10 Things to Know about Family Engagement in Early Childhood Programs
When families are engaged in their child’s learning, children are better prepared for school and achieve at higher levels. Research studies have linked participation by families in early childhood programs to children’s academic motivation, language and literacy development, math skills, and social-emotional development.
Family Engagement is different from Family Involvement. The early childhood field uses the term “involvement” to describe school-based activities such as volunteering in classrooms, attending school events, chaperoning field trips, and holding parent-teacher conferences. The term “engagement” is meant to describe a meaningful partnership that can be built between families and early childhood teachers and staff. This partnership is based on mutual respect, shared decision-making, and two-way communication between the family and teacher(s).
Building partnerships between families and early childhood programs is not just about what schools can offer families. Building true partnerships between families and early childhood programs means recognizing the resources that families can offer schools, such as sharing knowledge about their child’s learning style, reinforcing classroom experiences at home, and participating on parent boards or councils.
Including families in program decision-making is another way to promote engagement. Teachers and program administrators can hold goal-setting meetings for individual children and for the program as a whole. Families and programs can then work collaboratively to achieve those goals.
Communication is the basis for any strong relationship between families and early childhood programs. Teachers and administrators can communicate with families through a variety of ways including newsletters, e-mails, translated materials, web postings, telephone calls, home visits, videos or photo albums that depict a day in the class, and face-to-face communication. Communication methods should be sensitive to the diverse language and cultural backgrounds of the families in the program.
Small steps can go a long way in building a relationship between families and early childhood program staff. When teachers greet families warmly at drop-off and pick-up, make eye contact, ask about weekend activities, or share an anecdote about each child’s day, it opens the door for a positive relationship and increased communication. A welcoming environment is often seen as the first step to meaningful family engagement.
Transitions between classrooms or between early childhood programs and elementary school are important times for programs and families to be partners. There is increasing research evidence showing actively engaging families in the transition from preschool to kindergarten leads to higher academic achievement in the kindergarten year. Processes need to be developed that make it comfortable and easy for children (and their families) to move and change from one program to another.
Families and early childhood programs both experience barriers to effective family engagement. Time constraints, scheduling conflicts, child care needs, transportation issues, language barriers, and cultural differences are cited as common barriers to family engagement. When multiple opportunities to engage are offered, and language needs or educational and financial limitations are respected, engagement may increase.
Parents are not the only family members that are involved in children’s daily lives! Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members and friends are often caring for young children and should be seen as active participants in their learning and development.