Family Engagement in Early Childhood Education -

Early Childhood Education: Family Engagement Is Your Best Tool

I am a proud ‘auntie’ to a spunky three-year-old (let’s call her Jaz). Jaz will soon begin preschool, a critical milestone in her education. I am so excited for the partnership that her parents will experience with Jaz’s new teacher, too. After all, family engagement in early childhood education is absolutely essential for long-term student success.

But whenever I ask her parents about this milestone, I sense both excitement and terror, even loss. 

“I’m not a real teacher, but I liked playing one. I’m going to miss that,” Jaz’s mother recently confessed to me, chuckling nervously.

I was not prepared for this response. I studied child development and human biology for years in school. I read plenty of academic papers and books about early development. It was humbling to witness Jaz’s immense growth in action. More importantly, I saw the crucial role that all of Jaz’s family played in her education journey up to this point.

I smiled at Jaz’s mom. “Actually,” I replied, “you’re one of her very first teachers!”

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And it’s true – her grandparents helped her practice the correct pronunciation of ‘apple’ in English, Farsi, and Kyrgz. Her parents introduced Jaz to her greatest love (dried leaves) and taught her how to carefully pick them up by the stem to avoid crushing their delicate frames. And yes, her parents managed to persuade Jaz to pick up her own toys, turning the chore into a game by counting out loud how many toys she grabbed in ten seconds.

Jaz’s entire family have been educating her every single day of her life since she was born. Though her learning happened outside a formal classroom setting, Jaz was already a student, and family her very first teachers.

As I reminded Jaz’s mom that day, her family will continue to be key players in the rest of her learning journey.

Family engagement enables high-quality early learning

As Jaz’s family knows well, learning begins well before a student first sets foot in a classroom. From the moment they are born up through age 5, kids experience immense developmental changes physically, emotionally, and socially. Parents, caregivers, and guardians really are a child’s first teachers. They help their ‘students’ learn to navigate the world, their emotions, and the amazing physical changes that kids experience in these early years.  

As children enter the school environment, their families continue to be crucial partners to the early childhood professionals helping little ones learn. In fact, it is imperative that early childhood educators establish strong working relationships with parents, caregivers, and guardians for students to experience healthy development and growth. 

Family engagement in early childhood education strengthens parent-child relationships.

Why? Research has shown time and time again that robust home-school partnerships result in positive outcomes for students and schools. These benefits range widely, from improved graduation rates to better outcomes for historically under-served communities to even increased teacher satisfaction. In short, families are meant to be more than spectators to their children’s learning – they need to play on the education team. 

Collaborative relationships between home and school are especially powerful for the youngest learners. When families and early childhood educators co-design support for young students, amazing results follow, including positive improvements in a child’s cognitive development and increased family wellbeing. Family engagement in early childhood education ultimately contributes to long-term student success and is essential to cultivate. Families simply make student learning possible! 

What positive family engagement looks like in early childhood education

Early learning organizations have many resources available to help them build strong relationships with families. 

At the highest, systemic level, USDHHS Head Start developed a comprehensive framework for schools and other early learning organizations to establish family and community engagement. Bweikia Foster Steen, EdD., an associate professor of education at George Mason University, developed a more tactical method to guide school partnerships with families. Called the “Five Rs”, this model states that in order to increase effective family engagement, families need respect, responsiveness and reassurance, relationship, reciprocity, and reflection from their early learning partners. 

Importantly, all of these approaches share several common core elements that reflect what we know works best in a family engagement program. In sum, strategies used to nurture family-school relationships are most impactful when they:

  • Are equitable and culturally responsive;
  • Foster mutual respect and trust;
  • Align families and educators to student learning goals;
  • Leverage family strengths and assets; 
  • Are doable and fun.

How can early childhood educators and organizations then best incorporate these qualities to strengthen families’ engagement in student learning?

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Learn more about crafting effective family engagement programs.

Read our blog post to learn how to craft an effective family engagement program!

Building family partnerships in early learning

We at ParentPowered have partnered with hundreds of schools and organizations to bolster their family engagement strategies. Families of early learners love our evidence-based activities for child development shared weekly via texts. To help you foster your own family-school relationships in early childhood education, we’ve compiled best tips, practices, and resources you can share with your team and families. 

Contact us to discover easy-to-implement Ready4K resources for your families and students from birth to Grade 8.

Establish trust from the start

Young children thrive in structure and routine – in fact, they need it to feel safe. Creating consistent systems and boundaries is really about establishing trust between a child, their adults, and their environment. 

Similarly, family-school relationships also thrive when educators and families establish mutual trust and expectations for ongoing partnership from the start. This trust can serve as a model for the family-child relationship, too. The same principles apply, and early childhood educators are well positioned to help families cultivate and encourage strong parent-child relationships at the same time they build trust between families and their organizations.

As you welcome new or returning families to your program, ensure the partnership starts on the right foot. The Virtual Lab compiled wonderful ideas for creating a welcoming, inclusive environment for families in early childhood education settings. Here are some of our favorites:

Learn More
Learn more about building trusting relationships with your families.

Read our recent post to discover ways to cultivate trust and partnership with your families!

  • Ask families about their child’s favorite toys, books, home routines, general likes or dislikes, or places to go in the community.
  • With family consent, display photos of families and students around the classroom, where both parents and students can easily see them. 
  • Utilize active listening skills with families, especially when gathering their input about your programs. Effective and respectful communication with families is crucial to establishing trust and developing a positive school climate for students.

For more information about creating mutual trust with families, read our recent blog post Engaging with Families? First Build Their Trust

Build two-way communication routines

No relationship can blossom without clear and consistent communication between parties. While traditional family engagement communication is often one-way (from school to home), it is just as vital that early childhood educators encourage meaningful information flow in the other direction, too. 

Start with establishing routines with families that emphasize two-way communication. Building regular bidirectional sharing between home and school sets the expectation that families are partners in their child’s education, not bystanders. It also encourages families to reach out to schools, and that their outreach is welcomed by school staff.  

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Here are a few communication tips you can try with families in your organization:

  • Get creative with students’ take-home folders each week, going beyond the usual work samples or school information. For example, insert a parent self-care suggestion or share a group learning activity for the whole family to do together at home. Include a notepad for parents to write down their experience or reflections, then send it back to school in their student’s folder. These gestures add value to the entire family unit’s relationship with their school and create a unique opportunity for contact between teachers and parents. 
  • Design culturally responsive methods of communication that include all families in your community. For example, as best as possible, keep messages to families simple and relatable so that the information shared is understood across backgrounds and cultures. For in-person or virtual events, using a translator helps convey the intended meaning of school communications to multilingual families. Translators also ensure educators in turn have the opportunity to hear their families’ input directly. Our tipsheet for culturally relative family engagement offers more ways to create inclusive connection moments with families.
  • On a broader level, encourage staff to reach out proactively to families and share positive updates about what their kids are doing during the day. This tactic encourages a growth mindset in young learners. Better still, it also helps adults shift out of a fixed mindset perspective and cultivate their own growth mindsets as models for their children.
  • Practice active listening in your conversations among staff and families. When incorporated into all facets of a learning environment, these communications skills foster connection, respect, and trust among adults and children alike. The results of active listening practices can greatly improve school climate in the long run. 

Download our guide to crafting communications with families for more inspiring ways to connect with your families.

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Play, play, play!

Young learners growly tremendously through play during the early years of their life. Play activates skills development ranging from basic hand-eye coordination to stress relief all the way to the complexities of social interaction. Better yet, adults also benefit tremendously from play. Parental play can lower stress levels, encourage positive coping strategies, and even boost overall physical health

Though certainly fun, play may not strike most families as a critical form of learning. That’s OK! Take time to share with family members about what you observed during their child’s play at school and highlight its impact on their learning goals. You can also encourage families to practice reflecting on their child’s play at home. Then you can guide them to make their own connections between play and growth in their students’ skills or knowledge. 

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Learn more about how play boosts kids' learning and adult wellbeing.

Read our recent post to discover the power of play for kids and adults!

This powerful story from an early childhood education group in Arkansas walks through their approach to teaching families about the power of play. The best part? They use adult play as the primary activity! Take a look at their templated resources and use them in your own organization. 

Expand learning with at-home activities

Parents are often as busy as educators, so it is important that educators consider ways for families to engage in student learning around time constraints. The best method is to offer bite-sized activities that both build specific skills and fold into everyday home routines. 

For example, educators can guide families of early learners to practice matching colors, a simple activity to foster observational skills necessary for math in the future. Even younger kids benefit from easy math activities tied into everyday routines around them. Try asking parents to count the number of steps they and their child take from their door out to their mailbox.

Family engagement activities at home go a long way for learners of all ages, but for families of young students, these activities come with an added bonus: boosted parent confidence. Engaging in these activities reinforces for families that they can directly impact (and improve!) their child’s growth and academic success. Such reassurance feeds right back into the mutual trust and communication built between home and school.

Our Learning Support Kit includes easy activities to practice skills like literacy and math. It also offers suggestions for preparing young children for their first experiences at school. Download and share it with your families to get them started!

Family Resources!

Invite families into everyday learning moments at home with our Learning Support kit! Best suited for families of students in grades PK – 5th!

Download the Learning Support Kit for PK-5 families to support at-home learning.

Click here to download

Bring engagement to families

For some families, it may be difficult to join family engagement opportunities that are held exclusively on-site or during specific times of the day. Barriers such as transportation time, babysitting costs, or work schedules all affect a family’s capacity to participate in such events. So why not bring these activities to the families through technology or community engagement?

Consider hosting virtual family workshops or providing digital opportunities to connect such as through online communities for parents. These alternatives to in-person school programs offer accessible entry points for families to engage with their schools and participate in student learning. Take a look at these ten suggestions from the NAEYC for using technology to cultivate family engagement in early childhood education. 

Another fantastic way to partner with families is to meet them where they are – literally! Families with young learners in your school community may gather in other local organizations, such as a youth center, public library, or house of worship. Reach out to these trusted community partners to learn more about which of their resources families use most. You can also learn if they offer any parenting or early childhood program, as those may present opportunities for your organization to collaborate with them. If possible, arrange an in-person or even virtual event at their community organization’s location around times that families already gather there. 

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Watch our webinar about hosting can't-miss virtual family workshops.

Watch our webinar to learn how to host a can’t-miss virtual family workshop!

By establishing community partnerships, early childhood educators gain an ally in building home-school connections. They also learn more about how to support their families – and can even connect them with critical resources that families may need

Cultivate family engagement early for student success later

As truly the first teachers in a child’s life, families heavily influence their child’s earliest learning before they ever set foot in a classroom. And as the experts in learning science and teaching, educators craft the overall journey towards that learning success for every student they teach. 

But it’s when these two forces come together in collaboration that students and the entire school community gain the greatest benefits. By designing an intentional approach to family engagement in early childhood education, educators and organizations enable the long-term success of young learners like Jaz. And I know that, when that first day of preschool arrives, Jaz’s family will be there, ready to collaborate with the newest teacher joining the team. 

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