Family involvement: A key quality indicator
Overheard on the parking lot:
“It makes me crazy. The only time Ms. Ramzy speaks to me is when she needs something. This time it’s muffins for the May fest. I wonder if she really knows my son Henry.”
“Ditto!” replies Mags, “Communication only seems to be about Maria’s misbehavior. Just once I’d like to hear her say something positive about Maria’s strengths and skills—not just her weaknesses.”
Effective communication between a child’s family and early care and education teachers is both challenging and critical to a child’s learning. In fact, it’s a key indicator of a program’s quality.
Many factors—rivalries for affections, socio-economic resentments, time limitations, disagreements about best practices, guilt, and even racism—can hinder successful communication. Both parents or guardians and teachers have limited abilities to consistently see each other’s point of view, and often seem to discount each other’s good intentions. But at the same time, family members and teachers can and should be partners in every child’s care and education.
The benefits of effective partnerships are clear: Children have greater self-esteem, more regard for themselves as competent learners, and fewer discipline problems when their parents or guardians are actively involved in their education (Swick 1991; Katz 1977).
Frequently, however, teachers and program administrators have little idea of how to make the most of parent interest and involvement. Family members can feel shut out or at least resentful when their involvement is limited to help with field trips, party planning, or fund raising. Not surprisingly, some refuse to take time from hectic schedules when the school requests help in an activity that seems superficial or even artificial. Other parents, still limited by the negative experiences of their own schooling, fear and resist any interaction with schools and teachers.
Partnerships thrive on communication
Effective partnerships rely on clear, honest communication marked by carefully practiced listening and speaking skills. Dimidjian (1992) cautions that teachers have to be ready to listen, learn, and use “two kinds of language, the language of the professional world of early childhood and the language parents speak and hear.” For example, a parent of a 3-year-old asks, “Why can’t Marcy read yet? All she ever does here is play.” A responsive teacher translates this apparent hostility and fear to discover the real question: “Can you help my daughter be a better thinker, learner, and problem solver who’s ready for what comes next?”
In successful partnerships, both parents or guardians and teachers do the following:
Believe that a child’s most important relationships are within the family and that family members know each other first and best. Families can vary widely. They can include single parents, stepparents in blended families, adoptive parents, foster parents, grandparents, or live-in friends and relatives. Teachers who work to understand and respect every family’s structure, habits, and practices establish basic trust and ease the transitions between home and school.
Families also are dynamic, not static. “I’m so happy to meet you, Ms. Brown,” says Margaret, welcoming a young mother and her daughter, Lindsey Brown, on the first day. “The name is Quillan,” the mother says. “I remarried last year.” Before meeting with families for the first time, check enrollment information. Getting names right is an important gesture of respect.
Work through conversations that offer choices and exploration. When 4-year-old Marley falls asleep in the book corner at mid-morning , Judy, his teacher, wonders about possible causes of Marley’s unusual behavior. Could it be illness? A late supper and unstructured bedtime? Or even abuse? When she visits with Marley’s mom that afternoon, she simply shares objective information about the unusual nap. Ms. Jones explains that on the previous evening Marley received a Skype call from his dad who’s deployed in Iraq. Marley was so excited to visit with his dad that he didn’t get to sleep until midnight.
In this example, Judy offers Ms. Jones a choice about how much family information to share. This leaves open the possibility for more conversation without defensiveness. And it broadens Judy’s knowledge about military families and their unique needs and joys.
Share opinions, ideas, and concerns objectively, honestly, and nonjudgmentally. When Ms. Barber angrily points to Scott’s shoes, saying, “Those are his only shoes—they are wet and covered with green paint,” she doesn’t need a lesson in developmentally appropriate art or sympathy for her hard day at work. She needs direct information: “Yes, Scott used the big watering can in the garden this afternoon. The dribbled paint is from his work at the easel. He tried to clean up but smeared the paint instead.”
Describing Scott’s activities allows both Ms. Barber and Scott’s teacher to explore solutions to the irritating problem—organizing an outgrown clothing and shoe swap, adding detergent to paint to prevent stains, or asking Scott to remove his wet shoes so they can dry in front of a fan—without judgment or blame.
Learn as you listen, brainstorm options, negotiate plans, and evaluate results. “I can’t seem to get Jimmy to sleep before 11 at night,” Mr. Morgan says. “Can you tell me how he naps here? What does he do that might keep him awake for so long?” Rather than responding defensively, Abby, Jimmy’s teacher, suggests that she and Mr. Morgan discuss Jimmy’s routine both at school and at home. After a few minutes, they agree that Abby will limit Jimmy’s naps to two hours, and Mr. Morgan will turn off the television at 8 p.m., give Jimmy a soothing bath, and read a bedtime story. They agree to meet again in two weeks to evaluate the new routine and to modify it if bedtime is still a problem.
Rigidity can create barriers in partnerships. Listening validates parents’ concern and opens the door to sharing ideas and making plans. If your shared plan doesn’t work, talk more, and devise another plan.
Accept and respect the time it takes to build trust. Successful partnerships build slowly, sometimes over years. Trust and mutual regard develops through regular, nurturing conversation, not with on-the-run comments and nonverbal body language.
At a recent gathering to award books to children enrolled in a reading program, a father, Mr. Pease, asks for an extra book for his unenrolled child. The program director declines, saying that the books are only for enrolled children. The next morning, Mr. Pease recounts the episode to a trusted teacher who knows that he is enrolled in a community literacy class. “I wanted the book to practice, so I could surprise Josh by reading it to him,” the father says. The teacher offers to share class library books with Mr. Pease and invites him to read to the class when he is ready to share his new skills. The teacher has taken a simple step to reinforce trust and build confidence and pride that will ultimately benefit both father and son.
Remember that communication is two-way. In teacher-parent conversations, the teacher often manifests specialized knowledge about a child’s growth and development. The parent or guardian, on the other hand, has a long-term, intimate relationship with the child that will last longer than a school placement with a particular teacher. A partnership meshes the features of the two roles into one of mutual respect, trust, and understanding—all for the benefit of the child involved.
Use any of the following suggestions to establish communication between families, teachers, and administrators. Remember to be efficient, thorough, and objective.
Orientation. Invite new parents to attend a short, well-organized orientation session at the start of the school year. Plan a display board or show a video of the children and teachers interacting in various interest centers while you explain your program’s philosophy and policies. Provide a handbook that clearly covers potential problem areas like tuition payment schedule and rates, sick children, appropriate clothing, and the release of a child to someone other than the custodial parent.
Parent or guardian conferences. Encourage important family members to attend twice-yearly conferences with their child’s teacher. Conferences give the new adult partners time to share observations and ideas and to cooperate in providing the best learning situation for a child. Try to create a private and comfortable environment—adult-sized chairs at least—and avoid crowding the schedule. Make time for a real conversation with every family.
Newsletters. Technology has made producing regular newsletters easy and quick. Use e-mail to distribute the newsletter and print a hard copy for the bulletin board. Include tips for easier arrival and departure transitions, reminders of field trips and school meetings, recognition of special family events or activities, recipes for nutritious and quick-to-prepare meals, and a column on books for children on specific topics. Make sure the reading level of all print materials matches the literacy skills of its readers—in whatever language they use.
Bulletin boards and family communication centers. Many programs use bulletin boards, but a small table or deep shelf is even more effective for sharing written information, brochures, activity ideas, and books. Be careful to avoid making this center a dumping ground for out-of-date materials and harsh, directive posts like “Tuition is due NOW!” Encourage families to write notes too so that the center becomes a highway for organizing baby-sitting trades, exercise groups, and used-toy trades.
Family libraries. Find a place for a collection of books, magazines, resource lists, and even toys and learning materials that families can borrow from the school. Establish a simple check-out system, allow week-long loans, and expect normal wear on materials. Invite families to share books, recordings, and toys their children have outgrown. Include basic books on child development and guidance. Consider positioning the library in an out-of-the-way spot with comfortable chairs and even a pot of coffee or pitcher of water.
Letters and postcards. Begin or maintain contact with families and children with a simple piece of mail. E-mail can suffice for quick questions and reminders, but nothing shows care like a handwritten note. Send notes when you want to stay in touch while on vacation, say thanks for a thoughtful word or deed, welcome a new child to the program, or remember a child who’s out sick. The bonus is an opportunity to practice literacy skills.
Open-door policy. Encourage families to visit—frequently. Plan a regular open house or tour time so prospective families can watch your program in action. Provide maps and perhaps a “Who’s who” list of administrators and lead teachers. Have marked parent parking spaces as well as halls that accommodate groups of visiting families away from the classroom. A good friend—and family partner—should always be able to drop in and feel welcome. If you’re uncomfortable being observed, give the parent a simple, “Please help me….” task.
Telephone access. Let parents and guardians know when teachers are available to answer phone calls. Use a voicemail system to answer calls when a crying baby or joyful background noise would make communication difficult. Return calls promptly.
Greeters. Invite families to take turns being official greeters at the school’s door each morning. A warm handshake and introduction will make every family member feel more welcome.
Family meetings. The secret to perfect attendance at family meetings is not a dynamic speaker, tuition crisis, or the resignation of a favorite teacher, but food. Schedule regular gatherings at the end of the day and serve a simple meal so parents don’t have to rush home to prepare supper. Similarly, reduce tensions in parent or guardian conferences by offering something to drink and a light snack like crackers and cheese.
Parent and guardian meetings help construct a base of support among families and can sound alarms when problems may be brewing. The best programs anticipate and plan for the needs of children and their families. If, for example, parents seem to become frantic in the spring before their children move on to kindergarten, plan a late winter program to address concerns and offer tips for smooth transitions.
Family involvement is not just a nice thing to do. It’s critical to children’s learning and attitude toward school, and it helps teachers feel more engaged and valued.
Dimidjian, V. 1992. Living with parents every day of the year: A look at the three “L” skills needed for effective parent-teacher communication. Day Care and Early Education, 20(1), 4–8.
Galinsky, E. 1990. Why are some parent/teacher partnerships clouded with difficulties? Young Children, 45(5) 2-3, 38-39.
Katz, L. 1977. Talks With Teachers. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Swick, Kevin. 1991. Teacher-Parent Partnerships to Enhance School Success in Early Childhood Education. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.