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Partnering with families with authenticity is both a disposition and a belief. As a disposition, you are intentional with strategies to connect with families, and believe they are a partner who brings value to your work and into the life of their preschooler. When authenticity is a belief, you will have a true desire to partner with the family.
For a teacher, being authentic means you continually work to build and maintain trust in the partnership and a desire to provide a quality program for the child in a safe, nurturing environment where the child’s/family’s needs and interests are priority. Relationships have their ups and downs and partnering with families is no different. As an authentic and intentional partner, you strive to maintain relationships, make changes as needed, and agree with the family to keep the child as the focus. The stronger your connection is with a family, the easier it is to have conversations when the topic is not as light-hearted - such as if there are developmental concerns or anything a family may be more sensitive about.
The family is the key to building a relationship with children in your preschool classroom. We value the family as the child’s first teacher. The child’s family has the information needed to provide a safe, nurturing, learning environment where the child’s individual needs are met.
Engaging families builds a partnership where there is trust, respect, and a common goal of positive communication to meet the child’s needs. As you learn more and more about the child and family, the relationship becomes stronger and positively supports the child’s growth and development.
Family engagement starts with an understanding that families are diverse and interactions and opportunities for involvement need to support individual family choices.
A partnership is when each party has the opportunity to be involved in decision making when asking for a commitment of time and involvement in program activities.
Visit the Resources section to view NAEYC Advancing Equity Recommendations for Early Childhood Educators.
Beginning the Year
Starting the year on the right foot by focusing on building the relationship. This begins when the child joins your program, regardless of the time of year. It also occurs when the child transitions to a new classroom. They may have familiarity with the program, but each new set of teachers must develop or strengthen their connections with families. Getting to know each child’s personality and strengths with the support of their family helps you plan better, because you can know the child, their interests, and what their family knows about how to work with their preschooler best.
Teachers need to develop their plan, with guidance from the program’s leadership, and make it their own. One valuable strategy that many programs use is to have consistency in activities, such as open houses and conferences, sending consistent messaging to families about the class’ activities, or daily processes - and also room for teachers to individualize their approach within the classroom. This way, there is some consistency for families as children advance from class to class, or for families who have children in multiple rooms - and opportunity for an individual teacher personalization.
Here are some common, positive strategies to building a positive connection with the families of the children you teach.
Send a Welcome letter to the family prior to the beginning of the program.
Schedule a time to meet with the family to find out about their child’s daily routines and interests.
If you do not speak the families’ language check with your Director to request a translator.
Ask families their preferred name and how to pronounce (if needed).
Express your goal of wishing to be a partner in their child’s learning experiences.
Ask open -ended questions to learn more about the child’s schedule, needs, and interests.
Ask families their preferred method of communication to ensure home and program information is shared daily at the beginning and end of the day.
Introduce the family to all adults who are assigned to their child’s room.
Post pictures of room staff and provide a short biography.
Ask the family for a picture to display on a family board.
Smile and make eye contact as you greet the family by name.
At the end of each day share something positive about the child that happened during the day.
Remind families they are always welcome to visit.
Developing a partnership with families requires an ability for the teacher and family to listen, comprehend and respond with one another. You may or may not speak the language(s) of the children and families you work with. Even if you do not, you can be open to connecting with the family, even though additional strategies and effort will be required on both ends.
When there is a language barrier there needs to be accommodations to ensure lines of communication are open in both directions. The challenge is that you speak a different language than the family, not that they do not speak your language - an important perspective, especially if you speak the dominant language and the family does not. For example, you can say, “I speak English, and the family speaks a Mayan dialect,” rather than “They don’t speak English.” This reframes the challenge as a need to find ways of communicating rather than a dominance for one language over another.
The United States is unique in that there is not a national language, and in the past many decades, the understanding of keeping home or cultural language, while learning the language(s) in the geographic area you reside in both have value. Home language is a part of a child’s roots - a connection to the family you see as well as their ancestors.
Collaborate with agencies serving families who may not speak the dominant language to access resources for yourself as you begin your journey to develop a partnership demonstrating an authentic interest in learning about each family’s culture. Sometimes, these agencies offer translation services.
Demonstrate authenticity by creating an environment where families/children see a reflection of themselves through pictures, toys, books, learning experiences.
Begin to learn phrases of greeting in the family’s language and each day make a point to connect with the family for an informal chat.
If you do not speak the child’s language, find out some important basic words, such as hello, hungry/eat, thirsty/drink, bathroom, outside, inside, so that you can understand the child’s basic needs. Write the words/phrases phonetically (how they sound) so that you can practice using them.
Use visuals to aid communicating and speak slower than normal pace if a family member understands some of your language. As someone is learning another language, it may be understandable to them if at a slower pace.
Get suggestions from families of music you can play during greeting time that they find welcoming.
Post signs in languages of the families you serve.
Translate forms used in your classroom into languages of families you serve.
Work with your program administrator to have a staff person who speaks a common language with families or a translator available for parent meetings, or even better, each day at drop off and pick-up times, in order to ensure clear and timely communication. If your program has many different languages represented, this becomes a bit more challenging, but it is important to coordinate with intentionality and shows an effort to create equity.
Do not give up. Be open to continuing to find better and better solutions, learning more, and keeping the child’s growth and development needs at the heart of things. Your intentional effort is likely to be recognized by the family, even if there are challenges or misunderstandings that may occur.
Visit the Resources section for additional support on Languages.
The following are strategies for partnering with families in an authentic and genuine way, particularly when you need to communicate with them about their preschooler:
When communicating with families, make a list of points you wish to cover.
Introduce yourself and share the purpose of the communication. Is it to share information (more one-way) or discuss a concern?
Begin your sentences with genuine positive points about their child and use “I” statements such as “I have noticed”, “I am wondering”, “I am concerned”, this is less likely to cause defensiveness.
Be sure to reinforce that you recognize the family is their child’s first teacher and as an educator the knowledge they can provide is important to the child’s progress.
Listen first, maintain eye contact, and respond by restating what you believe was shared.
Invite families to take part in decision making when discussing a concern.
Send a follow-up email thanking the family for taking the time to meet with you summarizing decisions which may have been made.
Reflect weekly on the ways you have reached out to families in building a positive relationship.
Developing a positive relationship with families starts with empathy. Consider the perspective of a family who is dropping off their child for the first time trusting they will be in a safe, nurturing environment. Additionally, family perspectives come from the parent(s) and their unique experiences related to where and how they were raised, including cultural and religious beliefs. Sometimes, it is easy to connect with families who are similar to you in one way or another, but ALL families and children you work with deserve understanding and differences in perspectives is healthy. Remember that as a professional, you have an obligation to work well with children’s families as the child’s first - and most important - teacher.
What is empathy? Here are two definitions related to the early childhood education profession:
“Empathy is the ability to feel what the child or family member is feeling, understand what the child or family member is feeling, communicate that understanding to them, and then respond in ways that meet their needs.” -Peck, Maude, Brotherson
“Empathy also helps us understand people whose values, views, and behaviors are different from our own.” -Calloway-Thomas
Practice “reading” non-verbal messages from families, with the understanding that non-verbal messages can be different from region to region or based on cultural background.
Get to know your own non-verbal messages. Sometimes, if what we hear is not similar to our own experience, our faces or body reacts in a way that sends a message of non-acceptance or discomfort. Practice keeping neutral or positive non-verbal messaging, so that there is not unintentional judgement felt by a family.
Invite families to share information about themselves and their child by asking them to complete a survey. Ask your Director for assistance in developing a survey if the program does not presently have one.
Ask open-ended questions to provide the family with the opportunity to choose what they wish to share about their family structure, culture, interests, hobbies.
Create a welcoming atmosphere for everyone and celebrate who they are - similarities and differences.
Consider families as a partner in decision making as they know their child’s strengths and needs.
A list of community agencies might be helpful to connect families to resources when families express a need.