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Intentionally Thoughtful Family Engagement in Early Childhood Education

Authors:
10
Families and Teachers Essential Partnerships
Many people in early child-
hood education (ECE) often say,
“Parents are a child’s first teachers.”
However, when parents enroll their
children in various forms of ECE (child
care, preschool, pre-K, family child
Intentionally Thoughtful Family Engagement
in Early Childhood Education
Jerlean Daniel
care, Head Start), teachers, providers, and
administrators often struggle with how to
effectively engage families in the activi-
ties of the program. Thus begins what can
become a series of miscues in communica-
tion between what families want and what
educators think is best for children. The
relationships can become more tension
filled when the race, ethnicity, nationality, or
social class of the parents and program staff
is different. ECE professionals must take
intentional steps to blend their knowledge
with parental knowledge in order for chil-
dren to thrive.
Stephen Covey (1989) has said that we
should “seek first to understand” if we wish
to be effective leaders and relationship
builders. By that he means that we should
stop and listen carefully, asking questions
®
3, 7
Jerlean Daniel, PhD, is deputy executive
director of NAEYC and heads the Profes-
sional Development Division.
This article was previously published
in the September 2008 issue of NCNA
News, the magazine of Ireland’s
National Children’s Nurseries
Association. The article has
been slightly adapted and is
reprinted here with permission
from NCNA (www.ncna.ie).
Young Children• September 2009
10
Cluster art design and illustration by Michael J.
Rosen; photos as credited elsewhere.
Families and Teachers Essential Partnerships
using nonjudgmental language to make sure
the essence of the other person’s point of
view is clear to us. Janis Keyser, author of
From Parents to Partners: Building a Family-
Centered Early Childhood Program (2007),
encourages early childhood practitioners
to look for the good idea behind a parent
request or demand that may initially seem
strange or inappropriate. Looking for the
good idea is a way of building on a parent’s
strengths, of beginning to understand a
person whose culture may be very different
from your own, or of looking for the parent’s
good intentions. It is much easier to relate
to parents in a positive, respectful way
when (1) we engage in a two-way conversa-
tion (listening carefully as well as speaking)
and (2) we try to recognize the potential for
good ideas behind parental requests and
behaviors.
In 2002 the National Parent and Teachers
Association (PTA) revised the content and
title of their family involvement standards.
The standards became known as the Family-
School Partnership Standards based on the
clear research evidence that such partner-
ships are
the bedrock
of children’s
school success
(PTA 2008). The PTA stan-
dards are written in language
that reflects early childhood
family engagement at its best.
They clearly require that we
advocate for the best interests
of every child. The standards
offer answers about how to
proceed with children and
families from diverse commu-
nities. The six Family-School
Partnership Standards are as
follows:
1. Welcome all families into
the school community
2. Communicate effectively
3. Support student success
4. Speak up for every child
5. Share power
6. Collaborate with the com-
munity (PTA 2008)
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Ultimately, if different values, attitudes, and behaviors
are automatically considered wrong, it will be impossible
to form a collaborative partnership with the child’s “first
teacher.” Home-school partnerships or family engagements
are known to strengthen ECE programs in terms of the posi-
tive growth and development of children. Several research
studies conducted by the Harvard Family Research Project
(HFRP) further clarify the specific kinds of family engage-
ment that are most effective for positive child outcomes
(Weiss, Caspe, & Lopez 2006). HFRP has identified three
areas of what it calls complementary learning opportuni-
ties that enhance the growth and development of young
children: parenting, home-school relationships, and respon-
sibility for learning outcomes.
There is a decision-making aspect of the home-school
relationship as defined by HFRP. It requires in part that we
in ECE make room to hear from parents about important
programmatic decisions. Several years ago as a child care
center director, I faced an important decision when we
needed to add a new infant room to the center. A fundamen-
tal part of our program philosophy was that we wanted to
build and sustain attachments, those trusting relationships
between adults and children that allow children a strong
social and emotional base from which to grow and learn.
One of the ways we implemented that philosophy was
through assigning primary caregivers in the infant room.
When each infant was enrolled in the program, he or she
was assigned a specific caregiver. This allowed the teacher
to form an attachment relationship with each child in her
small primary care group of children.
Opening a new infant room
meant we needed to hire new
staff. My dilemma was how
to set up the new room. The
choices were to open the new
room with:
1. All new staff and new
children
2. A teacher from one of the
original infant rooms as the
lead with other new staff and
new children
3. A teacher from one of the
original rooms as the lead
taking her primary care group
of four children with her to be
joined by other new teachers
and new children
The first choice meant that the
new room had no immediate
connections to the ongoing
traditions of our program. It
would be harder to sustain the
ongoing quality of our program without a daily continuous
connection to our roots. The second choice would separate
the teacher from her primary care group of children, sever-
ing that attachment but leaving the children with other chil-
dren and adults they had known since their first day in the
program—their program family. The third choice kept the
primary group of children with their teacher but separated
them from other children and adults they had known. Any
of the three choices could have been considered viable.
We called a parent and staff meeting for those partici-
pating in the original infant rooms. We shared the exciting
news that the center was expanding and explained that
we needed to make some
decisions, outlining the
three choices as we staff
saw them. We asked the
families what they thought
about each of the three
options and invited them
to offer other ideas that
ought to be considered.
After what turned out to
be a very brief discussion,
one of the fathers said
that as far as he was con-
cerned the third choice
was the only choice. All of
the other parents heart-
ily agreed. They went one
step further, however.
Home-school
partnerships or
family engage-
ments are known
to strengthen
ECE programs
in terms of the
positive growth
and development
of children.
© Ellen B. Senisi
Young Children• September 2009
13
Their additional rationale for the third choice taught us as
staff an important lesson.
The parents told us that attachment was not only about
the relationships that their children had with the primary
caregivers, but that they too as parents had attachments to
the primary caregiver. The attachments we had worked to
build and sustain were in fact a circle of relationships among
the child, family, and teacher. She was the central reason
they had grown to trust our program. They trusted her. The
parents had formed a critical attachment adult to adult.
This was an incredible affirmation for the teaching staff in
particular and our program philosophy in general. We and
the parents together made an important decision that had a
significant impact on how the center was organized.
Focusing on building and sustaining attachments can also
inform the decisions an ECE program makes as it builds
partnerships with families from populations they have not
typically served. We at one point enrolled a 4-year-old child
from China. Only the father spoke English, but we rarely
encountered him initially. The child behaved developmen-
tally more like a 2-year-old. He had just rejoined his parents
after having stayed with his grandparents in the family’s
home country since he was a few months old.
The “good ideas” in this situation were several:
(a) The father had an opportunity to earn an advanced
degree that would allow him to better care for his family
(b) A wife needed to be with her husband
(c) The grandparents loved and cherished their grand-
child and were afraid for him to be so far away
(d) The parents did not want the grandparents to be alone
(e) The parents were unsure what their circumstances
would be in the new country
(f) The parents missed their child
and wanted him to be with them in
the new country
All of these good ideas were bound
by love and protection. Among the
end results were that the parents and
child had no attachment relationships,
and the child was so cherished and
protected by his grandparents that he
did not have opportunities to develop
social skills.
The parents needed from us a part-
nership that assisted them in building
attachments with a child they loved
but did not know. They wanted des-
perately to teach him about his new
country and enjoy his company as he
learned about his new surroundings.
They were appalled by his behavior
but had no idea how to manage it.
The parents were worried that he had
serious mental health problems. The child was frightened.
There was nothing familiar around him except the home
language his parents spoke to him, but he had no basis for
a trusting relationship with them. Everything about our
program setting was even more alien to him.
Our first decision was to enroll him in the classroom for
3-year-olds. He was too large for the toddler room even
though he was developmentally a 2-year-old. We did not
want the size and strength difference to contribute to creat-
ing a bully. In addition, he was too socially immature to have
had a good experience in the 4-year-old room with children
his own size. After a day or two of observation, the teacher
in the 3-year-olds room determined that he was bright and
really wanted to engage with the other children and use the
materials. However, he had no idea how to play with peers
other than to charge through the room knocking things over
and pushing children aside. The observation time gave the
teacher a chance to see through his fear and disruptive
behavior to find a strength that she could build upon.
The teacher talked to him with kindness in tone and
words, knowing that he did not speak English but count-
ing on her gentle affect to assure him that she would
help him and that he was in a safe place. She used what
she thought he could most readily understand—physical
space and touch—to help him relax and learn. She kept
him at her side for several weeks. If she sat at a table with
a group of children, he sat beside her. If the class was out-
doors, he was at her side. She modeled how to enter play
with other children. She modeled sharing laughter with
the other children and comforting them when they were
sad. All the while the new little boy was at her side being
spoken to softly and shown what to do with the materials
© Ellen B. Senisi
14
Young Children• September 2009
14
Young Children
• September
2009
and how to interact with
the other children. She
gently rubbed his back or
touched his hands or arms
to help focus his attention
when she spoke to him.
The teacher built an
attachment relationship
over time with the child
by loaning him her ego
strength—her knowledge
as a stable adult that
impulses can be harnessed
and difficult situations can
be managed. He learned
from her that he could
trust her to help him and
that, just as important, she
trusted him to learn to manage his impulses. He learned so
well that months later when another child who spoke his
home language enrolled in the 3-year-olds room, he immedi-
ately became that child’s mentor in the new environment.
His parents were amazed and confused at first that
they were not getting reports about his “unmanageable”
behavior. The teacher made a point of showing his par-
ents, initially his mother and eventually his father, what he
had learned to do and to introduce them to the parents of
children he had played with successfully that day for even
a brief period of time. She suggested activities that they
could do with him. We had increased interactions with the
father as the boy settled into the classroom routines. The
partnership among adults grew as the parents realized the
teacher believed that their child could learn and they saw
the positive results of her work. The partnership also grew
because the teacher believed in their ability to parent. She
respected the good ideas behind the decision making that
had created their current situation. They trusted her to
help them be the parents they wanted to be to the child
they loved and wanted to teach.
These two examples of family engagement illustrate what
is possible when ECE programs thoughtfully and inten-
tionally build partnerships with families. It is important
to note that the ECE professionals embraced their child
development knowledge as well as the good ideas or inten-
tions of parents. Building and sustaining attachments are
core aspects of child development. Intentionally setting up
opportunities for two-way communication opened the pos-
sibility for new learning among both sets of adults, profes-
sionals and “first teachers.” Effective family-school partner-
ships give all young children the best chance for optimal
growth and development.
References
Covey, S.R. 1989. The seven habits of effective people. New York: Simon
& Schuster.
Keyser, J. 2007. From parents to partners: Building a family-centered early
childhood program. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
PTA (National Parent Teacher Association). 2008. National Standards
for Family-School Partnerships. www.pta.org/documents/National_
Standards.pdf
Weiss, H., M. Caspe, & M.E. Lopez. 2006. Family involvement in early
childhood education. Family Involvement Makes a Difference 1
(Spring). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. www.
hfrp.org/publications-resources/browse-our-publications/family-
involvement-in-early-childhood-education
Copyright © 2008 by National Children’s Nurseries Association. For permissions and
reprints, write to info@ncna.ie.
The partnership
among adults
grew as the par-
ents realized the
teacher believed
that their child
could learn and
they saw the
positive results
of her work.
Resources to Share with Families
Print publications from NAEYC
Brochures, posters, and tablets of hand-
outs focus on milestones of child devel-
opment, the importance of play, healthy
eating, proper diapering, literacy, and
other topics. www.naeyc.org/store
Diffily, D., & K. Morrison, eds. 1996. Family-
friendly communication for early childhood
programs. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Dodge, D.T. 2007. Our program for infants,
toddlers, and twos: A parent’s guide. Wash-
ington, DC: Teaching Strategies. Also
available in Spanish.
Dodge, D.T., & J. Phinney. 2007. A parent’s
guide to preschool. Washington, DC:
Teaching Strategies.
Through the NAEYC Web site
Early Years Are Learning Years are short
articles focused on themes such as start-
ing school, play, child development,
problem-solving, and inclusion.
www.naeyc.org/families/early_years
Message in a Backpack notes and flyers
from Teaching Young Children are pages
teachers can share with parents on topics
like toys, field trips, and books.
www.naeyc.org/tyc/backpack
Right Choice for Kids provides information
on quality early childhood education and
what NAEYC accreditation means.
www.rightchoiceforkids.org
On other Web sites
About Dads Radio offers podcasts about
the impact fathers can have on children.
Included are discussion questions, an
accompanying blog, book recommenda-
tions, and links to other relevant Web
sites. From the same author comes
Maybe Baby, a simple but comprehensive
discussion on becoming a father, and The
WonderWise Parent, a Web site for par-
ents with programs, courses, storytime,
opinions, and humor. www.k-state.edu/
wwparent/aboutdads/Blog/Blog.html
The National Association of Child Care
Resource and Referral Agencies (NAC-
CRRA) offers resources for families on
parenting issues, child care, and learning
activities for children. Back issues of “The
Daily Parent,” a topical newsletter for
parents, are available online.
www.naccrra.org
National Fatherhood Initiative provides
resources, research, support networks,
events, and multimedia products to help
fathers. www.fatherhood.org
ZERO TO THREE has online resources for
families. Navigate to the Parents sec-
tion from the home page and access the
parenting series in the eStore. Several
resources are available in Spanish.
www.zerotothree.org
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