- Define family engagement
- Teach staff members the value and importance of engaging families.
- Model inclusive, welcoming, and culturally responsive practices towards families.
- Observe and provide feedback on staff members’ family engagement strategies.
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 successful when focusing on your direct interactions with children and staff members. 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 your program and families. Child development and school-age 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:
- Strong, trusting relationships between teachers, families, and community
- Recognition, respect, and support for families’ needs, as well as differences
- Strength-based partnership where decisions and responsibility are shared
- Activities, interactions, and support increase family involvement in their child’s healthy development
- Families take responsibility for their child’s learning
- Acknowledgment that family engagement is meaningful and beneficial to both families and the early care and learning program
- As a result of learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families has developed an approach to “radical family engagement.” Families, early childhood educators, and policy makers came together and identified four key themes that were most important to families long-term (Office of Early Childhood Development, 2021):
- Lead with joy and be intentional when interacting with parents to ensure they know they are loved and seen.
- Intentional focus on fatherhood, power, and support the roles that fathers play in the lives of their children
- Acknowledge kinship families and establish an environment where acceptance and understanding becomes the norm
- Equity on all levels, including but not limited to: childcare, health care access, and referrals to additional resources when necessary.
Think about the ways your program embraces these four themes. What are you doing now and what can you continue to improve? Family engagement can look different and take on many forms. Work with the families you serve to ensure that you are leading with joy and building an environment that meets their needs. For some families, family engagement may mean scheduling playdates with other program families or stopping by the program during their lunch break. For other families, it may mean joining the program’s parent advisory committee, volunteering on a community clean-up day, or responding to an email from staff. It is important for families to feel supported and recognized for the ways in which they are able and how they choose to participate and engage—from bringing their child to the program each day to sharing their concerns or serving on committees.
Importance of Family Engagement
Family engagement can benefit children, parents, families, staff, and program quality in various ways. Can you remember what caring adults in your family, community or schools 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 child’s readiness for school and ongoing academic and lifelong success. Research shows that when children have involved families, the results are very positive, especially over the long term (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016).
When families are involved in your programs, 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 to promote development and learning at home. Such strategies include expanding children’s language, following their child’s lead in play, helping with homework, or responding calmly to behavior that challenges.
Throughout this series of lessons, we use the term family to refer to important people in children’s lives. These people can be biological parents, foster or adoptive parents, siblings, guardians, extended family members such as grandparents or cousins, and other individuals who are involved in children’s lives.
Equitable Family Engagement
Equitable family engagement means honoring each and every family for the contributions they make to program and to their child’s learning and development. Families bring different strengths and face different barriers to engagement in the program. Equitable family engagement means you and program staff are flexible, responsive, and transparent about your goals to engage each family in the way that works for them (State Support Network, 2018). To do so, you must acknowledge barriers to family engagement and think systematically about ways your program supports families around issues like:
- Work hours and scheduling constraints that limit families’ abilities to attend program events or meet with staff
- Deployment and physical separation of families
- Previous experiences with early care and education or other social services that impacted trust
- Mental health and family stress
It is also important to acknowledge that child development and youth programs are not immune from subtle racism and sexism that can harm families’ health and well-being. Look intentionally at your program and identify patterns: are there racial or gender patterns in who attends family events or volunteers? Why might some individuals feel more welcome than others, and what can you do about this? Are there racial or gender patterns in which children get referred for additional services or whose families are contacted about behavior concerns? Why might staff have concerns about some children’s behavior and not others, and what can you do about this? Does the program tend to call female caregivers first when a child is sick or there is an issue? Why are some caregivers assumed to be primary and what can your program do about this? Questions such as these are challenging, but they are an important first step in ensuring each and every family thrives in your program.
Relationships With Families
Think about a relationship you have with someone special and how it developed. What is it about this person (their characteristics and their actions) that supported your relationship development? Was this person upbeat, consistent, flexible, respectful, a good listener, reliable, honest? Some of these same characteristics and supportive interactions can lead to positive, trusting relationships with families.
To effectively build relationships with families, you must help staff members reflect on their ideas about families. You can spend time thinking with them about the importance and influence of their own families and family relationships. For example, ask staff members to reflect upon questions like, “What messages did I receive about relationships from my family and culture?” “Do I build relationships and interact with others in the same way important adults interacted and behaved with me when I was a child (e.g. playful, joking, patient, honest, cautious)?”
By first understanding themselves, staff members can better recognize the importance of family in the lives of others and create an environment where different values and traditions are respected and honored. You can help staff understand that all families share a goal of raising healthy, happy children. Culture helps shape the parenting practices families use to reach that goal.
Family engagement starts by meeting families where they are and engaging them in interactions and experiences they choose and that feel most comfortable to them. When families have trusting, consistent, and responsive relationships with others (such as community members, service providers, caregivers, teachers), they are more likely to have positive relationships with their children. In essence, if you think of yourself in partnership with families, you will be attuned with family-centered practice that you learned about in lesson one. The benefits are rewarding!
Children are born into families
When you focus on families, an infant and toddler’s learning and development are optimized.
Families have different strengths and skills
When they share what they know, everyone benefits.
Families have goals for their infant or toddler
Sometimes these goals may differ.
Model Welcoming Families
Begin by thinking about what it might mean for families and new parents to consider your program for their child. Families often experience uncertainties and feel scared when seeking a child development or school-age program for their child. You can do the following to help staff members support families during this sensitive time:
- Invite families to visit before their child’s start date. Be present to answer questions about the program’s curriculum and programming.
- Encourage staff members to send families a personal welcome note to each child who starts in the program. Provide the stationery and make sure staff members have protected time to write the notes.
- Share information with families about how they can participate in the program. Work with management and a family advisory group to brainstorm ways families might enjoy being involved.
- Provide tools or mechanisms for staff members to ask families about their child’s routines, strengths, interests, likes and dislikes.
- Learn about the home languages used in your program and help staff learn key words and phrases to use in the program.
- Survey families about their communication preferences. Work with management to ensure that an updated email communication list or phone tree is maintained for families that prefer those methods.
- Maintain a family bulletin board with information about current program activities, upcoming meetings and events, and community opportunities that are of interest to families.
- Display photographs of children and their families in program spaces– hang them on the wall where they can be seen or in durable photo books that children can hold and explore in the lobby.
Model Encouraging Families to Be Involved
Families want to be included and involved in child development and school-age programs in a range of ways. You can encourage and support family participation by:
- Inviting family members to share special talents (e.g., play an instrument, read a book, sing, engage in an art activity)
- Offering family members opportunities to help (e.g., help repair broken toys, create books or special photo albums)
- Inviting families to observe their children with you or staff members
- Ensuring families can use their preferred language(s) in the program, with staff, and with other families as often as possible
- Asking families to help plan activities of their choice based on their strengths and interests
- Creating and sending out a short survey to families asking about their ideas and suggestions for ways they might like to participate
- Scheduling opportunities for families to join their children breakfast, lunch, or snack
- Encouraging families to share suggestions or concerns with you
- Creating connections between families by encouraging playdates, family support groups, and social events
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 staff members and management to promote family involvement.
To work effectively with individuals from diverse backgrounds, you must evaluate your own beliefs and potential biases. Use the resource in the Apply section to begin this self-reflection. Reflect on your circle of friends and acquaintances. Do you interact regularly with people from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences? Do you embrace the curiosity of children and youth about the people around them? Reflect on your behaviors in the program and in your community. Do you treat all children, youth, and families with respect? Does your behavior change when you are around people who are different from you? Do you praise children, youth, and staff for behaviors that show empathy and respect?
Model Respectful Information Gathering & 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 the following:
- Relationships with other family members
- Family routines and practices
- Important family events outside of the classroom or program
- Language(s) spoken in the home
For young children, you might also encourage staff members to ask:
- How the child can be comforted
- How the child is affected by routines and changes in routines
- Does the child have any fears
For older children and youth, you might encourage staff to ask families about:
- Their thoughts, beliefs, or concerns about friendships and dating
- How much independence they think is acceptable as their child grows
This information can be gathered using informal and formal conversations, family-teacher conferences, or structured forms. During conversations, asking open-ended questions is a great way to encourage families to share important information. Some examples are, “What would you like us to know about your family that might help us work with your child?” or “What are your family traditions or celebrations that you would like us to know about?” For families that are more private who may not be comfortable sharing this information, careful observation of the child and family interactions will provide useful information. One-on-one conversations might be appropriate for families who are not comfortable sharing information. You may also encourage staff to ask families to fill out a form at the beginning of the year. Whether or not classroom staff collects specific information from families, you must help them integrate different family experiences into the classroom routines. Children should be surrounded by experiences and learning opportunities that reflect their own families and the families around them.
You must also be prepared to help staff members share information with families respectfully. This will be covered in more depth in the next lesson.
Model Respectful Language and Interactions
You can also model inclusive, respectful language. You should:
- Use language that shows respect for families. Ask family members what they want to be called, and ensure staff honor those requests. Avoid language that might stigmatize families. For example, avoid calling a biological parent the “real mom” or “real dad.”
- Seek family input. If there is a difference between staff approaches and parenting practices, seek information. “It sounds like we all want what’s best for Jeremy, but we have different ideas about how to get there. Let’s hear from Michael and Brandon about their goals as Jeremy’s parents. What works at home that you hope to see here? As staff, what can we try from what we heard today?”
- Speak up if you hear disrespectful language or broad overgeneralizations about groups of people or families. Simply saying, “Why do you say that?” or “What makes you think that?” can open a conversation and build opportunities for reflection.
- Assume families want to be involved, but that involvement looks different for everyone. Push back on statements about families like, “They don’t care...” or “They’re too busy...” Remind staff that all parents care deeply, and it is your program’s job to meet families where they are.
Model Respectful Events and Programming
The curriculum and programming offered by your programs can go a long way towards helping all families feel welcome. Encourage staff members to reach out to families. Encourage programming that includes:
- Demonstrating or involvement in cultural celebrations or events.
- Incorporating materials from different cultures in the classroom and program. Musical instruments, clothing, fabrics, art, or toys from around the world can add interest and honor differences.
- Involving families in events. Invite families to share skills, talents, interests, or cultural traditions.
- Ensuring events are inclusive of all families. Replace events that require a specific family member (e.g., Donuts with Dad or Grandparents Day) with more welcoming events that honor important adults in children’s lives (e.g., Donuts with Grownups, Breakfast with Buddies, Game Night with Your Grown-Up).
- Acknowledging the pain of some holidays for families. Mother's Day and Father's Day, for example, can be particularly painful after a loss, during deployment, or for children in foster or kinship care. For children in single parent or same-sex families, these holidays can be exclusive. Think with staff about ways to honor families in trauma-informed and culturally sustaining ways. Staff can provide choices in how children participate, read books about different family structures, and offer inclusive events or crafts (Family Celebration Tea, making a gift for a grown-up you love).
Now that you have heard about the importance of engaging families, take some time to reflect on how that actually looks in your work. Read these three vignettes. The vignettes represent the range of ages you might support in a child development or school-age program. Think about what you would say and do to support the family and the staff member.
Several of the families in your program are relatively recent immigrants to the U.S. They grew up in families of migrant farm workers and often lived in small spaces with large extended families. In their families, infants were not laid on the floor. It was not considered safe or healthy for the infants. This feeling carries over to your program: These families do not want the infants to be placed on the floor. They want infants carried, held, and rocked.
"I understand your concerns. We want to follow your wishes for your child. Our program is carefully designed, so your baby is safe at all times. Let's talk about how our program is designed to keep your baby safe and healthy while in different spaces with opportunities for physical movement and exploration."
A new child enters your preschool program. His mother stays in the classroom all morning. At lunch, the child seems disoriented. His mother quickly sits down next to him and starts feeding him. She does not speak fluent English, so she just smiles and continues feeding her son.
A parent is concerned about the school-age program. She thinks her son should complete all of his homework immediately after school. Once his homework is completed, she wants him to read and do additional academic work that she provides. She thinks the other program areas are wasteful.
Another parent has the opposite concern. She thinks her son spends too much time on homework, and that he needs relaxing play time after school.
Watch the following video to hear about ways families are honored. They may describe things that are already being done at your program and there may be some ideas for you to try. There are many ways to honor and engage families. Including them in the planning process is one of the best ways to demonstrate your respect for them and their ideas.
Take some time to think about how culture might influence interactions between families and staff members. Read the scenarios in the Helping Staff Engage Families activity and write how you would respond to each staff member.
Think about how you interact with families, help them feel welcome, involve them in the program, and how you view people who come from different populations. Rate the statements in Reflecting on Family Engagement on a scale from 1-5. You can use this as a self-reflective tool or share it with staff members. Use it to help improve your work with families and your work with staff.
See also Child Care Aware’s Key Family Engagement Features & Indicators in Quality Rating and Improvement Systems at http://usa.childcareaware.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Key-Indicators-Features-Table.pdf
Administration for Children and Families Office of Early Childhood Development (2021). Radical family engagement: Journey map. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/ecd/radical-family-engagement-journey-map.pdf
Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2008). Diversity in early care and education: Honoring differences. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.
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.
Harry, B., Rueda, R., & Kalyanpur, M. (1999). Cultural reciprocity in sociocultural perspective: Adapting the normalization principle for family collaboration. Exceptional Children, 66, 123-136.
Jaques, C. & Villegas, A. (2018). State support network: Strategies for equitable family engagement. https://oese.ed.gov/files/2020/10/equitable_family_engag_508.pdf
Kalyanpur, M., and Harry, B. ( 1999). Culture in special education: Building reciprocal family-professional relationships. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
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 Association for the Education of Young Children (n.d.). Principles of effective family engagement. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/family-engagement/principles
National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement. (n.d.). National association for family, school, and community engagement. https://nafsce.org/
National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice. https://nrcfcp.uiowa.edu/what-is-family-centered-practice
Tabors, P. O. (2008). One Child, Two Languages: A guide for early childhood educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.