- Discuss the significance of establishing and maintaining communication with families.
- Reflect on your own ideas and experiences associated with communicating with families.
- Plan activities that promote communication with families of all children in your program.
"Communication must be HOT. That's Honest, Open, and Two-way." Dan Oswald
Close your eyes and picture the qualities you want in your communication with families. What do you notice about the words you use, tone, pace and the feel of your everyday actions and routines? Ask yourself, “What am I doing to honor communication and relationships with families?” Your most important partner in this work is the preschooler’s family. It’s helpful to find a common understanding, rhythm and approach to family communication. The enrollment process, for example, can be considered the beginning of relationships. Future daily interactions are then supported by ongoing communication, systems and policies that invite multiple opportunities for communication and collaboration.
Throughout this lesson, we use the term family to refer to important people in children’s lives. These people can be parents, siblings, guardians, extended family members such as aunts or cousins, and other individuals who are involved in children’s lives.
The information in this lesson was adapted from the Preschool Family Engagement course. Refer to the Families Engagement course for more extensive discussions on various topics related to engaging and working with children’s families in your classroom and program.
Importance of Establishing Relationships and Communication with Families
Several research studies show that positive relationships between teachers, children and families are essential to learning (Shonkoff, et al., 2000). Relationships can be built and strengthened through communication between caregivers and families that occurs during hellos and goodbyes, as well as in more formal activities such as a planned family meeting.
All of these opportunities require you, as a preschool teacher, to be aware of many things, including tone, choice of words, and nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and body language. When you are aware of these characteristics, you can better communicate in ways that are most supportive to and respectful of families while keeping in mind this may be the family’s first experience with the preschool program. Even experienced teachers will not know more about children than their families; this is important to remember when families seem younger or less experienced than you are. Families will be eager to know how their child is doing, and you can support comfortable communication by offering encouraging responses and asking for clarification if something is not understood.
You can also ensure that each moment offers sensitive communication, active listening and opportunities for making connections. Developing relationships and communicating with families can help bridge the home and preschool settings. Additionally, research says:
- Programs that demonstrate and support partnering with families tend to have families that feel more confident and comfortable in supporting their children’s development (Wilcox & Weber, 2001).
- When services incorporate practices that promote partnerships with families, outcomes for family and children are improved including parenting capabilities and positive child behavior and functioning (Dempsey & Keen, 2008; Dunst, Trivette & Hamby, 2008).
Establishing communication and meaningful relationships with families is a critical aspect of your work in preschool. When it comes to families of children with special learning needs, who may be simultaneously interacting with several different professionals from varying agencies or disciplines, establishing relationships becomes even more salient. As a preschool teacher, your role in helping families develop goals for their children and coming up with ideas for achieving those goals can have a tremendous impact on these families’ lives. You will work closely with your trainer to meet the needs of young children with disabilities, but it is important for you to know some key terms.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal education law, mandates the development of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs) for children who qualify for either special education or early intervention. IEPs will be completed by the local school district and IFSPs will be completed by the local early intervention agency. CYP Professionals do not complete EAPs, IEPs, or IFSPs. However, you may be asked by the family to participate on the team for a child’s IEP or IFSP. Each IEP or IFSP describes the educational program designed by the team to meet the child’s or student’s unique needs and must contain specific information about the child or student, as required by state and federal law.
For families new to this process, your role can be very important. Families may view your preschool program as their liaison or advocate to help them understand the system, access meaningful services, and set goals that can make a difference in their child’s life.
Maintaining Ongoing Communication with Families
Sharing information about children in ways meaningful to families is critical to maintaining ongoing communication. Whenever possible, use data (e.g., classroom observations, examples of children’s work, child assessments) to convey information about children with families. Data can help family members understand that the information you are sharing with them is based on instances where you observed and generated information in an organized manner, as opposed to sharing things based on your personal views or opinions. As part of your work in preschool, it is likely that you collect developmental information on children through assessments, and it is critical that families have access to that information. This also enables families to follow their child’s progress over time. Along the same lines, invite families to observe their children in your classroom. Schedule some time after the observation to talk about what family members noticed and address any questions they may have.
Families will also help set the pace for their communication with you. It is important to acknowledge it can take time for families to feel safe, comfortable and friendly. Different forms of communication or ways of communicating can play an important role in easing the process. Using a combination of communication styles, or forms, with families might work best in meeting their needs. It’s also important to keep in mind there are likely to be a variety of factors that create challenges to communicating with families such as conflicting belief systems or overwhelming family problems and crises. Take a moment to think about and list a few of the barriers that you have faced when communicating and building relationships with families.
Family-teacher conferences are a great opportunity to engage in valuable conversations with family members about their children’s development and to address questions they may have. You can make this a meaningful experience for families by asking them to respond to or think about a few questions before coming to the conference. For example, you can ask them to think about their child’s most favorite or least favorite aspects of their preschool experience, or about concerns they may have. These questions can serve as great conversation guides and can facilitate dialogue and the exchange of ideas during the conference. In the Learn section of this lesson, you can see an example of a brief questionnaire you can share with families prior to family-teacher conferences. By giving families some time to reflect on these simple questions before coming to the conference, you are sending them the message that their input matters and that you value their point of view.
Involving Families in Young Children’s Communication and Language Development
Family members are children’s first teachers, and children learn to communicate by imitating parents, family members, and other significant adults in their home and community environments. Early interactions with family members can set the stage for effective communication and language development in young children’s lives. These are reasons why you should involve family members in young children’s communication and language development.
Involving family members in young children’s development can help you understand the diverse communication styles of children and families in your classroom and program. This is critical so that you can plan developmentally appropriate experiences for children and families, taking into consideration family backgrounds, traditions, unique needs, and preferences. At the same time, family involvement can help family members understand what and how their children are learning in the classroom as well as encourage them to support and promote high quality communication attempts in the home environment. Involving family members enables you to provide models or effective ways to promote communication in young children’s lives. For example, you may provide recommendations or insights about effective ways of talking about a child’s play, encouraging children to talk with each other as well as with other individuals, supporting children’s requests for help, reading books with children, or supporting a child’s emergent writing.
Keeping relationships at the center of all your communication efforts with families can help create and maintain an environment where people are seen, heard, acknowledged and celebrated for their strengths and who they are. How would you describe your approach to first interactions with families? Think about how your efforts immediately welcome families into your preschool classroom. In addition, consider the following:
- Review the documents used when enrolling a preschooler into the program. What other documents are shared with families? How are these documents shared with families? Think about the ways these documents are connected to preschoolers’ and families’ strengths and fond memories, as well as how these documents capture required information.
- Use photos of preschoolers and their families throughout the classroom, as well as to identify special places to keep personal belongings.
- Ask current families to help welcome new families. Invite all families to share their time or talents with the class.
- Send home weekly notes or classroom newsletters about happenings in your classroom and program. These should be written in the primary language of the children in your care.
- Establish ongoing communication between home and preschool. Communication journals are a great way of doing so. These are usually sent home with each child and returned the following day. You can share noteworthy observations, moments, or events, and families can respond to these or share their own news, notes, or reflections. For children with special learning needs, communication journals can be an especially valuable tool in establishing consistency between home and preschool environments.
- Hold regularly scheduled family-teacher conferences where family members have opportunities to discuss goals, achievements, or concerns related to their children. Use positive language as you discuss each child’s strengths and needs during these times. If you have concerns, bring them up calmly and sensitively after talking about the child’s strengths.
- Invite family members to volunteer in your classroom and program or to share talents, special interests, or expertise.
- Invite families to talk about their children with special learning needs. For example, a family member may come in your classroom and talk about their child’s use of adaptive equipment, such as braces, a wheelchair, or a communication device. The family member may explain the use of equipment, and this could help children and other families understand aspects of the child’s life. This also promotes acceptance of differences.
- During arrival or dismissal times, show enthusiasm and welcome families as they drop off or pick up their children. Use these times as opportunities to communicate with family members and share brief comments about their children’s day at preschool. Remember, it’s best to save longer conversations for meetings when families can focus their attention. Also, be sure to talk to your trainer, coach, or supervisor before sharing information about a child’s challenging behavior. This sets the stage for more positive interactions and encourages family members to maintain communication with you.
How well do you know the families of children in your program? How do you communicate with them? What do you currently do to promote family involvement in your classroom? How do you encourage families to promote children’s language and communication in the home environment? These are among some important questions to ask yourself.
Download and print the Knowing and Involving Families handout. Take a few minutes to read and respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.
Follow the link for a resource list on children’s books about all kinds of families compiled by the Children's Book Council (CBC): http://www.cbcbooks.org/cbc-book-lists/all-kinds-of-families/?sortby=young. Then, use the resources in this section to encourage family involvement in children’s language and communication development at home.
Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
Halgunseth, L., Peterson, A., Stark, D., & Moodie, S. (2009). Family engagement, diverse families and early childhood education programs: An integrated review of the literature.
Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (2004). Understanding families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Harvard Family Research Project (2013). Family Involvement. Retrieved from http://www.hfrp.org/family-involvement
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. Young Children 64(5), 46-49.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. Engaging Diverse Families
Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
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.
Turnbull, A., Winton, P., Rous, B., & Buysse, V. (2010). CONNECT Module 4: Family-Professional Partnerships. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute, CONNECT: The Center to Mobilize Early Childhood Knowledge. Retrieved from http://community.fpg.unc.edu/connect-modules/learners/module-4