an example of family-centered practice? Why or why not?
References & Resources

Baker, A. C., & Manfredi-Petitt L. A. (2004). Relationships, the Heart of Quality Care: Creating community among adults in early care settings. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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.

Global Family Research Project. (2021).

Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2005). Attachment and separation. In Diversity in Early Care and Education, 4th ed., (pp. 79–91). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2005). A framework for understanding differences. In Diversity in Early Care and Education, 4th ed., (pp. 61–77). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Greenman, J. (1998). Places For Childhoods, Making Quality Happen In The Real World. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press Inc.

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

Harry, N., Rueda, R., & Kalyanpur, M. (1999). Cultural Reciprocity in Sociocultural Perspective: Adapting the normalization principle for family collaboration. Exceptional Chi

Howes, C., & Ritchie, S. (2002). A Matter of Trust: Connecting teachers and learners in the early childhood classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

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.

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. (n.d.).

Wennerstrom, E., Stegenga, S., Allen, R., Mcintosh, K., Smith, J., Ferro, J., Winneker, A., & Clayback, K. (2021). Early Childhood Program-Wide PBS Benchmarks of Quality (EC-BOQ) CULTURAL RESPONSIVENESS COMPANION 2021