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Families: An Introduction

Families are critical partners in your programs. This lesson will define the term “family,” describe the importance of families in your programs, and define family-centered practice. This lesson also describes the role you have in creating a climate that promotes respect for families among all program staff.

  • Define and describe the importance of family engagement and family-centered practice across programs. 
  • Identify strategies that promote a welcoming, respectful, collaborative and inclusive atmosphere for 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 staff members and 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 staff members and families.

The Meaning of 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 their own way. For some, family may represent those individuals living in the same home (under one roof). For others, family may be all the important adults who help care for the young child, such as grandparents, aunt, uncle, neighbor, or best friend. Families can be separated by distance, and they can share a range of legal and biological relationships. Regardless of how the family defines itself, family is central to each child’s well-being and it is the most important source of information about the child.

As professionals working with children and youth, it is important to acknowledge that your own experiences influence your views about families. It is also important to know that you will encounter individuals who have different definitions of family and who may have values, customs, or codes of behavior that differ from yours. As a result, it is critical that you and all staff appreciate and understand children’s families.

To understand families and promote family well-being, it’s helpful to think about the wide array of family structures in your programs. Strong families come in every shape and size:  single parent families, same-sex couple families, foster and adoptive families, families with shared custody, families where members have different immigration statuses, and families in which a parent has children with multiple partners, to name a few.  Like the concept of ‘family,’ the concept of family well-being is  defined by each family.  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).

Most of the staff members you work with will see families daily. Although most interactions on a typical day are brief and casual, they have a large impact on your program’s climate and on children’s outcomes.  Relationships with families are widely recognized by professional organizations and accrediting agencies as a cornerstone of quality programming in child development and school-age programs. This is so because children and youth develop in context; all of the systems they encounter (home, community, school, child care, places of worship, etc.) affect their development (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). How these systems interact with each other makes a difference, too. Think about how all children learn from watching adults interact.

What a child or youth sees:

What a child or youth learns:

What a family member learns:

A staff member greets a family member by name or title.My family and I belong here.I am respected here.
A family member volunteers a skill (reads to children, tells a story in a native language, brings in materials).My family is important here.I have important things to contribute.
A family member returns a survey about family needs, preferences and program options.It’s important to communicate and OK to ask for help.My voice is heard here.
A family attends a planning meeting for program changes.My family can make a difference.I can be a leader here.
A staff member participates in a community event or takes interest in a family’s traditions.My community is important here.My child’s program is a part of my community.

We want families to be so much more than consumers of our program’s services. We want them to be partners in promoting program excellence.

Introducing Family-Centered Practice

Family-centered practice reflects your commitment to serving children, youth, and their families. Because families are central to their children’s development, they are considered partners, active participants, and decision-makers in the educational process.

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.

Family-centered practice involves much more than simply ensuring that families are involved in your programs. It involves designing your program with the belief that families are central to everything you do. Of course, you want families to attend events, return paperwork, and talk to their children about the programming day, but ultimately, your goal is deeper and broader than simple involvement. You want families to feel invested in your program. You want families to feel that the program contributes to their well-being, and that they contribute to the program’s well-being.

This information must be communicated to staff members. It is important that your program has clearly articulated policies for engaging families as partners. For example, your program might have policies regarding family participation in decision-making councils , responding when a family has a concern about their child, or gathering information from families about their needs and preferences . You should work with your program director to make sure you understand and can teach these policies to staff members.

Diversity in Families

Respecting the families your program serves is at the heart of the work you and program staff do every day. Families are unique. Their structures, beliefs, and parenting practices are shaped by their own experiences and can be very different than those held by you or program 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 trainers and coaches demonstrate sensitivity and consideration for the multiple backgrounds, experiences, values, and contexts in which children and families live. 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 trainers and coaches 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 a myriad of 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 long process in which people from various backgrounds are challenged to face 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).


Modeling Family-Centered Practices

You and your program can model family-centered practice each and every day. You may be the first role model a staff member has, so 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 again about the table you saw earlier in this lesson about what children and youth learn from interactions between adults.  Now think about what staff members and other adults learn from watching your interactions:

What a Staff Member Sees:

What a Staff Members Learns:

What a Family Member Learns:

The Training & Curriculum Specialist and Program Manager greet families by name as they arrive.Each family is valued, and this is a friendly place.I am respected by everyone here.
The Training & Curriculum Specialist greets a family member who arrives unexpectedly and walks with him to the classroom to visit his son.Families are always welcome.I am welcome here.
The Training & Curriculum Specialist sends thank-you notes to families who volunteered at the family movie night.Families are appreciated here.I have important things to contribute.
The Training & Curriculum Specialist asks a parent if she has had time to fill out the family survey. The training and curriculum specialist reminds her of where and when she 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 Training & Curriculum Specialist encourages a family to attend a parent advisory board meeting.Families are partners.I can be a leader here.
A Training & Curriculum Specialist 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 toward families. What might staff members learn from these behaviors?

  • A Training & Curriculum Specialist remains silent when a staff member complains about a family.
  • A Training & Curriculum Specialist focuses on paperwork and ignores a family as they walk down the hall.
  • A Training & Curriculum Specialist discourages a family from checking on their child during the day.
  • A Training & Curriculum Specialist encourages a staff member to plan parent education events without assessing families’ interests.
  • A Training & Curriculum Specialist joins in gossip about a family in the program.
  • A Training & Curriculum Specialist 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. Work with managers to 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 program 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

What Can You Do to Promote Family-Centered Practices?

  • Create a welcoming environment. Greet families, hang maps of the building, offer a space for parents to gather and get resources.
  • Communicate. Translate all written materials and have translators available for face-to-face interactions. Ask parents the best way to communicate with them. Listen to families and gather feedback about their experiences with your program.
  • Share decision-making. Incorporate families’ voices in program leadership and policymaking.
  • Educate. Provide information or classes on parenting skills.
  • Support learning at home. Provide tips on reading at home, offer suggestions for help with homework, encourage cooking activities at home, etc.
  • Be sensitive to families’ needs. Identify and respond to families’ needs for after-hours programming, deployment support, family advocacy, etc.
  • Model self-reflection. To work effectively with individuals from a diverse background, you must evaluate your own beliefs and potential biases.
  • Model respectful information gathering and sharing. Families generally have information to share about their children. If you are not in a position to gather this information personally, you can encourage staff to ask families about family routines, important family events, and important relationships.
  • Model respectful language and interactions. Ask families how they want to be addressed (e.g., do they use the terms “mom”, “dad”, or other titles?).  Answer questions about differences honestly. Speak up if you hear disrespectful language or broad overgeneralizations about groups of people or families.


Let’s spend some time reflecting on families and the ways our programs honor and respect them. We can do this by listening to families’ stories and experiences. It is fitting to begin this course about families with a video that illustrates the potential for the amazing impact you can have on children and families.

Training & Curriculum Specialist's Role: Respecting Families 

You play an important part in creating a respectful community

Now reflect on the diversity of families and family-centered practices. The following video is structured in two parts. First, you will hear from families about the importance of understanding family differences. Second, you will hear from a Training & Curriculum Specialist about her work honoring families.

Training & Curriculum Specialist’s Role: Embracing Family Diversity 

You can honor and represent families in all of your programs

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 Training & Curriculum Specialist 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? Use the Reflecting on Families’ Roles in Your Program activity as you answer the questions and think about how families are considered in your program. Share your thoughts with other program leaders and discuss ways to improve experiences for families.


You can have a major impact on family engagement by simply asking staff members how you can support their work with families. This strategy also models a parallel process they can use with families. The Family-Centered Practice: Staff Inventory can be used to gather information from the staff members you work with. Make adjustments in your practice based on the responses you receive from staff.

You will also find a Family Interaction Best Practices Checklist that you can use to learn about staff members’ strengths and needs related to this course.


A set of attitudes, beliefs, values, goals, and practices shared by people in a place or time
The people who provide custodial care for children or youth. This may include biological or adoptive parents, grandparents, or any other individuals who are important to the child’s care
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
Family engagement:
Ongoing, strength-based partnership between families and their child’s program; programs are committed to engage and involve families in meaningful ways and families are committed to actively supporting their child’s learning and development
A term used interchangeably here with families
An acceptance of beliefs or practices different from one’s own


True or False? It is your responsibility as a trainer or coach to model family-centered practice to staff members.
Which of the following reflects family-centered practice?
You are in the staff resource room and hear Tonya talking about a family in the school-age program. She says that “they are always complaining” and she is really tired of it. How do you respond?
References & Resources

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development.  International Encyclopedia of Education, Vol. 3, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Elsevier.

Childcare Technical Assistance Center (n.d.). Engaging families in out-of-school time program toolkit.

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (2022). Family well-being: Strategies to support family safety, health, and financial stability

Harry, B., Rueda, R., & Kalyanpur, M. (1999). Cultural Reciprocity in Sociocultural Perspective: Adapting the Normalization Principle for Family Collaboration. Exceptional Children, 66(1),123-136.  

Keyser, J. (2017). From parents to partners: Building a family-centered early childhood program. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Koralek, D., K.N. Nemeth, & K. Ramsey (2019). Families and educators together: Building great relationships that support young children. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Kreider, H., & Westmoreland, H. (Eds.). (2011). Promising practices for family engagement in out-of-school time. Information Age Publishing.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 2022). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through Age 8. 4th ed. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

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 (2011). NAEYC position statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (n.d.). Principles of effective family engagement.

National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement.

National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice.

National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse.

U.S. Department of Education. (2018) Strategies for equitable family engagement.