- Define family engagement.
- Describe the significance of establishing partnerships with families.
- Identify classroom practices that help families feel welcome.
- Plan activities that promote family engagement.
Family Engagement: What Is It?
What are your feelings about working with families? What do you enjoy about it? What seems difficult? While you may feel motivated to develop relationships with families and to support family engagement, it is common to feel more success in focusing on your teaching practices and your direct interactions with preschoolers. It may not seem simple to combine these practices.
Family engagement has different meanings for different people. In many cases, it relates to an ongoing partnership between you and families. Early care and learning programs are committed to engaging and involving families in meaningful ways, and families are committed to actively supporting their child’s learning and development. The literature around family engagement highlights the following characteristics:
It’s important to realize that family engagement can look different and take on many forms. What family engagement means and looks like depends on the unique characteristics and the individual comfort levels and understanding of each family.
To help make sure that families are committed to their child’s learning and engaged in the preschool program, families should be invited to participate at whatever level they feel most comfortable. Does participation mean monthly meetings or taking part in a parent advisory committee? (And are meeting minutes from the parent advisory committee shared with all parents?) Does participation mean donating cookies for a bake sale? Going on a field trip with the class? It is important for families to feel supported and recognized for the ways in which they are able and choose to participate and engage—from bringing their preschooler to the program each day to sharing their concerns or serving on committees. See the handouts attached in this section for additional ideas and considerations to support family engagement.
Importance of Family Engagement
Family engagement in early learning can benefit children, parents, families, teachers, and program quality in various ways. Can you remember what caring adults in your family, community or early care program did to help you grow and develop?
Families are their children’s first teachers and they have a powerful effect on their young children’s development. Family engagement during the first years of life can support a preschool child’s readiness for school and ongoing academic and lifelong success. Research shows that when children have involved parents, the results are very positive, especially over the long term (A New Wave of Evidence, 2002).
When families are involved in the preschool program, they may also feel more vested in what happens there and more competent in their role as parents. Through these interactions and relationships, families may learn additional strategies from you to promote development and learning at home. Such strategies include expanding children’s language, readings stories aloud, asking open-ended questions, encouraging children’s efforts, identifying feelings and emotions, or responding calmly to behavior that challenges.
Including Families in Preschool
There are many reasons to include parents and families in the preschool program. Families usually have the largest impact on the development of young children. Family involvement is linked with positive outcomes for children, including better outcomes in child development, attitudes, and behavior. Furthermore, family involvement in school can help improve school programs, the school environment, and teachers (Hanson & Lynch, 2004; Turnbull, Turnbull, Erwin, & Soodak, 2006).
Children develop within family units, which are different for each child. Since a child’s entire family can influence his/her development, it is important to think about ways to acknowledge and include diverse family types in your program. Throughout this series of lessons, 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.
Helping Families Feel Welcome: Entering Preschool
Families and preschool teachers ultimately have a common interest in children’s development. It is crucial to establish and maintain collaborative relationships between home and school that will promote children’s learning and growth. Considering that for many families preschool is the first encounter with group care, the beginning of the year may seem scary and stressful. As preschool teachers, you can do the following to support families during this sensitive time:
Encouraging Families to Be Involved
Within your program, there should be a specific plan as to how to engage families throughout the year. Though families’ participation is voluntary, it is your job to make them feel welcome by actively encouraging involvement. Program activities should reflect families’ interests and motivate them to participate. Additionally, your program may have a family involvement committee. This committee is composed of family members who encourage communication and involvement with the goal of strengthening and supporting the well-being of children and families. This committee is a resource and asset to your program as families may discuss issues or concerns and suggest changes to improve family satisfaction and involvement. Collaborate with a trainer, coach, or supervisor to promote family involvement.
Although you may provide several opportunities for family involvement, some families may still not participate, and you may sometimes feel discouraged by their lack of involvement. It is important to continue to invite all families. Lack of participation does not mean they do not care. There may be reasons why their participation is difficult, including inflexible work schedules or unique family demands and characteristics. As a caring and resourceful professional, be flexible and think of alternative ways to engage with all families in your classroom.
There are a number of ways to encourage and support family participation in your regular preschool routine, such as:
- Inviting family members to share special talents (e.g., play an instrument, lead a cooking activity, sing, make a craft).
- Giving family members jobs in the preschool routine (classroom helper, guest reader, party planner, activity-preparation helper).
- Inviting family members to visit your classroom at any time.
- Asking family members to contribute materials for activities (empty food containers for use in center activities, used clothing items for use in dramatic play area).
- Inviting family members to join a classroom field trip.
- Inviting family members to be guest speakers about certain topics (e.g., a firefighter talking to children about the job).
- Inviting family members to share aspects of their culture.
- Asking family members to help put together a class photo album.
- Asking family members to help organize a family dinner night.
- Asking family members to share input about classroom field trips.
- Asking family members for extra helping hands with cleaning and rearranging your classroom.
- Encouraging families to share suggestions or concerns with you.
A great way to encourage family involvement in your classroom is by establishing personal connections with families of children in your care. Think about families as partners; sharing information about yourself and your work in preschool will help families to get to know you better and ultimately feel more comfortable being a part of the preschool experience.
Here are some ideas to help you continue to engage families, to increase their involvement in the program, and to build relationships:
- Communicate with families and take time to observe their body language to help you measure their comfort level in the care setting. Find ways to ask them how they are feeling about the program, such as a family survey, and discuss any concerns they might have.
- Smile and greet families by name.
- Arrange the environment in a way that encourages families to spend time there. Keep the entrance area open and uncluttered with simple but attractive signs welcoming them. If possible, have a space for families' coats or belongings. Consider setting up a large board on a wall near the center of the room for parents to leave daily messages. Include some comfortable spots, such as pillows on the rug or a small sofa, so parents can read a picture book to their child or a small group of children.
- Spend time observing families as they interact with their children to learn strategies for supporting them while in your care.
- Show families where important supplies and other items are stored so they have access to things they might need for their children when in the care setting.
- Include special materials or customs from a family’s culture.
- Establish regular times to meet with families face-to-face and help families design a plan or create activities to reach the dreams and goals they have for their children.
- Share observations and other strength-based information about their children.
- Ask families questions about their children.
- Share something personal about yourself (e.g., “My mom tells me I struggled falling asleep for nap, just like Carlos. She said I never wanted to stop playing!” ).
- Offer multiple ways to communicate daily with families (e.g., note home, share a photo of children playing, communication sheet with information about routines, phone call, newsletter).
- Create rituals around hellos and goodbyes.
- Invite families to share what they see and hear their children doing at home or in the community.
In addition to encouraging family involvement, it is also important to spend time acknowledging families in your preschool routine. Review the attached Strategies to Promote Family Involvement in Your Classroom document for ideas on how you can establish personal connections with families and how you can acknowledge families in your preschool routine. Then review the following two links. The first resource is for and about fathers from the National Center for Fathering (NCF). The second link provides suggestions for children’s books about all kinds of families from the Children's Book Council (CBC).
Use the resources in this section to encourage family involvement and language and communication development at home.
In this video, listen to family members share their experiences participating in their child’s program.
Think about a relationship that you value and list the characteristics that make that relationship successful. Which of those characteristics would be important in family-professional partnerships? Download and print the Relationship Characteristics activity. Write your thoughts on this document. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.
It is very important to acknowledge families in your classroom. This section includes documents you can use to promote family engagement in your classroom and to ensure that your classroom materials reflect consideration of families.
The first document is a checklist you can fill out to examine what opportunities are available for families to participate in your classroom and program. Fill out the Welcoming Families activity. Then, share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.
The second handout includes ideas for fun ways to help families become part of your classroom community. Use the Fun Ways to Involve Families document as a resource to share.
Visit the websites below that provide resources about acknowledging families in your classroom. Also included are websites that contain booklists of topics that the families of the children in your care may currently experience. Explore these resources to enrich your work in your preschool classroom and for ideas on how to acknowledge families and their experiences in your classroom.
- Working with Families
- Fathers and Preschoolers
- Children’s Books about all Kinds of Families
- Recommended Books from the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)
- Children’s Books that Include Themes about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Friends or Family
- Resources for Children, Teacher, and Families Affected by Military Deployment
Welcoming Families to Your Classroom and Program
Hadden, S.D. (2004). Entering preschool: Supporting family involvement in the age three transition. In E. Horn, M. Ostrosky, & H. Jones (Eds.). Young Exceptional Children Monograph Series No. 5: Family-Based Practices (pp. 77-87). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
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
National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/Ethics%20Position%20Statement2011_09202013update.pdf
National Association for the Education of Young Children (2009). NAEYC Where We Stand Summary: Professional preparation standard. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/programStandards.pdf
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 https://fpg.unc.edu/node/4016