Family Connections

Three Ways to Engage and Empower Families

Nicol Russell, Ed.D.
August 31, 2021

Family engagement. There’s a term worth unpacking and then unpacking some more! At its most basic level in early childhood education, family engagement is about the ways teachers and programs communicate to and with families. Deeper, more robust family engagement is about the centering of families as they are and using their input to inform instructional decision-making and goal-setting. This can empower families to be active and involved in the program in meaningful ways. Here are three ways you can put families at the center of engagement.

  • See families as they are, not as you wish them to be. If you are working to put families at the center of your engagement strategies (and you should), the first thing you must do is see them as they are. What does this mean? It means before offering your best suggestions for ways they can support their children’s learning at home, you should get to know families. Ask how they would like to communicate with you. Then talk with them in those ways (in person, by email, through two-way communication). Ask about their family’s culture. Then look for ways to visually include the cultures of the children and their families in the classroom. Ask about their hopes and dreams for their children. Then ensure the learning goals you set for children reflect those hopes and dreams. When you ask questions like these, you invite families to show you who they are.
  1. Create opportunities to use the cultural wealth of families. I’ve already mentioned visually representing the cultures of children and their families, but I haven’t yet discussed ways to more robustly use the cultural wealth of families to deepen the learning experiences of children in your program. Programs that actively seek out and embrace learning from families are able to create learning contexts that are responsive and meaningful to children. The cultural wealth of families includes their language, their values, and their lived experiences. We discuss this topic in detail in this recorded webinar. On the webinar, you’ll hear us talking about the ways children’s understanding of their selves, family, community, and place can be used in the early education classroom. We even get into the way the formative assessment process can be used to support developing meaningful partnerships with families in which everyone is working together to ensure that children gain optimal benefits from their early learning experiences.
 Nicol Russell Family Photo
Author Nicol Russell and 4 generations of her family in her hometown in Hawai’i.
  1. Treat families like they belong. For any family engagement strategy to be equitable for all families—and that’s the goal—a program must strive to create a sense of belonging for each family. Notice the subtle language shift there. To get to equity for all families, we must work for each The steps we talked about earlier get you onto a path of learning about individual families with the goal of using that knowledge to influence what you may do as a program leader to create a climate of belonging for families.

In our next Head Start Leadership Series webinar, we will be discussing how strong family engagement and partnerships, especially in times of uncertainty like we are facing at the start of a new school year in 2021, provide early learning experiences in safe, reassuring ways and ensure continuity for children. During this webinar, we will discuss ways to forge strong family partnerships, including addressing our own attitudes and beliefs about families, ways to meaningfully connect with families, and strategies to support families as their children’s first teachers.

Developing Strong Family Partnerships With Head Start Families