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Families: An Introduction

Children develop and learn within all types of families and family members are the most important people in young children’s lives. When teachers understand families as a system and the impact of parenting in early childhood, they are better able to develop partnerships with families and to help create an environment that meets the needs of each child. This lesson shares perspectives for understanding families and provides an introduction to family-centered practice.

  • Identify personal views and meaning of families.
  • Recognize family-centered practice as a key component of early childhood education.
  • Examine individual family systems in which preschoolers grow and develop.
  • Recognize the diversity of families.



What are Your Views about Families?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word family? Perhaps thoughts of individuals who have affected and shaped your life, or images of people coming together to celebrate holidays and other significant events; maybe smells of home-cooked food, memories of conversations or arguments you had with loved ones, feelings of love, joy, or sadness.

Families are central to individuals’ lives. Particularly when it comes to young children, families assume critical roles that significantly affect children’s well-being and development. As a professional working with young children, it is critical for you to appreciate and understand children’s families. This lesson will familiarize you with current perspectives on how families are viewed and how they function. This information will provide helpful context in order to better understand your work and interactions with families.

The Meaning of Family

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 is important to keep an open mind about what makes up a family. Each person defines family in his or her own way. For some, family may represent those individuals living in the same home (under one roof). For others, family may be the child’s parents and all of the important adults who help care for the young child, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, or best friends. Family is consistent in the preschooler’s life and it is the most important source of information about the child.

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 (2011, p. 3) 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.” Researchers studying and working with families define family as “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).

What are some things that stand out to you as you read these definitions? You may notice that the first definition is quite specific in terms of how relationships are described, whereas the other two definitions are broader. As a professional working with young children, it is important to acknowledge that your own experiences influence your views about families and working with families. You will encounter individuals who define family differently than you do and who may share values, customs, or codes of behavior that are different from yours. Family structures have become more diverse through shared custody, same-sex couple families, families where members have different immigration statuses, and when a parent has children with multiple partners. While these circumstances do not always bring challenges, research suggests that children whose family structures are complex may be more likely to experience negative consequences, such as less caregiving from a parent. Today, 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents. Like the concept of ‘family,’ the concept of family well-being is also challenging to define. You may recognize family well-being 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 and support the families in your program, consider your role in strengthening families’ protective factors. The good news is that 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, they are partners, active participants, and decision makers in their children’s education process. As a result, a family-centered focus 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. Therefore professionals must respect, support, and enhance the strengths and unique characteristics of each family (Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith, & McLean, 2005).

Family-centered practice also means that you understand the important effect all family members have on each other and on the preschool child. Each family member affects the other and the ways that the family functions. All family members are interconnected. From our family, we learn skills that enable us to engage in school and the workplace.

When considering family-centered practice, you are viewing preschoolers as part of a larger system; you are viewing family members as a whole. You 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. In an effort to maintain relationships 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 of families which may affect their involvement. What affects one family member can affect all family members. A family is a system in which no one member can be viewed in isolation.

Family-Centered Practice

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 graphic:



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 honor and respect diversity.
  • 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.
  • We listen to families.
  • We view families as their child's first teacher.
  • 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.

Making an effort to understand preschoolers and their families can create opportunities for you to better support the children in your care.

Honoring Diversity in Families

Some very important learning occurs during the first few years of life. For example, preschoolers are learning how to interact with peers and adults, how to express their emotions, and how to express independence. All of these behaviors are influenced by culture. Culture refers to the shared experiences and history of different groups of people. Cultural differences may include differences in views of family and community, expectations of children, roles of parents, and value placed on education.

Culture is a significant factor in the ways families raise their children and how you interact with preschool children. Examine your own cultural experiences and consider how these experiences affect your practice with preschoolers and families. Each individual brings specific values, beliefs and assumptions about child rearing and development to their work. In almost every type of preschool routine you perform, your values about it were shaped by your childhood and training. As you work with preschoolers and families, it is important to recognize your values and beliefs and the ways in which they are communicated. For example, a parent might expect his child to use a pacifier at nap time, and you expect a child to stop using a pacifier during the toddler stage.

Sometimes, you might feel unsure about how to care for a preschooler or how to engage families who have very different experiences and cultures, including those who speak an unfamiliar language or who have unfamiliar religious customs. You can acknowledge differences and demonstrate an interest in the family in an effort to build relationships and learn ways to provide support to the preschoolers in your care. For example, you can learn how and when families share meals, which is influenced by culture and affects development. When differences are viewed through the lens of culture, respectful conversations can lead to agreement in how these practices will be supported in a group early care and learning environment.

Early care and learning settings provide an environment in which adults and children can learn about and honor differences in values, beliefs and perceptions. Learning one’s culture occurs primarily within the family, however, in early care and learning environments preschoolers also learn about culture and experience relationships that influence their sense of who they are and who they will become.

To help children develop this sense of who they are and who they will become, you must honor and celebrate the diversity of families. Diversity exists on a variety of dimensions:

  • Composition (who is a member of the family)
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Language
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ability or disability
  • Educational background
  • Values and traditions
  • Child-rearing practices

Being a responsive preschool teacher means that you demonstrate sensitivity and consideration for the multiple backgrounds, experiences, values, and contexts in which children and families live. Awareness of diversity brings the understanding of the way we act and what we believe can be different from the way other people act or what other people believe.

Being a responsive preschool teacher also means that you avoid making assumptions about different groups of people and the ways they act or think. As much as it is important to acknowledge differences between various groups of people, it is also important to recognize within-group differences. While there may be commonly shared characteristics, values, and attributes among people who come from a particular geographic region or cultural heritage, there is still considerable variability within the same group in terms of values, or ways of doing things.

Working with families whose values and beliefs are different from your own may, at times, make you feel uneasy or uncomfortable. Embracing diversity in your work with children and families does not happen overnight. On the contrary, it can be a long and often messy process in which people from various backgrounds are challenged to face and understand different points of view, accept unfamiliar ways of doing things, and ultimately work together toward a common goal. It is important to understand that this is a two-way process, and that in the same way you may occasionally feel challenged or confused, families may feel the same. 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 to cultivate a habit of learning to understand and respect those of others.”



Appreciating Children's Families

Watch this video to see how a teacher expresses interest and concern about a child's family member


Embracing Family Diversity in Preschool: Teacher Voices

Watch this video to learn about embracing family diversity in your classroom and program.

Honoring Diverse Families: Family Voices

Watch this video to hear family members reflect on how their children’s programs embrace diversity.


There are many ways to show that you value the families of children in your program. Consider the following guidelines that reflect family-centered practice (Johnson, 1990; Turnbull, Turbiville, & Turnbull, 2000). Then think about how you can use these guidelines in your work with children and families.

  • Recognize the family as the constant in the child’s life and that caregivers and service systems may come and go.
  • Facilitate collaboration between families and professionals.
  • Encourage family-to-family support and networking.
  • Honor and respect family diversity in all dimensions (cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic, spiritual, socio-economic, or in terms of family members’ sexual orientation). You may do this by:
    • Asking families about their home language and to sharing key phrases they use at home.
    • Having family information and children’s books in the languages of each family.
    • Inviting the family to visit the setting and sing songs, tell stories, and show books or pictures that demonstrate their culture, and introduce culturally specific foods.
    • Observing how a family interacts with their preschooler.
    • Asking families to create a family or neighborhood storybook.
    • Meeting regularly with families to learn about their hopes, dreams and goals for their preschooler.

Including Children's Families

Watch this video to learn why it is important to engage families in your classroom.

Completing this Course

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

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Download and print the handout, Things to Consider, which outlines questions caregivers can ask themselves when considering assumptions and family-centered practice in their work. Answer the questions and then share your thoughts and responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.

You may compare your answers to the suggested responses in the final section of the handout.


In this lesson, you were introduced to family-centered practice. Take a look at these guidelines again and try to come up with examples of ways you can show consideration of these guidelines in your classroom. Write your thoughts as they relate to each guideline. Then, share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator. Finally, compare your answers to the suggested responses.


A set of shared values, attitudes, or practices that characterize certain groups of individuals
Family-centered practice:
A set of beliefs and actions that influence how we engage families. At the heart of family-centered practice is the belief that families are the most important decision-makers in a child’s life. More specifically, family-centered practice acknowledges that the family is the constant in a child’s life and that service systems and professionals must respect, support, and enhance the strengths and unique characteristics of each family


The idea of viewing families as systems acknowledges that:
Which of the examples below reflect family-centered practice?
Which is not an example of family-centered practice?
References & Resources

Broderick, C.B. (1993). Understanding Family Process: Basics of family systems theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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.

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

Hanson, M. J. (1998). Ethnic, Cultural, and Language Diversity in Intervention Settings. In E. W. Lynch & M. J. Hanson (Eds.). Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A guide for working with children and their families (pp. 3–22). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Harvard Family Research Project (2013). Family Involvement. Retrieved from

Howard, V.F., Williams, B.F., Port, P.D., & Lepper, C. (2001). Very Young Children With Special Needs: A formative approach for the 21st century, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Johnson, B. H. (1990). The changing role of families in health care. Children’s Health Care, 19(4), 234-241.

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 Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Strengthening the Military Family Readiness System for a Changing American Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Engaging Diverse Families. 

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment. Retrieved from

Poston, D., Turnbull, A., Park, J., Mannan, H., Marquis, J., & Wang, M. (2003). Family quality of life: A qualitative inquiry. Mental Retardation, 41(5), 313-328.

Trivette, C. M. & Dunst, C. J. (2005). DEC Recommended Practices: Family-Based Practices. In S. Sandall, M. L. Hemmeter, B. J. Smith, & M. E. McLean (Eds.). DEC Recommended Practices: A comprehensive guide for practical application (pp. 107-126). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

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. Retrieved from