- Learn about family-centered practices and strategies to ensure that families feel welcomed in the program.
- Reflect on ways to assist families and program staff in their care of children with disabilities.
- Understand how to build collaborative relationships with local agencies, schools, and businesses.
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 process. As a result, family-centered practice 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 (Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith, & McLean, 2005).
Family-centered practice also means that you, and all program staff, understand the important effect all family members have on each other and on the individual child. Each family member affects the other and the ways that the family functions. All family members are interconnected. From our families, we learn skills that enable us to engage in school, the community, and the workplace.
When using family-centered practice, you view each child or youth as part of a larger system; you view family members as a whole family system. Within the family system is a family culture that influences the family’s interactions, values, and practices. As a program manager you help program staff become aware of and sensitive to the interactions and relationships taking place within the family, as well as outside interactions and supports that affect them. It is important that your entire program staff understand that to maintain relationships with families 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 that may affect a family’s involvement. What affects one family member can affect all family members. A family is a complex system in which no one member can be viewed in isolation.
Throughout the Virtual Laboratory School, we consider family-centered practice as an umbrella term that encompasses the beliefs and actions of people in your program. Consider this table from Lesson One of the MGT, Family Engagement course:
Family-centered practice is a set of beliefs and actions that influence how we engage families.
Families are the most important decision-makers in a child's life.
Families are unique and their differences enrich our programs.
Families are resilient.
Families are central to development and learning.
Families are our partners.
As a program manager, you should make an effort to get to know the families in your program. You should convey and model for program staff the importance of understanding each child and family, as this creates opportunities for you to better support the children and youth in your care. You can learn more about family-centered practices in the Family Engagement course.
Welcoming Each Child and Family
Take a moment to think about what it means to feel welcomed. Where do you feel welcome? What happens in that place that makes you feel welcome? Do families feel welcome when they come to their child's classroom? How are families greeted when they call the program or ask a question?
Program managers take a leadership role when it comes to welcoming families to the program. As a leadership team, program managers and T&CSs should discuss how they will work together to support the program’s mission to care for children and also create meaningful partnerships with children’s families. Program managers set the tone for the program. They welcome families in ways that make them feel connected to the program. Just as they care about how the children are welcomed, they pay attention to how families are included in the program not only at drop-off and pick-up times, but throughout their child’s day.
It is important that the program managers ask families how they want to be involved, and remind family members that they are an important part of the program. Families should be able to choose to be involved in many ways—for military families in particular, it is critical to have flexibility in how families can participate. Equally important, T&CSs and program managers should have conversations with program staff, and observe their interactions with families, to ensure families are appropriately welcomed and have multiple ways to be involved in their child’s particular classroom.
Families want to have meaningful conversations about the program and their child. As a program manager or T&CS, it is important that you help ensure this happens at the program-level and within each classroom. In particular, you should take time to observe pick-up or drop-off interactions and family-teacher conference documentation. You should also help staff members reflect on how they communicate with families to learn about children and how they can use these opportunities to learn more about families to form a collaborative relationship with each child’s family. When family members volunteer, in the classroom or the larger program, they need to have clear directions, a purpose, and to know what the expectations are for them. Family members who serve on a program advisory board need to know that their voice is just as important as that of others on the board.
In addition, a family handbook can assist program managers in talking with families about program mission, philosophy, policies, procedures, roles, and responsibilities. For program managers, the handbook is a great informational item to share with families as you enroll them in your program and opens the door for you to share more about the program, and answer families’ questions. Asking families for ideas to add or include in the family handbook is another way to demonstrate that families are important decision-makers and part of the program community.
Another practice that helps families feel included is ensuring that program staff update families about their child’s day and week. Ongoing communication, including two-way communication, where families and the child’s caregiver exchange information about the child, is important. Working together on behalf of the child benefits all parties. Program staff must also be able to reach out to the program manager when they are unsure how to approach particular situations or topics with children’s families. Program managers and T&CSs should be prepared to help program staff learn how to sensitively approach families. Sometimes program leaders may be part of meetings between caregivers and families, or they may help staff members prepare for meetings and ensure they have the appropriate time and space to communicate with families.
Program managers and T&CSs may have to explain to families why the program promotes developmentally appropriate practice and how the chosen curriculum supports development. Sharing developmental information and curriculum information with families is part of family education, which is an important component of child and youth programs. You will share information in a variety of formats, including print resources, family workshop nights, webinars, videos, and meetings with individual families. When sharing information with families, it is important to find out what formats and languages are preferred by families.
Program managers should have clear and accessible feedback mechanisms in place to understand how the program meets families’ needs. It is important to ask questions and provide families with different methods to give the leadership team feedback (questionnaires, suggestion box, one on one conversations, family events).
Program managers should also focus on families’ strengths. All families have strengths and all families have challenges. Model for others a focus on each family’s strengths. Program managers can engage staff in forming relationships with families and set the tone for a warm, welcoming program atmosphere. You serve as model and leader who demonstrates the true spirit of caring for families.
Watch the video below to hear programs managers and T&CSs describe the importance of connecting with every family every day and the benefits of creating a partnership with families.
Supervise & Support
Helping Families Access Services for their Child
Meeting families’ needs, ensuring they feel welcome, and providing assistance when there is a concern are all essential aspects of a program manager’s work. In many cases, the program manager or T&CS is the first person a staff member talks with when they have concerns about a child’s development. An ongoing progress-monitoring system for each child that assesses and documents their growth and learning is a great way to share information with families. Keeping observation records at various times of the day is also critical to documenting how children are progressing over time as they learn new information and skills. Families should also be encouraged to share information about what they observe at home and in the community. Families often are the first to notice if their children are experiencing difficulties.
Program managers and T&Cs assist program staff and families with documentation and referrals to appropriate agencies when there are concerns about a child’s development. Program leaders should have contact information for vision and hearing screenings, health-care providers, early intervention services, school district special services teams, and mental health service agencies. These can be difficult conversations to have with families and so great care and sensitivity must be used when relaying any concerns with children’s families and sharing information about the child. When approaching a family with concerns about their child’s development, you should be prepared:
- To ask families about their concerns and what they notice about their child's experiences at home.
- With documentation from the child or youth's experience in the program to help explain your concerns.
- With a list of resources to discuss together potential next steps.
- To listen to families. Hearing or talking about their child's development may be a very emotional experience for some families, especially if there are other stressors in their lives.
- To emphasize that you are here to help support the family and their child, and that your program staff wants to work as a team with the family to support their child in the best possible way.
When programs enroll children who receive special education or mental health services, the program manager and T&CS should ensure that the children and teachers have adequate resources and supports. Teachers may need training and consultation to work with children with disabilities. The program manager and T&CS will need to work collaboratively to ensure that an infant’s individualized family service plan (IFSP) outcomes or a preschool child’s individualized education plan (IEP) goals are addressed. The child’s family, the school district or agency personnel, and the child care program leaders are a team working on behalf of the child with disabilities. Successful inclusion of children with disabilities requires careful planning, intentional teaching, and ongoing communication among all team members. You should follow your program’s procedures for how to support children with disabilities and what is needed regarding IFSP or IEP documentation. You can also access the KIT resources to work with program staff on developing strategies to support children with a variety of disabilities.
There are excellent resources available (see the reference list) that program managers and T&CSs may use for professional development for themselves and members of their staff. Training and appropriate resources for staff and families are essential to successful inclusion and should be explicitly written into any IFSP or IEP document for children with disabilities attending a child care or after-school program. It is important to remember that families, or sometimes children’s special service providers (e.g., occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, early intervention specialists, etc.), can be a great resource for how to appropriately support a child with disabilities. As a program manager, you can arrange meetings where you and the appropriate program staff come together to learn strategies to use in the classroom to support the child. When appropriate, you can even help families and program staff work together on how they might talk to other children in a child’s classroom about their disability. See the Learn attachment from the PACER Center Champions for Children with Disabilities resource, Telling Classmates about Your Child’s Disability May Foster Acceptance, for more information. Although this resource is framed for families, it has many helpful ideas and strategies for how families and staff may thoughtfully approach discussions around children with diverse abilities with the larger classroom community.
Watch the video below to hear program managers and T&CSs describe their role in ensuring children with disabilities receive appropriate care and how to support staff members and families through the journey of caring for these exceptional children.
Collaboration with Community Partners
The program manager represents the program in working with local agencies, schools, organizations, and businesses. Program managers may be involved in local groups such as a child care directors’ association, an interagency council focused on youth development and career training, a local community college work group, family advocacy groups and other associations or boards that promote child and family well-being. The program manager demonstrates a commitment to partnerships with other agencies and organizations in the community. As the face of the program, the manager acts with integrity and professionalism.
Some community partnerships may involve program managers committing to carrying out policies and procedures as outlined in memorandums of understanding (MOUs). MOUs are sometimes developed between organizations to arrange and facilitate agreed-upon services for children and families. For example, a child care program may have an MOU with a birth-to-3 early intervention agency that indicates in writing that the agency will conduct developmental screening for infants and toddlers enrolled in the child care center at no cost to the families or child care organization. An MOU for developmental screening may commit the program manager to obtaining signed permission forms from legal guardians in order to have their infants screened, explaining the screening process, and including families in the process. Arranging for space at the child care center for the agency staff to conduct the screenings also may be part of the MOU. Such an agreement means families learn more about their child’s development without the need for families to travel to another agency or take time off work. When program managers work together with community agencies and businesses, the time spent on collaboration can result in enhanced service to the children, families, and staff.
Other community collaboration activities that program managers can engage in include:
- Shared professional development opportunities (workshops, webinars, conferences) for themselves and their staff
- Opportunities to apply for grants, scholarships, materials for staff (e.g., some civic groups and service organizations offer grants for schools and agencies for particular ideas, such as adding more science-related materials)
- Opportunities to benefit from volunteers from the community who can share their skills and expertise with the staff and children
- Fee assistance support for military families without access to an on-base child care provider, such as through Child Care Aware, https://usa.childcareaware.org/fee-assistancerespite/military-families/. Non military-affiliated families, see: http://childcareaware.org/families/paying-for-child-care/federal-state-child-care-programs/
- Making information about child care subsidies available by sharing resources about the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC - https://www.irs.gov/forms-pubs/about-form-2441) and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF - https://www.benefits.gov/benefit/615) by sharing access to resources about them.
Building collaborative relationships takes time and attention, but it often has meaningful outcomes in terms of enhancing the overall quality of the child and youth program. Groups that focus on professional support for T&Cs (e.g., a coaches group) or program managers (e.g., a child care director's group) can provide those in leadership positions with a network to share their celebrations and challenges and to create new friends and colleagues among those working on behalf of children and families.
Program managers are tasked with creating a positive, welcoming environment for all staff and families. Everyone has difficult days and special circumstances can affect one’s ability to remain smiling, optimistic, and cheerful. Think about the people you know that maintain a positive tone even when having a difficult conversation. What words do they use? What does their body language look like? How do they maintain relationships with others who do not return their friendliness?
The adults in your center will typically follow your lead in welcoming others and interacting with colleagues. You also represent your program on teams and groups outside of the program in order to facilitate connecting families to services they many need. Make a list of words, phrases, or actions you can take to encourage families, staff, and members of your network. Put this list in a place where you can refer to it when you need ideas to bring encouragement to others in your circles.
You can probably remember a time during a moment of stress when you didn’t behave as your ‘best self.’ Maybe you needed more support to better help you manage an event. Perhaps the form of support was even something as simple as getting a good night’s rest. Similarly, families under stress operate better with supports in place. Think about circumstances when families of the children in your care encounter challenges, such as health care concerns, unemployment, or other financial concerns. ZERO TO THREE and CLASP (Center for Law and Social Policy) are working to increase awareness of federal and state-based policies that better support children and families. Review the 13 policies in the resource, Core Policies for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. If you could choose three policies from this resource to advocate for and support in your role as a program manager, which three policies would you choose? Compare your ideas with another program manager to see if their top concerns differ. Could you or a colleague contact a local legislator and describe how these policies would positively affect the path of the infants and toddlers in your center or family child care program? Can you think of any families who would be interested to learn about this resource? Share it with your direct care staff or families.
Examining your collaboration skills as a team member may help you understand what areas of your work as a team leader need attention and which areas you are comfortable with at this time. Collaborating with families, program staff, and community partners enhances the quality of your child and youth program. Answer the questions on the attached document to focus on your collaborative leadership skills.
Child Care Aware (2016). Child Care Resource & Referral Search Form. http://www.childcareaware.org/ccrr-search-form/
CONNECT Modules. http://community.fpg.unc.edu/connect-modules/
Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (DEC) Recommended Practices. (2014). http://www.dec-sped.org/recommendedpractices
ECTA Center. (2020). Indicators of High-Quality Inclusion. https://ectacenter.org/topics/inclusion/indicators.asp
Ernst, J. D. (2015). Supporting Family Engagement. Teaching Young Children, 9(2), 8-9.
Head Start Center for Inclusion. http://headstartinclusion.org/
Salloum, S. J., Goddard, R.D, & Berebitsky, D. (2018). Resources, learning, and policy: the relative effects of social and financial capital on student learning in schools. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR) 23(4), 281-303. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10824669.2018.1496023. See also https://news.osu.edu/why-relationships--not-money--are-the-key-to-improving-schools/
Sandall, S., Schwartz, I., Joseph, G., and Gauvreau, A. (2019) Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs, Third Edition. Brookes Publishing.
Schweikert, G. (2012). Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals: Partnering with families. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Tomlinson, H. B. (2015). Explaining Developmentally Appropriate Practice to Families.Teaching Young Children, 9 (2), 16-17.