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Family Engagement in Early Learning Programs

Jun 07, 2019    |   Family Engagement

Caregivers, educators, and child care staff know that engaging families in center practices has a positive impact on children. As teachers and caregivers build relationships with parents, they form a sense of trust that supports a deeper understanding of each child and what life is like at home. This, in turn, reinforces cultural understanding and ensures that there is a continuum of learning between child care and home.

Below is some information about family engagement, with tips for ECE staff who might want to engage families, but be unsure about how to successfully invite them in and encourage their input.

What is Family Engagement?

While they may sound similar, family engagement is actually not the same as family involvement, although the two are easily confused. While inviting parents to occasional classroom events and chatting at drop-off and pick-up are important steps towards relationship-building, they are, unfortunately, not enough to engage families in the program and to build meaningful partnerships. Truly engaging families requires a deeper level of understanding and relationship-building. It should be integrated throughout all aspects of the program, so that families feel welcomed, heard, and understood.

Child Care Aware describes family engagement as an “interactive process that brings together parents and other family members, children, and early childhood professionals at all levels. Everyone works together in the service of children’s learning, healthy development, and wellbeing. With families in the driver’s seat, families and program personnel share their unique knowledge of the individual children they teach and care for, and the contexts and communities in which they live.”

Coordinator of the Office of Applied Research at NAEYC, Linda Halgunseth, compiled a literature review of family engagement with a focus on families from diverse backgrounds (click here to view the whole article). She builds on the work of several other researchers (Henderson and Berla, Epstein, and Weiss, Caspe, and Lopez) to organize the components of family engagement into principles such as:  setting goals together, regularly collaborating and sharing knowledge, and maintaining open lines of communication.

Why is Family Engagement Important?

Family engagement reinforces children’s learning and development. Halgunseth notes that every child develops within a series of embedded systems, including home and school. Engaging families within each of these systems and fostering positive interactions among systems has a significant and positive impact on children’s development.

Teachers and families also benefit from mutual engagement in programs. Through the exchange of resources, teachers and parents learn valuable information. As families share about their children, programs can offer resources to families, including parent education or information about local services and organizations. Programs can keep an open line of communication with parents by sharing valuable information about the children’s learning, so that parents can help to reinforce these lessons at home. Families and ECE professionals receive valuable support from each other by working together in partnership, which ultimately makes their jobs of caring for the child easier.

Engaging Families in your Program

Early learning professionals who understand the importance of family engagement might wonder how to do this successfully and effectively.

Halgunseth’s article shares several ideas, including providing a welcoming environment that integrates culture and community. Families will feel welcomed into the program if they are greeted each morning and if they are able to read signs and important communications translated into their home languages. It can be especially beneficial to invite parents of different cultures to spend time in the classroom, to share about their practices and traditions.

Child Care Aware shares several ideas for engaging families through communication, feedback, collaboration, and family support.

  • Make use of communication systems. Family engagement requires regular, authentic, open communication. This requires culturally and linguistically responsive communication systems. If you are having a hard time connecting with families who speak different languages, communications apps with translation features can be helpful.

  • Ask for feedback. Regularly offer opportunities for families to share feedback that will be used in planning for the program’s future.

  • Provide opportunities for collaboration. Give families an opportunity to interact and collaborate with both the program staff and with other parents. This will ensure that parents feel welcomed into both the classroom and the program’s community. Inviting parents to volunteer in ways that utilize their strengths and skills also enhances their ability to connect and contribute.

  • Share resources. Families should be given opportunities to learn about community services and community organizations so they are aware of local agencies that support family wellbeing, including financial, health care, or mental health services.

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