Establishing Effective & Productive Relationships With Families
As Mr. Rogers taught us, every child is special.
In this first unit, we'll contemplate the specialness of us all, the importance of respect for different points-of-view, and the responsibility of early childhood professionals to act ethically.
Think about your own family and the families you know. Think about what makes every family different and every family special.
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All Different Families
The wonderful thing is that each of us is different. Even if we share many of the same characteristics with our next-door neighbors, we and our neighbors are unique individuals, shaped by our family backgrounds, our cultural and racial heritage, what has happened to us, and what we hope for the future.
Not only that, but each of our families is distinctive too. No longer do American families consist of a mother, a father and two or three children - if they ever did! The term "family" embraces more than the most simple way of thinking about this complex social unit. Take a moment right now and share something about yourself and the family you came from - or the family you created as an adult.
How We Know Who We Are
Each of us inherits genetic traits that shape our personalities. Some of us are born more outgoing or more reserved, more energetic or more quiet, more easy-going or more particular. What happens to us shapes who were are too, though how we react to the things that happen are filtered by our inborn dispositions. By the time we are four or five we have a pretty stable way of looking at the world and we have a pretty good idea of who we are.
This sense of self is created not only by our experiences and predispositions but by how others treat us. This is called the "reflected self." We know who we are by seeing who others think we are. We pick up clues to others' notions about us from what they say and how they act.
A person's self-concept determines what she will try to do and what she will decide not to try. It determines how hard she tries and how she reacts to success or failure. Because self-concept is built by the reflection of ourselves we see in others' treatment of us, the people around a child have a lot of influence on a child's self-concept. How we treat people matters.. a lot!
Thinking About Diversity
If everyone is different and if all families are different, it's obvious that diversity is not something separate to consider but the most basic element about us. We are diverse in a diverse number of ways. Think about how we are distinct from those around us: we are different ages, different sexes, different races, and different religions. We speak different languages. We eat different foods. We tell different stories. We sing different songs.
This is how American society has always been. It's nothing new. The idea that there's just one way of being American is a false one. There are many different ways and not one way is any better than any other. There is no need to "fix" people who have different experiences or characteristics from us. They do not need to learn to be the same.
Nonetheless, we notice differences. Babies as young as three- to six-months-old recognize faces of races similar to their own more quickly than they do faces of other races. By age three, children show preference for people of the dominant (White) race and reject people they believe are different from themselves. Accepting everyone is something caregivers of even the very youngest children must do. Children are paying attention, even from birth.
Nurturing Diverse Families
It's easy to think that we have all the answers. It's easy to imagine that if parents would just do as we say, their children would be better off. We'd like it if everyone did what we told them to.
But making everyone be just like us doesn't honor the diversity among us. It overlooks the truth of each person's experience and denies families the very things that make them strong. If we criticize others, we tear them down. The truly helpful person builds families up.
To build families up, start by listening. Try to understand where parents are coming from. Realize that it's not your job to turn their family into something more like your own family. Help each family meet the challenges they face in ways that support children's self-concepts.
Getting To Know You
You bring wonderful things to the field of early education and care. Stop and think of what those things might be...
Maybe you know a lot about vegetable gardening. Maybe you know how to knit. Maybe you've worked in construction and understand the building trades. Maybe you tell good stories.
In addition to your talents and interests, you bring your values and skills to your work with children. You have high standards. You value friendship. You are a clear thinker. You are well-organized, thoughtful, sensitive, caring, persistent, honest, kind.
Not only do you bring a lot to your center every day, your co-workers, children, and the children's parents bring a lot too. Think of the gifts and opportunities everyone contributes to the daily experience of the center. What a rich, dynamic community this is!
By making your center a safe place for all sorts of families and their children, you communicate your support of diverse points of view and diverse cultural backgrounds. It should be clear by now that this support is important to children's development of positive self-concepts and, as we shall see in a later unit, positive self-concept is necessary for good behavior and successful learning.
It's not enough to "teach tolerance." Tolerance isn't enough. Valuing of diversity can be arranged in a continuum, and tolerance is not near the top. We owe it to the children and families we serve to truly appreciate the variety of gifts everyone brings to the center every day.
Take a moment to remember.
- Can you recall a time when you were rejected without being granted a fair chance?
- Have you ever been treated with indifference or merely tolerated?
- What does it feel like to have who you are really appreciated and honored by others?
How does each of these experiences feel like, even now as just memories? What is the long-term effect on you of the treatment you've received from others?
And then decide what you want for the children you work with. Which of these experiences? What can you do to help the children in your care feel, not just accepted, but truly appreciated for who they are?
Because the dominant culture (White, middle-class, Protestant Christian, English-only-speakers) is so dominant, materials and curricula often cater to this point-of-view and ignore or demote persons of less-dominant groups. Every child in your center should be able to see himself or herself in the books, pictures, and other materials used every day.
In addition, even if your center is homogeneous - so that most everyone is White, for instance - it is vital that other perspectives be "normalized" by being included equally with the dominant view. Diversity isn't just for populations that have a diverse make-up. It's important for all children and it might be even more important for children who otherwise have little contact with diversity.
Not all materials intended for early childhood programs are appropriately diverse. Many materials depict only members of the dominant culture, limit main characters to members of the dominant culture, or diminish diverse populations by being patronizing or superficial. Some materials, especially materials you may remember fondly from your own childhood, are blatantly discriminatory or stereotyping.
The Importance of Deliberate Inclusion
Do not underestimate the importance of deliberately creating a program that welcomes all children and their families. Children are deeply influenced by cultural socialization.
Your attitudes and behaviors reflect your values, and children absorb these values. Your attitudes can have a powerful positive influence on children. It is important to commit to educating each unique child and to help all children learn to live together.
As a professional you have a wonderful opportunity to be a positive role model in demonstrating respect for the dignity and worth of each family.
Creating Family Partnership
Appreciation of differences goes beyond just behaving nicely. It includes engaging in collaboration even with others we might not agree with. It includes creating partnerships with parents.
Why Family Partnership Is Important
Parents know more about any particular child than you do. While you know more about children in general, only a child's parents know her entire history, know the family medical history, know the child's lifelong preferences, and understand the family dynamics and where this child fits. Parents know where they are worried about their child's learning and what about their child's behavior and abilities delights and challenges them. Parents have essential knowledge that you don't have but which is important to know.
In addition, parents are more important to the child than you are. No matter how sketchy a family's situation is or how much time the child spends at your center, parents are the center of a child's world. If you are going to work effectively with the child, you must also work effectively with the child's parents.
How do you do that?
Working With Parents Is Part of Your Job
A key understanding is this: to work with children one must also work with children's parents. Early childhood professionals know that they cannot just ignore or dismiss moms and dads. They cannot work behind parents' backs or just give up on them. Part of being an early childhood professional involves guiding and supporting parents at home.
In addition, the school or center or family childcare home, is your space. You are the authority figure there. So it is up to you to break the ice with parents. It's up to you to be welcoming, encouraging, and inviting.
Naturally, you and parents will not always see eye-to-eye. You bring your own background, preferences and biases and parents bring theirs. You cannot expect parents to just go along with whatever you say, in the same way that you won't go along with everything they say. But you and parents are on the same team. You both want the very best for children. It's important that you and parents collaborate for the good of the kids.
One more thing: some parents are easy to talk to and easy to work with. They take the initiative in starting conversations with you, they are eager to volunteer, they seem to share your values and goals, they come to the meetings you plan. These are not the parents we're worried about here. Yes, it's important to talk with these parents and work with them, but that will happen without a lot of effort on your part. These parents will meet you halfway. It's the other parents you must worry about: the ones you never see or that you wish you'd never see.
Working with parents means working with all the parents, not just the ones you agree with. Challenging parents need what you have to tell them and their children need you to speak up in their behalf. Let's look at how to reach parents who need your help.
How to Talk to Families
We have to realize that some parents have had bad experiences with authority figures (and you are any authority figure, whether you feel like it or not!). Just telling people what to do, threatening them with punishment, and making negative comments about their children, just solidifies these parents in the idea that you are part of "a system" that cannot be trusted and doesn't like them. It pays to be careful in how you approach all parents, not knowing what baggage they may bring with them.
In addition, keep in mind that a family's children are its most important assets. Any criticism of those children is going to make parents angry. Any behavior on your part that a parent interprets as ignoring her child or not really caring drives parents away from you. Parents have to believe you are on their side and on the side of their children.
Here are some tips:
- Start with the family's point-of-view. Listen to what parents tell you without arguing or defending yourself. Understand the emotion behind what parents say.
- Begin and end what you say to parents with something positive. Never start with a complaint or end with a threat.
- Be clear. If you are worried about a particular child behavior, describe specific examples.
- Collaborate. Ask for parents' help and input and never give advice. You can share what you've tried that has worked. You can ask what parents have tried at home. Make your discussions about children conversations with parents, not confrontations.
- Believe that parents can and want to help their children. Every parent has strengths and abilities that might not be shared with you. Never doubt moms and dads. All parents want what's best for their kids.
Making Families Welcome Is Everyone's Job
Parent involvement isn't the responsibility of just a small number of staff members. It's not something only directors or owners worry about. Helping parents feel welcome and appreciated is everyone’s job.
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.