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    • Define family engagement
    • Teach staff members the value and importance of engaging families.
    • Model inclusive, welcoming, culturally sensitive, and 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 success in 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

    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 child development and school-age programs, 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 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, teachers, 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 parents, the results are very positive, especially over the long term (A New Wave of Evidence, 2002).

    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.

    Including Families in Your Programs

    There are many reasons to include parents and families in the child development and school-age programs. Families usually have the largest impact on the development of 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.

    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.

    The next step is helping classroom staff get to know the families of children. Understanding families will help the staff build relationships. 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 themselves; however, you will find that other families will be more private. You must help staff members convey two important messages to families: (a) we respect your decision to share information with us about your family practices and (b) we accept your family practices. This will help families feel that your program values them and their practices.

    You can work together with staff members to build strong relationships that support consistent sharing of strength-based information regarding a child’s development and learning progress. For example, help staff members learn to share positive information about a toddler with her family: “Trinity used the cleanup basket today when I asked and she helped pick up all of the blocks!”

    You can also make sure that families have access to and are provided developmental information that is understandable, meaningful and specific to their own child. Consider respectful ways to share information with families through regular communication, a lending library, periodic newsletters, or other such communication strategies. Lesson Three, Communicating With Families, will offer additional information and ideas for sharing developmental information with families.

    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 stationary 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. There are a number of ways to encourage and support family participation, such as:

    • Inviting family members to share special talents (e.g., play an instrument, read a book, sing, engage in an art activity)
    • Offering family members jobs (e.g., help repair broken toys, create books or special photo albums)
    • Inviting families to observe their children with you or staff members
    • 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

    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.

    Model Self-Reflection

    To work effectively with individuals from a diverse background, 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

    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 introduce them to lots of family differences.

    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. 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. Simply saying, “Why do you say that?” or “What makes you think that?” can open a conversation and build opportunities for reflection.

    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.


    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.

    Honoring Families Scenarios


    Infant Handling

    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.

    You Say

    Say to the family:

    "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."

    You Do

    Take Action:

    • Talk to the staff members about the families' preferences. Help them understand why the families feel this way.
    • Work with staff to develop strategies that are safe and respectful to the families' preferences but that also acknowledge your program's commitment to providing a wide range of experiences.
    • Brainstorm with families and staff about whether families feel comfortable if infants play on mats in a protected area.


    Preschool Detachment

    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.

    You Say


    • To the mother: "Thank you. We are happy to have you here."
    • To staff members: "Be patient and let's work together to help this family feel comfortable here."

    You Do

    Take Action:

    • Work with staff members to learn about the families' culture and cultural expectations for behaviors like feeding and toileting.
    • Encourage staff members to continue building a relationship with the mother, encouraging her involvement in the program, and to find community resources and translations of materials for the mother.
    • Develop a picture book to share with the mother and child about what happens at the program. This will help the child feel comfortable in routines, and the mother can read the pictures to him in her own language.


    School-Age Scheduling Goals

    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.

    You Say


    • "We all want the best for your son. Tell me more about your goals for his time here."

    You Do

    Take Action:

    • Share information with both families about the goals of the different program areas.
    • Work with the first mother and child to develop a plan that works for all parties.




    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


    CultureA set of attitudes, beliefs, values, goals, and practices shared by people in a place or time
    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
    ToleranceAn acceptance of beliefs or practices different from one’s own




    True or False? As a supervisor, trainer, or coach you need to put a plan into place to engage families in your program.


    What kinds of information are families in a position to share?


    What is not a good example of how staff can honor family differences in their programs?

    References & Resources

    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.

    Hanson, M. J., & Carta, J. J. ( 1995). Addressing the Challenges of Families with Multiple Risks. Exceptional Children, 62, 201-212.

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

    Harry, B., Rueda, R., & Kalyanpur, M. ( 1999). Cultural Reciprocity in Sociocultural Perspective: Adapting the normalization principle for family collaboration. Exceptional Children, 66, 123-136.

    Kalyanpur, M., and Harry, B. ( 1999). Culture in Special Education: Building reciprocal family-professional relationships. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

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

    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 (2010). Responding to ALL Children, Families, and Professionals: Integrating cultural and linguistic diversity into policy and practice. Available from

    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.