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    • Teach staff members to define and describe the importance of families across programs.
    • Model strategies that promote a welcoming, respectful, collaborative and inclusive atmosphere for families.
    • Observe and provide feedback on staff members’ demonstration of family-centered practices.




    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

    Consider what is meant by the word family. The U.S. Census Bureau defines a 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 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” (p. 3). Researchers studying and working with families define them 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” (Poston et al. 2003, p. 319; Turnbull, Turnbull, Erwin, & Soodak, 2006, p. 7). Groups and organizations that support families, or even those organizations that collect data to support families, don’t always agree on one single, concise definition of what makes up a family. For one person, a family could include a close friend not otherwise related by marriage, adoption, or biology. For another person, a family could be a married couple living apart.

    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. Now take a minute to think about your own definition of family. Who are the members of your own family? Is your definition of similar to any of the definitions shared above? As professionals working with children and youth, it is important to acknowledge that our own experiences influence our 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.

    When we talk about encouraging the well-being of families, it’s helpful to step back and think about the changing dynamics of family structure. As associations between marriage, partnering, and childbirth have changed over the last five generations, family structures have become more varied or diverse through same-sex couple families, families with shared custody, families where members have different immigration statuses, and families in which a parent has children with multiple partners. Today, 40 percent of children are now born to unmarried parents. Note that some of these shifts in changing family structures are not always challenges for families, but family complexity is sometimes associated with a greater risk of maltreatment from parents’ unmarried partners, less caregiving from a non-residential parent, and other factors. Like the concept of ‘family,’ the concept of family well-being is also challenging to define. You may recognize it 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 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.

    Personal greetings and polite social skills are important.

    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.

    How are Families Viewed Today? 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.

    Family-centered practice is “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” (Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith, & McLean, 2005).

    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

    Your program 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

    As a part of guiding staff toward including and involving families, you will need to provide staff with information on all of the dimensions listed above and help them include family diversity into classroom experiences.

    The first step is helping classroom staff get to know the families of children. Understanding family diversity will help the staff celebrate differences. Each family brings a variety of experiences, such as education, health, and skill levels. Families structures also vary: birth, blended, kinship, partnership, adopted and foster families are represented in many programs. Staff should actively get to know the family members in the child’s life.

    Some families will be open and willing to share information about their culture, religion, family structure, and childrearing practices; however, you will find that other families will be more private. You must help staff members convey two important messages to families about diversity; (a) we respect your decision to share information with us about your family practices and (b) we accept your family practices. It is certainly helpful to know specific characteristics about families, such as their religious practices, when planning what to incorporate into the curricular experiences. However, by including a variety of cultural, religious, and childrearing behaviors into activities, children will be exposed to a spirit of tolerance and respect. Likewise, families will feel that your program values diversity.

    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 and curriculum specialist and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and curriculum specialist encourages a family to attend a parent advisory board meeting.

    Families are partners.

    I can be a leader here.

    A training and 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 and curriculum specialist remains silent when a staff member complains about a family.
    • A training and curriculum specialist focuses on paperwork and ignores a family as they walk down the hall.
    • A training and curriculum specialist discourages a family from checking on their child during the day.
    • A training and curriculum specialist encourages a staff member to plan parent education events without assessing families’ interests.
    • A training and curriculum specialist joins in gossip about a family in the program.
    • A training and 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 you and 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 policy-making.
    • 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. Avoid language that might stigmatize families. For example, avoid calling a biological parent the “real mom” or “real dad.” 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.

    Respecting Families: Training & Curriculum Specialist's Role

    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 and Curriculum Specialist about her work honoring families.

    Honoring Families: Training & Curriculum Specialist’s Role

    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 an administrator to begin thinking about how 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.


    CultureA set of attitudes, beliefs, values, goals, and practices shared by people in a place or time
    FamiliesThe 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 practiceA 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 engagementOngoing, 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
    ParentsA term used interchangeably here with families
    ToleranceAn 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. In International Encyclopedia of Education, Vol. 3, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Elsevier.

    Forry, N. D., Moodie, S., Rothenberg, L., & Simkin, S. (2011). Family Engagement and Family-Sensitive Caregiving: Identifying common core elements and issues related to measurement, Issue Brief OPRE 2011-26b. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    Forry, N. D., Moodie, S., Simkin, S. & Rothenberg, L. (2011). Family-Provider Relationships: A multidisciplinary review of high quality practices and associations with family, child, and provider outcomes, Issue Brief OPRE 2011-26a. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    Halgunseth, L., Peterson, A., Stark, D., & Moodie, S. (2009). Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood education programs: An integrated review of the literature. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children and Pre-K Now.

    Keyser, J. (2006). From Parents to Partners: Building a family-centered early childhood program. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

    Kreider, H., & Westmoreland, H. (Eds.). (2011). Promising Practices for Family Engagement in Out-of-School Time. Information Age Publishing.

    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 Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse. 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, 313-328.

    Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M. L., Smith, B. J., & McLean, M. E. (2005). DEC recommended practices: A comprehensive guide. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

    Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnership and trust, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

    U.S. Department of Education: Parent and Family Engagement. Retrieved from