Engaging Families, Practical Strategies

Family Engagement in Early Childhood Education

In the early 80’s we used the term “family involvement.” There was an implied sense that early childhood professionals were bringing families into their inner sanctum. The alphabet soup of special education jargon was revealed; parents became members on various boards and family members began to “negotiate the special education maze.” (Anderson, Chitwood, & Hayden, 1982)

In the late 90’s we modified our terminology to reflect current best practice and we began to use ‘collaborative partnerships.” Families were viewed as equal members of the IFSP/IEP team. Parents and caregivers had invaluable information to share with other team members.

And now, it is 2012 and a new term is being utilized: family engagement. Is it all semantics or could this be the phrase that really changes our practice? Muscott et al. (2008) report that family engagement is defined when “building trusting relationships with family members; that is to say, relationships in which teachers and parents respect one another, believe in each other’s ability and willingness to fulfill their responsibilities, have high personal regard for one another, and trust each other to put children’s interests first. Relationship building is enhanced when family-centered practices that respect the uniqueness and personal circumstances of all families including those who have children with disabilities…”

So what does this look like in practice? How do early intervention providers and early childhood special educators truly collaborate with families? What is the family’s role in their child’s education?

In 2005, the Division of Early Childhood (DEC) identified four recommended practices for family-based practices:

  1. Families and professionals share responsibility and work collaboratively
    Family members and professionals work together, sharing information and jointly developing appropriate family- identified outcomes that are responsive to cultural, language and other family characteristics
  2. Practices strengthen family functioning
    Practices, supports and resources provide families with opportunities that strengthen decision making and choice. Information is provided and supports and services are mobilized in ways that do not disrupt family and community life.
  3. Practices are individualized and flexible
    Resources and supports match each family member’s identified preferences, beliefs, and values. IFSPs and IEPs are tailored for individual children.
  4. Practices are strengths- and assets-based
    Family and child strengths are used as the basis for engaging families in activities to build knowledge and strengthen parent competence and confidence. (Sandall et al., 2005)

As early childhood practitioners, we know that families are the experts on their child. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding their family and the learning opportunities on which we can build our strategies. Our job is to merge our knowledge and expertise about child development into the family’s daily routines. From this, we can develop IFSP/IEP outcomes and programming that will promote individualized activities that will truly encourage families to become fully engaged. Perhaps then, it will not just be about semantics!

What strategies do you use to engage families, build rapport, and maintain relationships?

References available upon request. Posting was adapted from original article in The T/TAC Telegram (Feb/Mar, 2009).

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4 Comments to “Family Engagement in Early Childhood Education”

  1. Too often I think we focus on how we can help in areas that are considered deficits. It is important to keep in mind that we need to keep our practices strengths & asset based (DEC #4). Good article to keep us focused!

  2. A new phrase associated with early learning is, “family engagement.” What does family engagement mean or involve? According to NYC Department of Education there are five supporting factors that contribute to family engagement and early childhood development. The five pillars of family engagement are a welcoming environment, extended learning at home, making combined decisions, continuous effective communication and supporting transitions. To give a warm and respectful environment that are in coordination with the children’s cultural and socio–emotional needs is step number one in having family engagement. Staff members of the child’s school needs to have a nurturing environment that collaborates with the child’s background and the school policies. Families need to be engage with their children and register them on time and respect school policies. Families are major partners in their support of their children’s school life. Families need to make time to attend meetings and participate on volunteer options and attending parent teacher conferences. Another step in family engagement is when families use opportunities to extend learning into the home life from the classroom. Schools may develop activities to share with the families to engage them when not in the classroom. Families should engage in these activities and return projects and feedback when needed to the teacher. Great communication between the school and the family is another pillar of family engagement in early childhood learning. There should be open communication between the family and the school about the child regularly. This can be done formally or informally with emails or in person conversations. All of these are important to build that family engagement for children to be school ready and to create the best path possible in education for them. (5 Pillars of Early Childhood Education Family Engagement)

    Works Cited:
    “5 Pillars of Early Childhood Education Family Engagement.” (n.d.): 1. NYC Department of Education. Web. 27 Nov. 2016. .

    • Thanks for the great information, Brittany. I think the 5 pillars you outlined apply to early intervention and working with families in their homes and community settings too!

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