Family & Community Partnerships
Parents are a child's first teachers and the teachers whose interactions matter most. So it makes sense that early childhood professionals work together with parents and other community partners in aiding the development of young children.
In this unit, we'll talk about ways to engage parents and others.
If "parents are a child's first teacher," include this teacher on your team! Find out how in this unit.
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You are the expert on children-in-general. You have many children in your care and that gives you a wide window into how development happens, the ups and downs of everyday child experience, and what sorts of strategies might work well in different situations. If you've been a teacher for a while, you have even more experience with children-in-general and even more expertise.
But parents are experts too. They are the experts on this-child-right-here. Only a child's parents know everything about him, from his birth history to his interactions with his cousins, and from what scares him the most to what can be counted on to make him laugh every time. While parents may not know all the things you know about children-in-general, they are the keepers of important information about this-child-right-here.
You and a child's parents are members of the same team. You each bring valuable insights to the process of guiding a child's development. You need the parents just as much as the parents need you.
So why does it seem so hard sometimes to work together?
What Gets in the Way?
Sometimes it's the parents who get in the way.
Parents are busy people - that's often why their children are enrolled at your center, after all! They may not make time to talk with you or they might brush off what you try to tell them, not because they aren't interested but because they just don't have the time.
Parents are human beings. They come with school histories, histories with authority figures, chips on their shoulders and baggage of all sorts. For parents who are wary of "the system," you are part of what is wrong with their lives. Like it or not, you are an authority figure. You make some parents nervous.
Parents are sometimes misguided. They have notions about child-rearing that seem nutty to you. They make demands that seem disconnected to the needs of their children. They don't seem to have a clear idea of what a child is like or what it takes to raise one.
Most parents you work with are easy to get along with. Most parents are eager and helpful partners with you in guiding a child. But it's the parents who are most difficult who need your guidance the most. It's not enough to partner with the "good" parents. We must reach all our parents.
And sometimes we are the ones who get in the way.
We discount the importance of what goes on at home. Sometimes it seems like home can't matter all that much,since the children spend so much time with us at the center. But parents always matter and they always matter the most.
We are too busy to bother. We do have a lot to do. Working with the parents seems like adding another set of kids to our list of things to worry about. But our commitment to the children demands that we help parents as much as we can. Working with parents isn't extra. It's part of our job.
We are frustrated and disgusted by the parents we see. The parents who need us most are the ones who seem the most ignorant of what children need. These are the parents who are the hardest to see, who don't seem to trust us or like us, and who argue back or are demanding in ways that make us feel tired and unhappy. No wonder we want nothing to do with them! But these are the ones we should try hardest to reach. Their children are the ones who need us to step in.
No matter how difficult it might be to make solid connections with a family, this is our job. We are the ones in charge. The center is our "house." It's up to us to make the invitation and set the table.
What Shall We Do?
Be warm and positive. Always greet each parent with a smile. If you have something negative to say, "sandwich" it in between two positives.
Be a good listener. Instead of arguing with a parent, just listen. Sympathize with the emotion they seem to be feeling. You don't need to promise changes but you do need to hear parents out without interrupting them or jumping to your own defense.
Treat parents and their ideas with respect. Consider parents and their ideas carefully. Remember that even the silliest request is backed by a sincere need or worry of some sort. Ask a parent to "tell me all about it" or to "tell me what's happened to make this important right now." Get the facts before saying anything.
Avoid gossip. Parents know that if you listen to gossip or pass gossip along, you will sooner or later spill their own secrets. Your relationship with moms and dads depends on trust, so make certain parents can trust you completely.
Ask for their insight. Remember, parents are the experts on their child. So ask them how they solve at home an issue you're having with their child at the center. Ask them what they've tried and what seems to work best. Ask them to work together with you to help their child. Let parents know you want them to be your full partner, not your underlings. Together with parents create a team.
This takes time. If parents have had bad experiences in the past, it can take a lot of time. If parents disrespect you or are very self-centered, it can take a lot of time. It's quite possible, with some parents, that you will never achieve the sort of connection you want and need. This is the reality of the situation.
But... you never know. Just as you achieve breakthroughs with children, you can achieve breakthroughs with parents. Keep at it. Keep smiling. Let them know your invitations to work together are unbreakable.
When parents are ready - even before they're ready - you are ready to join hands.
Including The Community
It does indeed "take a village" to raise a child. The health and well-being of every child is important to all of us. It's important to the community that its children do well. So it makes sense to connect with the community as part of your work.
Part of supporting children and families is recognizing, valuing, identifying, and referring to community resources when needed. Families often don’t know what resources are available in their community or how to access them. This is especially true for families in which the parents are challenged by a language barrier, unfamiliarity with American institutions, and so on. You can help the family and the child in your care by letting parents know about services designed to help them.
If your center doesn't already have a listing of local social service agencies, put one together yourself. Keep in mind that it's never your role to advise parents yourself or to make a diagnosis of a child's special need. Instead, your role is to describe what you've seen, using the records you keep, and then suggest ways a parent can get more help.
What sorts of services do parents need? The list will vary, depending on the needs in your neighborhood and the service providers who are nearby. But connections you can make with a food bank, housing counselor, domestic violence agency, public health office, language assistance, and legal aid society may all come in handy. Keep your eye open for non-profit services that may offer services your families might need.
Getting Children Out into the World
Another way of engaging the community is to take your children out into it. Field trips are fun and educational for children but they also are enlightening for the community too. Everyone in "the village" gains by being reminded of his responsibility for our youngest citizens.
What sort of field trips? Just simple walks around the block or strolls to the library for story time. A hike to a local park or playground is another idea. If you can arrange visits to local businesses as part of a project study - a trip to a doctor's office, pet store, or construction site - so much the better.
Inviting the World In
Make connections to the community by inviting the community in. Find out what talents or interesting qualities children's parents have and invite them in to share. Invite in local business people or professionals to talk about their work or even demonstrate what they do all day.
In addition, link parents to each other, by offering informal coffees, pot luck suppers or work parties. Link parents to the school system by introducing parents to local kindergarten teachers. How can you make your center a hub of the community? How can you help new parents find their way among the services and opportunities available to young families?
In the old days, the school was the center of community life. You can revive that tradition by making your center a valuable resource.