Welcoming families: Making authentic home-school connections
by Helene Arbouet Harte and Jaesook L. Gilbert
Jessica has been teaching preschool for five years. Eight of her 24 children speak languages other than English at home. Two children are having behavioral issues like throwing materials, running out of the classroom, and hitting other children. Jessica believes in the motto, “A parent is a child’s first teacher,” so she tries to talk to parents about behavioral concerns. However, parents are always in a rush at drop-off and pick-up times.
She plans family events, but it seems that the same parents show up at these events. She schedules parent-teacher conferences, but only about half show up. She’s beginning to think that maybe some parents don’t care or don’t want to be involved, which she knows is not true.
What can Jessica do to lessen her frustration and increase home-school connections? She reviews the Developmentally Appropriate Practice guidelines of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (2009), which state the importance of “establishing reciprocal relationships with families.”
She also studies the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) standards for family-school partnerships (2008). They include “Welcoming all families into the school community” (standard 1), “Sharing power” (standard 5), and “Collaborating with community” (standard 6).
Redefining parent involvement
It soon becomes clear that the idea of parent involvement has changed over time to an expanded concept now called family engagement.
What Jessica finds particularly instructive is a report that goes beyond the traditional way of thinking about involving parents by emphasizing a holistic, systematic view. The authors (Halgunseth, Peterson, Stark & Moodie, 2009) specify 6 interactive components of family engagement:
1. Early childhood education programs encourage and validate family participation in decision-making related to their children’s education. Families act as advocates for their children and the early childhood education program and take part in decision-making opportunities.
2. Consistent, two-way communication is facilitated through multiple forms and is responsive to the linguistic preference of the family. Communication is both school and family initiated, timely, and continuous, inviting conversations about both the child’s educational experience as well as the larger program.
3. Families and early childhood education programs collaborate and exchange knowledge. Family members share their unique knowledge and skills through volunteering and actively engaging in events and activities at school. Teachers seek out information about the children’s lives, families, and communities and then integrate this information into their curriculum and instructional practices.
4. Early childhood education programs and families place an emphasis on creating and sustaining learning activities at home and in the community that extend the teachings of the program so as to enhance each child’s early learning.
5. Families create a home environment that values learning and supports programs. Programs and families collaborate in establishing goals for children both at home and at school.
6. Early childhood education programs create an ongoing and comprehensive system for promoting family engagement by ensuring that program leadership and teachers are dedicated and trained and receive the supports they need to fully engage families.
The expanded concept of family involvement is embodied in the Family Engagement in Education Act of 2015 (S. 622/H.R. 1194), a federal law that offers Title I funding to public schools. It provides for activities such as creating local family engagement centers, state coordination councils, and professional development opportunities so that schools can become more family-centered by building capacity and support for effective family engagement strategies.
Family-centered practices include both a relational piece (which involves active listening, respect, and building trusting relationships) and a participatory piece (which includes responding to concerns, involving families in decision-making, and providing families the opportunities to be involved) (Dunst, 2002). Truly welcoming families means paying attention to both the relational and participatory components of the family-centered practices as well as thinking of families as a holistic system.
Authentic family engagement efforts create a welcoming environment for all, regardless of families’ backgrounds and abilities. Implementation involves collaboration between families and educators, and results in positive outcomes for children (Koralek, Nemeth & Ramsey, 2019).
Indeed, a key indicator of quality in early childhood education, according to Sabol, Sommer, Sanchez & Busby (2018), is the emphasis on direct services to parents. These services include the following:
parenting classes, which help build parents’ knowledge;
family support services, which address immediate needs such as housing or counseling;
social capital activities, which include activities that help families connect to each other, the school and the staff such as leadership opportunities and meet-and-greets; and
human capital services, which include opportunities for improving employment or education such as GED classes or resume support.
Effective family engagement occurs up front. In a home, we use items such as a welcome mat to help people feel welcome before they even enter the house. Much in the same way, it is important to make families feel welcome and comfortable before they even enter the school or the classroom.
Welcoming families and increasing family engagement
Jessica, an experienced teacher who cares about children’s families, has been struggling partially because she is relying on what she has done in the past to include families. One could say that Jessica was going in with one-size-fits-all thinking, rather than thinking about each family’s individual and different needs.
If Jessica can help her families feel there is a place for them, their opinions matter, and there are intentional efforts to meet their needs, they are more likely to feel welcomed and connected. Families sometimes feel disconnected from schools—and vice versa—when there is an absence of a trusting relationship (Barone, 2011). Trusting relationships are built upon mutual respect among the involved parties. Mutual respect means seeing each person’s situation as valid and facilitating that individual’s success in addressing the challenges of each circumstance.
One way to help families feel truly welcome is to consider what happens in a home environment when welcoming guests. How do we welcome guests into our own homes? We might have a welcome mat in front of the door and a couple of rocking chairs on the front porch. We might extend an invitation and ask about foods they do not like or that cause allergic reactions.
As guests come inside, we enquire about their needs, have a place for them to sit and be comfortable, pay attention to what they are saying, and engage in conversations with them. We might offer a tray with a choice of snacks. The guests do not have to follow any expectations from the host in making their decisions. Their expertise is recognized and accepted.
The relaxed attitude (“No, I do not have an agenda in mind”) and safe atmosphere of a home allows people to simply watch, listen, learn, appreciate, and share with and about the world around us.
These home attributes are essential parts of welcoming families to schools. Consider this representation of the connection between our home behaviors and the six family engagement components.
Invitation: “Would you like to join me?”
Component 3: Building relationships
Greet families. For example, say “Hello” when families enter. Call them by name.
Welcome families with accessible language, inclusivity, and the provision of personal guides. For example, if a family’s home language is one other than English, say hello in that home language.
Ask about families’ skills and knowledge so these can be integrated into classroom instruction. For example, invite families to share their professions, play musical instruments, cook foods, and make materials depending on their interests and expertise.
Conduct home visits and be willing to meet in the community.
Engage and offer: “Can I get you anything?”
Component 1: Involve families in decision-making
Ask families about their questions, concerns, and goals. Make changes and additions based on those suggestions. Let them know how their input was used. For example, conduct a needs assessment and determine what families want, care about, and view as necessities. Offer a suggestion box. Have focus groups. When you implement their ideas, tell families that this suggestion came from them.
Facilitate families’ ability to advocate for their children’s education by inviting them to take part in making decisions. For example, establish a parent role on an advisory board, include parents in interviews of new staff, and allow them to vote on purchases of large equipment.
Visit and share stories: “I remember when I was in preschool …”
Component 2: Two-way communication
Communicate frequently and in a variety of ways.
Listen—and learn—about each family’s traditions, parenting style, expectations, and needs.
Talk (share stories) about children, classroom, and the school practices in a variety of settings (home, community, and school). For example, schedule regular phone calls to ask families for their input. Have parent cafes for parents to connect with each other as well as the school. Use newsletters, home-school communication notebooks, blogs, and texting.
Share resources and tips: “Have you tried this recipe for a bean and cheese casserole?”
Components 4 and 5: Exchange knowledge
Connect families to community resources and provide learning activities that extend school learning at home and help children learn based on a family’s goals for home and school. For example, have a family game night at school that includes a resource fair. Send home simple math or literacy kits with games along with explanations of what children learn while playing. Make available simple recipes for play clay and finger paint. Build a parent lending library and encourage its use.
Plan ahead: “How can we make sure to get together again soon?”
Components 3 and 6: Collaboration
Provide trainings and supports to leadership and teachers to ensure an ongoing and comprehensive, school-wide family engagement system.
Provide a variety of opportunities for families to volunteer and participate in various school activities that align with families’ situations. For example, have focus groups where families can share ideas. Offer opportunities to help from home, at school, and at various times of the day.
Relationship building plays an integral role in engaging families and forming connections. Home visits, classroom visits, transition plans, letters, and orientations support families as they transition to school (Laverick, 2008). Engaged families are not only oriented to the school initially, but they are also intentionally welcomed in the school on an ongoing basis.
In welcoming families, educators may consider Nel Noddings’ (1998) ethic of caring by actively and authentically demonstrating that families matter in schools. Teachers truly care about, spend time with, respond to, and get to know their children and families. Moreover, applying an ethic of caring within the context of the school-family relationship means seeking and addressing challenges families face in supporting their children’s learning.
The new family engagement culture has to begin with and end with families. In fact, Gillanders, McKinney & Ritchie (2012) recommend conducting focus groups with specific groups of families to find out what their thoughts and needs are when creating professional development materials for their school staff, if the school’s goal is to better address families’ concerns and wishes.
Building two-way communication
Another part of welcoming includes getting one’s voice heard. Families advocate for their children in school whenever they make decisions concerning children’s education. At home, families may take actions such as providing a consistent schedule and space for doing school work. Families may work with school personnel, for example, coming to a consensus with the classroom teacher on a behavior plan or providing input on staff hires for a program.
Both home and school behaviors influence children’s educational experiences. Multiple venues of information sharing (for example, face-to-face conversation, home visits, emails, phone calls, web conferences, texting, and use of social media) allow for every family having a voice for exchanging ideas and communicating with programs. Social media tools and applications when used intentionally and appropriately may facilitate partnerships with families.
Families and educators value communication. When using social media to engage families, avoid sharing sensitive information, use password protected sites and avoid mixing personal and professional sites (Fan & Yost, 2019). Flexibility and willingness to communicate in a variety of ways, with an awareness of family preferences is key. It is important to value families and recognize their contributions.
Ultimately, families and early care and education providers want the same thing for children. Successful programs evaluate their practices for authentic and intentional family engagement efforts. Using the home as an example, simple behaviors can make a big difference in welcoming families and are consistent with recommended practices.
Recognize and include all families’ cultures. Engage in outreach efforts such as home visits. Link families to community resources that help each family manage their stressors related to finances, health, and parenting for increased family sufficiency. Include families in decision-making and setting program standards.
Welcome families by helping them get connected to school, with school staff, and with other school families as much as possible. Authentic engagement benefits children, teachers, and families. It is important to create a community of learners in which families, children, and education professionals work together to support children’s learning through partnerships with the community. Such learning communities result in stronger families, schools, and communities, as well as academic success for students (Epstein & Salinas, 2008).
Building on family strengths
Programs that foster true family engagement believe all families have assets that will help foster their children’s learning and development. The strengths-based paradigm recognizes and capitalizes on “knowledge and skills found in local households” (Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992, p. 132).
These programs also provide for bi-directional interaction between home and school, the two settings by which children are most directly impacted, according to Bronfenbrenner’s (1994) bio-ecological theory, and value community resources.
A shift in perspective
Welcoming families and creating authentic relationships means that schools and programs value families for who they are, what they bring, and what they need in order to engage for the benefit of their children. This requires a shift in perspective by teachers and staff. The six practices recommended by Halgunseth et al. (2009) can be a useful checklist to examine a program’s current practices and to assess the comprehensiveness of family engagement efforts.
A school or program must be able to value each family and provide relevant support while welcoming families, without any prior expectations, as true members of the ongoing learning community. Authentic home-school relationships result when families can make connections and become resilient through gaining needed knowledge, skills, and resources.
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About the authors
Helene Arbouet Harte, Ed.D., is an associate professor of education at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College who has worked in the community as a classroom teacher, center director, coach, content expert, and consultant. Her research interests include family engagement, engagement of young children in inclusive settings, and the engagement of students in the college classroom.
Jaesook Lee Gilbert, Ph.D., is a professor of early childhood education at Northern Kentucky University. She has more than 20 years of experience as teacher, director, substitute teacher, special education facilitator, consultant, and trainer in the early care and education field.