Families are an integral part of the early childhood community. Strong partnerships between schools and families have been shown repeatedly to improve child outcomes, and this relationship is especially critical when children are young.
Yet, COVID-19 has made developing these partnerships both more central to our work and more challenging to foster.
Barriers for Families:
During COVID-19, families have been juggling new responsibilities, including work schedules and differing school schedules for multiple children. Attending school events or meetings, either during the day or after hours, can be challenging for families dependent on their unique schedules.
2. Wifi, Devices, Connectivity
Families in the U.S. overwhelmingly have access to mobile phones. However, digital divides remain in data plans, access to smartphones, and access to wifi, largely along socio-economic lines. And even those families who do have access to devices may be sharing devices amongst multiple family members.
3. Stress & Anxiety
"Since March of 2020, 27% of parents have reported worsening mental health for themselves" (Patrick, et. al., 2020). As families balance changing work environments or potential job loss, navigate ever changing and complex health guidance, and are isolated from their social support networks, impacts on adult mental health have become an added and important barrier to be aware of.
Families whose primary language is different from their child's teacher may not feel comfortable conversing with their child’s teacher. And depending on the language used in information sent home, families may also be unaware of events or opportunities to engage.
Past negative experiences at or with school, either during families' own schooling or with older children, can impact families' level of comfort with teachers and school events.
Strategies for Engagement
Approaching all families with a strengths-based mindset is important for building partnerships. Not attending a school event, even if it’s virtual, is not an indication that the family does not want to best support their child’s development. As educators, it is important to critically examine the specific barriers a family may be facing and remain non-judgmental in how we interpret experiences and in how we approach building a relationship with each family.
1. Be Authentic
Video calls with families require them to open their house to you. Before jumping into a video call, invite children and families into your life. Use videos or photos to show something special in your house, before asking families to do the same. In addition, be open with parents and caregivers about some of your own struggles or new strategies for coping. For example, if you're also balancing your own children's school, you might say something like, “Yesterday I struggled to get my 10-year-old to do her school assignment. We gave up and had a pizza party instead!” This level of vulnerability creates common ground and increases the likelihood that family members will continue to engage with you.
2. Support the Whole Family
Families want to know you care. Demonstrating that you care about the wellbeing of the entire family helps establish you as a trusted advisor for the family. Start off conversations by asking parents and caregivers how they are doing. Help connect them with resources if they express a need. Remember names of siblings, important family members, or important life events and continue to ask about them.
3. Seek Input and Listen
Families know their child best and are a great source of knowledge in how to best support their child. Ask families what their hopes and dreams are for their child and listen to their responses. Continue to provide opportunities for families to give information to teachers, not only to receive information from schools (Chang, 2006).
4. Build Engagement Routines
Communicate regularly and frequently. Ask families about their preferred methods and frequency of communication and use that information to build routines that are predictable and reliable. Be willing to adapt these routines as you receive feedback from families -- either direct feedback or implicit feedback from how they respond or don’t respond to communication. Be willing to individualize communication routines, including the frequency, type, duration, and location, for different families to meet their needs and preferences.
5.Foster Adult Social Networks
Encouraging relationships between families can increase involvement at school, particularly among non-English speaking families. These positive peer relationships for families with young children has also been shown to have lasting effects (Barrueco et. al, 2015). You might even try using zoom circles to help connect families.
6. Value Diversity
View the linguistic and cultural diversity of your families as an asset, not a deficit. Studies have shown that children from non-English speaking families are more likely to have routines at home that promote child development, such as regularly eating meals together or storytelling (Barrueco et. al, 2015). Moreover, each of the cultures that children represent can enrich your program as a whole.
7. Welcome All Languages
Ensure any suggested at-home learning activities or resources are translated into family's preferred language of communication. In addition, translate classroom and school signs to help families feel welcome in the building (Halgunseth, 2009).
American Academy of Pediatrics (2020) Well-being of Parents and Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A National Survey. Pediatrics, October 2020, 146 (4). https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/146/4/e2020016824
Barrueco, S., S. Smith, and S. Stephens (2015). Supporting Parent Engagement in Linguistically Diverse Families to Promote Young Children’s Learning: Implications for Early Care and Education Policy. Child Care and Early Education Research Connections. https://www.researchconnections.org/childcare/resources/30185/pdf
Halgunseth, L. (2009) Family Engagement, Diverse Families and an Integrated Review of the Literature. NAEYC. https://www.buildinitiative.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Family%20Engagement%20Halgunseth.pdf
About the Author
Anna Marrs is a former early literacy curriculum developer and a former certified 1st grade teacher in North Carolina. She holds a Master's in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and now works on the School Partnerships team at Kaymbu.