Engaging Families in Early Childhood Education
Collaborative problem-solving will require that parents, educators, specialists, and administrators work together to determine appropriate resources and supports as well as specific information-sharing practices that facilitate parental engagement.
Why Engage Parents?
An ongoing challenge for every educator is to develop and enhance skills that will offer students the best possible learning experiences and opportunities, in school, at home, and in community settings. It is therefore essential that every effort be made to ensure that ongoing and effective communication and partnerships be established and maintained with parents.
Parents as Partners in Response to Intervention
Early childhood models of Response to Intervention (RTI), such as Recognition and Response (see "A Model for RTI in Pre-K" for information), are designed to help educators (in collaboration with parents) to respond effectively to the learning needs of all young children, ages 3-5, including those who are experiencing problems with early learning and those who may be at-risk for learning disabilities. At first glance, it may seem difficult to engage parents in the different components of the Recognition and Response system. With minimal additional planning and a bit of flexibility, parents can be helpful in supporting the implementation of any number of the core components of Recognition and Response such as systematic observation, screening and recording data, monitoring progress, and helping to implement effective teaching practices.
Key Findings about Parent-School Partnerships
Here are two studies that offer insight into the benefits of parent-school partnerships:
Researchers at the University of Oxford found that children whose parents participated in the Peers Early Education Partnership (a program geared towards supporting families of children ages 0-5) "made significantly greater progress in their learning than children whose parents did not participate." These strides where found in children ages 3-5, and included progress in vocabulary, language comprehension, understanding of books and print and number concepts. In addition, these children also exhibited higher self-esteem in comparison to children of non-participating parents (Evangelou & Sylva, 2003).
A study published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology reported that improving parental involvement in the classroom can also improve schools in general (Machen, Wilson & Notar, 2005). The authors describe how everyone within the school community can benefit when parents and teachers work as partners.
What Parents Want To Know
In order to effectively engage parents, it is important to know their specific questions and concerns with regard to their child's learning and transition from home or day care to other educational settings. An article written by Pianta and Kraft-Sayre (1999) titled "Parents' Observations about Their Children's Transitions to Kindergarten" offers a number of insights:
- While two-thirds of the parents viewed their child's transition into kindergarten as generally smooth, nearly 35% of parents mentioned a disruption to family life" - marked by having difficulty adjusting to a new schedule and not having a playmate available for a younger sibling.
- 53% of parent responses contained positive feedback regarding their child's ability to adjust well, the benefits of prior experience to school setting, proactive transition planning by the school, positive qualities in the teachers, communication with the school, and the quality of the curriculum/program.
- Negative feedback shared by parents reflected the child's emotional/behavioral difficulties during transition (e.g., "not handled well by the school,"), family adjustment difficulties (e.g., sleep/work schedule), reluctance or refusal of child to attend school, unrealistic expectations of the school (e.g., curriculum too advanced), and communication difficulties between parents and school personnel (e.g., lost notes, missing money, skipped meals, hygiene difficulties)
Understanding parents' concerns and being proactive in addressing them (or circumventing potential problems) is a positive way to engage parents and establish productive home-school relationships.
According to Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), to "engage" is "to draw into, involve, to attract and to hold." Most parents want to be engaged in their child's learning, and many are able to establish and maintain ongoing and productive communication with teachers on a regular basis. Some families, however, must deal with challenging circumstances (e.g. financial difficulties, separation/divorce, health issues, language/cultural difference) that complicate their ability to reach out or respond to school personnel.
"To Draw Into and, To Attract..."
Relating to parents and drawing them in as partners can be challenging. And the challenges do not always emanate from outside of the classroom!
Amy was a new teacher and was especially eager to make sure parents felt at ease about leaving their child with her on the first day of school. In an effort to show that she was "in charge" she tried to do everything herself. She greeted parents and children, helped children feel welcome and quickly engaged them in an activity, stowed back-packs and extra clothing in cubbies and wrote name tags, and answered parents' questions. Despite her best efforts, a number of children began crying, and sizeable group of parents (many visibly concerned about getting to work on time) congregated at the classroom door.
While a certain amount of tension and anxiety is to be expected at times like this, careful planning can go a long way to help everyone feel more at ease.
Tips on How Teachers Can "Draw and Attract" Parent Participation
Provide a short biography about yourself and your interests. Parents seldom have opportunities during "drop-off" and "pick-up" time to get to know their child's teacher, and conversations during these brief encounters often focus on the events of the day. Sharing some particular details about your special talents and interests can lessen any "stranger" anxiety and make parents feel more at ease.
Invite parents to complete a brief questionnaire. Not only can parents be an invaluable source of information about their own children, but they can bring special interests and talents to share with the entire school community. You may want to ask parents to fill out a questionnaire on the first day of school or invite them to take it home and return it at a later date. Some questions to ask might include:
Would you be interested in being a "guest" in our classroom? Could you be a story reader? Teach a song? Help with an art project?
Is there a special topic that you would like to see incorporated into the curriculum? (e.g., adoption, new siblings, moving to a new home)
Is there a special interest or talent you would like to share with the children? The staff?
What is the best way to reach you during the day?
What is your availability during the day?
Some additional suggestions for building productive parent partnerships are:
Don't do everything yourself! Assign specific tasks to teacher assistants/aides and volunteers and make time to share information and impressions frequently, especially after conversations with parents. Trying to do everything yourself can cause extreme exhaustion, frustration, disappointment and even resentment. Some assistants/aides have a wealth of experience (in the classroom and with parents) and asking them for advice may be a very wise thing to do. Be sure to acknowledge everyone's unique contributions as members of a "team"...parents, too!
Create a photo album of your class in action. Pictures of children involved in different activities can be a wonderful way to engage parents when they visit the classroom/school.
Check backpacks daily. Notes from parents, permission slips, money due, and supplies have a way of finding their way to the bottom of the bag! Encourage and remind parents to do the same.
Provide a "dialog notebook" or "daily diary" for each student. These notebooks, kept in children's backpacks, are an excellent way to send messages to and from school and home regarding a child's progress. For parents whose schedules do not allow for visits to the school building, this offers them a way to stay involved, avoid feelings of guilt, and share regular and timely feedback.
"To Involve, To Hold Onto"
The Recognition and Response system recognizes a number of different types of ‘readiness' when it comes to transition to school. Just as schools need to be ready for children, and children need to be ready for schools, parents also need to be ready to ‘hand off' their children to educators who will begin to shape their early school careers.
Sarah's father, Mr. Henry, presented himself on the first day of school with a big smile and a thousand questions! While not really 'worried' about his daughter's transition to preschool, he was very inquisitive about what happened at different times during the day, and made repeated mention of this being Sarah's first experience in a 'real school' setting. During the course of the first few days of school he made frequent appearances, called and left messages, and wrote notes to the teacher, aides, and school administrator. With plenty of reassurance (often very brief, but always with an anecdote about something Sarah did in class) from the teacher and aides, he was able to 'detach' and become less anxious about her adjustment.
Tips on How Teachers Can Maintain Parental Interest and Involvement
Here are some ideas for supporting ongoing parental interest and involvement that many early childhood educators have found to be successful:
Make the most of drop-off and pick-up activities. Even though these times can be tumultuous, don't miss out on opportunities to engage interested parents. Greet with enthusiasm and when possible, acknowledge their arrival in some special way. For example, prompt the class by saying "look who's here - let's say hello to Sarah and Mr. Henry." This serves several purposes: it makes Sarah feel welcomed, makes her dad feel more at ease about Sarah's her being there, and teaches (and models) the importance of greeting and acknowledging others.
Share a detail or two. When speaking with parents, be sure to add some specific information about their child's progress. "She's doing fine" is not nearly as satisfying to a parent as "You wouldn't believe how much fun she had creating clay animals the other day!"
Host a variety of special events. Try to plan activities such as informal breakfasts, picnics, class trips and fairs featuring educational books and toys throughout the school year. Eliciting ideas for these events from parents may encourage them to be more involved in developing and planning. Be sure to consider whether parents have preferences about when during the day or evening these activities should take place.
Communicate frequently. Whether in person (parent-teacher conferences,), through printed materials (flyers, newsletters, school bulletin boards) or online (school Web sites, group or individual e-mails) , try to make frequent contact with parents. And be sure to ask parents whether the information being shared is useful and how it can be improved, both in terms of content (e.g. about school activities, upcoming events) and format.
High expectations count. Help make parents aware of the school's high standards for achievement, learning goals, curriculum and strategies for helping every child succeed. Don't be reluctant to invite parents to become involved in decision-making and planning ways to help the school community meet these goals.
Celebrate achievements though work sampling. Create portfolios, scrap books, and/or other collections of children's experiences in the classroom for parents to look at whenever they visit the classroom.
Encourage peer networking among parents. A good way to start building parent networks is by creating a parent contact list .Be sure to include teachers, aides and other relevant school personnel. Eliciting help from a few parent volunteers may be especially helpful as this will encourage them to take ownership of this activity.
Identify and make useful resources available to parents. Some parents will need reassurance and guidance about behavior management. Some will have concerns about motor skills or language development. A few will have questions about signs of risk for learning disabilities, and others will want guidance about how to cultivate special skills and talents in their children. Try to be prepared to lead parents to these and other types of resources, either through a lending library in the school, through local agencies or via helpful resources on the Web.
Invite parents into the classroom. Extend frequent invitations for parents to visit their child's school and spend time in the classroom. Whether parents are invited to be silent observers or to help with activities, these visits can be most helpful and enjoyable. (And think about how special a parent will feel receiving a note from the class thanking them for their visit!)
There are going to be times when early childhood professionals and parents will engage in stressful conversations. Sometimes these conversations are triggered by issues that are programmatic such as scheduling extra time for a child to learn and practice skills, reminding parents to return forms, sending in extra clothes, or being on time for pick up at the end of the day. The most stressful conversations, however, are often those that have to do with a child's progress and how to respond when a child shows signs of frustration or when they evidence unexpected delays in learning.
"Doing Battle" So That Everyone Wins!
Most of the time parents and educators are reluctant to say or do things that create conflict, and when it comes to the best interest of our children (parents and teachers alike), we often see all parties ready to engage in a "good fight." Some parents feel that school personnel expect too much (or not enough) from their young child; some believe that educators are misguided in their understanding of how best to teach and encourage learning. Some teachers, on the other hand, wonder why parents are so protective of their child even when concerns are raised about their progress. However well-intentioned, sharing concerns about a child's status can be a tension-filled turning point in the parent-teacher relationship and well worth careful planning and introspection on everyone's part.
In a brief conversation at the end of the school day, Ms. Roth was told by her son Sam's teacher that his behavior at school was beginning to interfere with daily routines and that she might want to address this concern at home. Upset by this casual mention of her son's poor behavior, she replayed this brief encounter in her mind and became increasingly angry at the insinuation that behavior was also a problem at home and that she was being negligent about setting limits or parenting with proper discipline. This potentially explosive situation was quickly diffused that evening with a phone call from Sam's teacher who explained how her concerns were about his enthusiasm to share information about his new pet iguana, and offered some suggestions about sharing photos or drawings, and even having a "show and tell" experience with the class.
Here are some tips when sharing concerns about a child's progress with parents:
Be a good listener. There is much about a child's home situation and prior educational experience that can help you make good decisions. As important is the way that you listen to what parents have to say. They often provide much more information than was asked of them, and offer cues about whether they need more information about a particular issue and whether they are prepared to hear what you need to say.
Say it again. For some parents, conversations with school personnel can be stressful, regardless of whether the discussion is about "good news" or concerns about learning. Try to deliver your message in more than one way, offering examples whenever possible. And ask the listener to confirm what they have heard and what they understand the implications of your message might be. Having parents re-tell the major points in their own words can be a very helpful strategy to engage parents as partners and to avoid misunderstandings.
Communicate strengths first. When communicating with parents about their child's academic and/or emotional needs, it is often helpful to frame the conversation about strengths and talents before dealing with areas of concern.. This will set a positive tone and help even defensive parents feel as though you appreciate the "good" in their child. In more cases than not, parents and teachers share the same impressions about strengths and weakness. The challenge is often how to initiate a conversation without pointing fingers at anyone about being overly sensitive or unnecessarily concerned.
"Camile is so much fun to have in class! She is very caring and plays well with the other children. She has a great sense of humor and usually 'gets things' other kids tend to miss at this age. I'd like you to know that I am keeping an eye on her verbal language skills. We understand her wants and needs most of the time, except when she gets excited. When this happens her words are sometimes difficult to understand."
Describe behaviors… do not diagnose, label or guess. Early childhood educators spend a lot of time with students in different settings (playtime, circle-time, meals, etc.) and have opportunities to observe behaviors that may not be apparent at home. When concerns arise about a child's learning or behavior, the last thing you want to do is give the impression that you're jumping to conclusions! Be sure not to think "diagnosis" or "label" but rather do everything you can to gather detailed information that could be helpful to parents and specialists who at some point might be called in to conduct screenings or targeted evaluations Monitoring children's progress is an essential and valuable component of the Recognition and Response system and there are many ways to incorporate this type of data collection (and sharing) into daily routines. Try to look for patterns in these anecdotal records as they can provide clues to what might be interfering with learning.
Jared loves to play with cars and often chooses this as a free-time activity. He enjoys sharing his toys with peers, but as just before lunch, he seems to get moody, sometimes preferring to play alone. At these times, when approached by other children, he tends to ignore them and on several occasions has used foul language and even pushed them away. This behavior can persist until lunchtime, but is rarely seen during rest time and in afternoon play.
Allow time for parents to process hear, feel, think and respond. Dr. Louis M. Rossetti, in his book titled Communication Intervention: Birth to Three, has referred to the delivery of difficult news to parents about their child as "a loaded gun fired at the heart." Without being dramatic, it is not unusual for communications with parents regarding struggles with learning and behavior to stir up feelings of guilt, fear, confusion, resentment, anger and helplessness. Be sure to provide opportunities for parents to process and understand your concerns. Some helpful tips include:
Try not to be defensive if parents lash out upon hearing "bad news." Try not to take their reactions personally. Remember that there may be other circumstances at work or at home that affect their reaction.
Organize your thoughts before sharing them with parents. It may be a good idea to confer or even role play with a colleague before initiating a conference with a parent.
Be clear about your availability to help. Suggests times for follow up and offer to include others in the discussion as needed.
Elicit ideas from parents about ways to provide support for their child. If possible, share a tentative plan of action and integrate parents' suggestions as appropriate. Remember that a key feature of the Recognition and Response system is not necessarily trying to change a students' behavior, but rather making modifications to the program, tailoring instructional strategies, and providing appropriate supports to meet the needs of all children, including those who struggle with learning.
Review information with parents and help them to appreciate their role as partners in gathering and sharing information, supporting skill development, monitoring progress, and ongoing decision-making.
Share informational resources. Make parents aware of helpful resource such as books, videos, DVDs, pamphlets and Web sites. Directing parents to information about "sensitive" issues can help them to increase awareness of important topics and even develop some level of acceptance, making it easier for them to partner with you and take positive action.
Ask for feedback. It's OK for educators to ask parents for feedback about their classroom program. Be prepared to hear good news and bad. And remember that child development is a moving target. Saying "I'm sorry" or having to having to make mid-course corrections in instructional style and content is part of the early childhood educational business. Your efforts and willingness to be a flexible, well-informed and enthusiastic partner will make your relationships with parents a success.
Some Helpful Resources To Engage Parents
The Child Care Partnership Project offers a number of valuable resources:
A Guide to Engaging Parents in Public-Private Child Care Partnerships
This publication offers a Parent Involvement Checklist that can help schools develop and sustain partnerships among teachers, parents and administrators It focuses attention on such important issues as:
Conducting outreach activities and regularly inviting parents to participate in school activities;
Making efforts to engage fathers, mothers and intergenerational care providers (uncles, aunts, grandparents);
The skills and training needs of adults to effectively assume partnership roles;
Establishing ways for groups of parents and individual families to offer feedback on why and how well partnership activities are meting their needs.
A Parent Talent Self-Assessment Tool
This informal quiz can help parents identify the skills/knowledge they can contribute to a partnership with the school community. It asks parents to rate their skills, interests and abilities to:
Lead (motivate, inspire, persuade, initiate, execute, persist);
Instruct (tell stories, engage in learning activities);
Organize (plan, think logically, clarify, envision, design);
Express ideas through art or music.
For information about cultural competency, visit:
Dockett S. & Perry, B. (2001). Starting School: Effective Transitions. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 3(2).
Evangelou, M. & Sylva, K. (2003). The Effects of the Peers Early Education Partnership (PEEP) on Children's Developmental Progress. Department of Education Studies, University of Oxford.
Goodwin, A., & King, S. (2002). Culturally responsive parental involvement: concrete understandings and basic strategies. Washington , DC : AACTE Publications.
Harry, B., & Kalyanpur, S. (1999). Building reciprocity with families: Case studies in special education. Baltimore , MD : Paul H. Brookes.
Kreider, H. (2002). Getting Parents "Ready" for Kindergarten: The Role of Early Childhood Education. Harvard Family Research Project, April.
Machen, S. , Wilson, J. & Notar, C. (2005). Parental Involvement in the Classroom. Journal of Instructional Psychology 32 (1), 13-16.
McBride, S. (1999). Family-Centered Practices. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 54 (3).
Pallas, A.M., Natriello, G., & McDill, E. (1989). The changing nature of the disadvantaged population: current dimensions and future trends. Educational Researcher, 18(5), 16-22.
Piana, L.D. (2000). Still separate. Still unequal: 46 years after Brown v. Board of Education (Fact sheet on Educational Inequality). Oakland . CA: Applied Research Center .
Rieth, H.J., Sindelar, P.T., McCray-Sorrells, A. (2004). Critical Issues in Special Education. Boston : Pearson Education, Inc.
U.S. Department of Education (2002a). Twenty-third annual report to Congress on the implementation of Individuals with Disabilities Act. Washington , DC : U.S. Government Printing Office.
U.S. Department of Education (2002b). Education statistics. Washington, DC. Author.
This article was originally published by RecognitionandResponse.org, copyright © 2007-2008 National Center for Learning Disabilities, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
Back To Top