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9.2: Families today

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    • Jessica Kirchhofer & Ardene Niemer

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    To understand, respect, and be responsive to the families and children we serve, we must first look at what each of us define as family. We all probably have an image in our minds of what a family is, but often we do not stop and think about how the families in our programs may have different characteristics. We need to learn about the diversity in the cultures of our families as well as the diversity in family structure. These perspectives are important considerations for success for the child and family and provide critical information about how to design and deliver program content. It will also guide how we work with families in creating goals and even choosing learning materials.

    The foundation for family connections is developed by first creating a shared definition of family. We know that all children are part of a family, but “family” does not fit in a single idea or concept of what a family is. Families are made in many ways: different sizes, and compositions. Some examples include single parent families, two-parent families, and extended families with more than one generation living together. We need to recognize families that are blended, stepfamilies, biracial/multi-racial families, families from the LGBTQ+ community, straight families, families that have immigrated to the U.S., transnational families that live in two countries, and migrant families that move following work availability. Children may have been born into a family or may become part of a family through foster care, adoption, or kinship arrangements.

    We also know that some children in our programs live in more than one home and are members of more than one family. We also need to be aware that not all the families we serve have a stable residence. There are many homeless families with young children in our communities.


    Categorize your own family

    • I grew up in a larger family.
    • I grew up in a smaller family.
    • I grew up in a medium-sized family.
      • What is your concept of small, medium, and large families?
      • Do you think there could be a disparity between your view of family size and that of your classmates?
      • How did you count or include members of your family? Do relatives and non-relatives share the same status?
      • How do you think your answers and those of your classmates are influenced by race, ethnicity, and culture?
      • What do you need to take away from this reflection to implement into your practice with children and families?

    The Stresses of Family Life

    In addition to the stresses of daily life that we all face, including finding work, paying bills, relationships with friends and family, taking care of our heath, etc.; parents with young children face even greater burdens. Parents with young children are often at the beginning of their career and make less money in addition to having to pay all the costs related to child rearing. We know from research and parent report that there is a clear lack of affordable, quality childcare and financial subsidies to help with costs, leading to more young families living in poverty. Families often need greater access to healthcare for themselves, their children, and often their own parents which is lacking in many communities. Many families may work in positions where family leave is not even available. Other families struggle with the additional responsibilities if their child happens to have special needs or is struggling academically. Working with therapists and teachers can often feel like a second job for these families. Families often report that the result of the lower income, little to no paid-time off work, and higher costs means that most feel like they have no safety net; one injury, illness, car repair or other such expense would be devastating. Overall, family life is stressful and leaves most families feeling overwhelmed much of the time. The family stress can often lead to relationship difficulties for the adults of the family which only compounds the stress that the children feel.

    Influences on families

    Think back for a moment to what you know and have learned about child development philosophers and theorists. It is appropriate here to recall Urie Bronfenbrenner and the ecological systems theory. According to Bronfenbrenner, everything in a child’s environment affects how he or she grows and develops. Within the child’s microsystem of home and school, research shows that the more encouraging and nurturing the relationships between the people in these two places are, the greater the benefit the child will receive from each environment. In turn, this can positively influence how strong and successful the child will likely grow to be. Relationships between the adults in the family are significant influence on children and so are the relationships the family has with the people with whom the child spends time.


    Racism is another factor that impacts families, parents, and children. Families of color often struggle to have equitable access to meaningful work, high-quality childcare, appropriate medical care, etc. Racism can also have an impact on how a parent interacts with their children. Dealing with racism during daily experiences can place such an unfair burden on people of color that it leads to greater exhaustion and depression. This has been found to impact children’s development. These daily experiences of racism have a cumulative effect and can erode emotional, physical, and even spiritual resources for the parent. Race-related stress may decrease the likely that the parent engages in self-care which may result in reduced emotional availability for the children. This is particularly likely for families whose race-related stress is significant and/or involves traumatic experiences. Some potential reactions to racial stress and trauma to be aware of in your work with children and families include:

    • Insecure feelings or feelings of shame and lack of confidence
    • Triggers or reminders of traumatic events
    • Lack of trust
    • Difficulty controlling emotions.

    Did you know that having positive cultural identity and involvement in advocacy efforts are protective factors against racism? A protective factor is the presence of something which can help to reduce the effects of a stressor such as race. Understanding the ways that racism affects families negatively is part of what we can and should do in partnership with all families to build strong programs. Understanding the presence of the stressors and protective factors may help us to help our families to deal more effectively with overall stress as well as traumatic events. This is true for working with families as well as working for the health of the whole community.

    For many there is a “frantic nature” to parenting, with the compounding effect of all the stressors, responsibilities, and demands on parental time. Families can feel overwhelmed and unsupported. Some families face an extraordinary level of parental guilt over not being able to handle all these stressors with ease or families struggling with concerns about the judgements of others. This stress can result in parents not taking care of themselves or in parents engaging in unhealthy behaviors as they try to cope with their problems (drinking, recreational drugs, etc.) The result of all these situational factors and systemic factors is that many families are struggling to get by while caring for their children.

    Relationships with Schools and Teachers

    All families care about their children and their children’s success in school. There are, however, often cultural issues at play. In many cultures around the world teachers are highly respected and considered to be experts in their field. In some cultures, teachers have a higher status and are believed to always be right in what they say and how they teach. Remember that for many families it would be seen as disrespectful to question a teacher or get involved in their classroom teaching in any way. Therefore, we need to remember that for many families, it would be very uncommon for the family to visit their children’s schools or talk with or ask questions of their teachers. This is a primary reason that immigrant families often find their new role as the teacher’s “partner” confusing.

    Many cultures are relationship-oriented, and for them it is important to take time to develop trust before sharing information or discussing concerns or challenges. Interviews with some refugee parents have suggested that the development of informal relationships with their children’s teachers, prior to hearing anything about difficulties from them, would be extremely helpful.

    Families have expectations and fears when they send their children to school which are often influenced by their own educational experiences, cultural expectations, and beliefs. We need to remember that “parent involvement” has been defined by American-born educators, administrators, and researchers. In general, this term includes things like volunteering, communicating with the school, participating in school activities, and helping with homework. In many cultures, and often for refugee and immigrant families, the belief is that “you send the kids to school and they become the school’s responsibility because the faculty and staff know better than the family what children need.”

    Family fears may also arise when a parent themselves has not had a successful experience in school. This parent may have struggled academically, socially, been bullied, or found eligible for special education services. These parents may believe that their child’s experience will mirror their own and be fearful or hesitant about their child attending school. Parents also fear school violence and may have stress and anxiety about school safety.

    Our families face stressors that are significant, and often systemic in our culture. There are no simple solutions. However, awareness of the challenges and barriers that families face can help educators to create effective relationships with parents because they understand the realities of daily life for many families. They also respect that each family has its own culture and that we can, over time, come to understand it is a professional obligation to have respect for all families and realize the rich diversity within those families.

    The understanding and respect for families is the foundation on which we will build a partnership. This partnership, in turn, will support the daily learning and education for each child. The goal is to individualize the approach for connecting with families, free from ideas of what an “ideal family” should look.

    “It’s our responsibility to design a system that helps all children and families to thrive.”

    Connecting with Families by Building Relationships: Valuing who families are and what they bring

    You might ask the question “why should I connect with families? What’s in it for me?” There are many benefits of positive, healthy connections with families. These include (but are not limited to) increased parent satisfaction with the early learning school services, increased positive behaviors of the children, improved child health, academic and social skills. Positive relationships with families will free your time to focus more on teaching children. Because you have more contact that is positive with parents you will learn more about the child’s needs and their home environment. You can use this information to enhance strategies to better meet the child’s needs. Finally, when parents are involved and have a positive relationship with you as the child’s teacher, they will tend to see you in a more positive way, and this improves your own morale, and motivation to be the best teacher for this child.

    Families come to us in our programs with abundant knowledge that should be valued. Luis Moll refers to this as “funds of knowledge” (Moll, 2005.) The concept of "funds of knowledge" is based on a simple premise: people are competent and have knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge.

    Each family brings something different to the classroom and understanding that families contribute in different ways helps us to be respectful and responsive in our work with families. Not all families want to attend parent/teacher conferences, and not all families are able to do nightly homework with children. Having teachers that understand this allows families to contribute in the way that values the knowledge they bring.

    Parent knowledge may look like a parent sharing knowledge and insight about their child with the teacher. It might look like a parent using their skills at home in supporting the child and family. It might also be a parent who builds strong attitudes in their child about school and learning. It might be a parent who wants to share how to weave, or paint, or plant a vegetable garden. We need to respect and value this unique knowledge parents bring in order to holistically know and understand the child and build a reciprocal partnership with the family.

    Children bring with them the funds of knowledge from their homes and communities that can be used for concept and skill development. There are 10 categories of funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, 2005) that teachers should consider in developing classroom practices. With this information, teachers would be less likely to underestimate or constrain what children are learning. Using the funds of knowledge, teachers can focus on supporting students to find meaning connected to their home lives and background which can be represented in the activities and materials provided in the classroom.

    The 10 Categories of Funds of Knowledge include (Gonzalez, 2005)
    1. Home Language
    2. Family Values and Traditions
    3. Caregiving
    4. Friends and Family
    5. Family Outings
    6. Household Chores
    7. Educational Activities
    8. Favorite TV Shows
    9. Family Occupations
    10. Scientific Knowledge

    We know from reading this section that teachers have strengths and expectations, and families have strengths and expectations. What if they do not match? It is essential that we work to build bridges to work together so that children are safe and healthy and can learn optimally. Working together with the family it is our goal to create a safe, rich, and supportive environment for learning.

    Strengths-based relationships

    Think about the following three strategies to build and strengthen your connection for optimal strengths-based relationships:

    • Your partnership should be based on reciprocity. Each of us, school, family, and community, have overlapping responsibilities for the child’s learning. Each person involved in the partnership needs the help of the others to build a reciprocal relationship that is supported by both formal and informal attitudes and actions. All parties working together with overlapping responsibilities makes it more likely that the child will thrive.
    • Effective partnerships are developed within a democratic process. We must recognize the diversity within our classroom (different races, cultures, interests, and abilities) of participants, and we need to prepare ourselves to resolve conflicts using a respectful and positive approach that includes open conversation and compromise, and sometimes benefits from mediation and negotiation to reach shared goals.
    • Opportunities for partnership should be plentiful and varied. A mix of possibilities might include options such:
      • Having parents come to school to share interests.
      • Inviting parents come to see what children are doing regularly.
      • Offering opportunities to volunteer in the classroom.
      • Providing information and resources for family support.
      • Creating a “place at the table” for decision making.
      • Attending parenting education events with topics chosen by the parents.
      • Finding courses in enhancing communication skills (especially for English Language Learners).
      • Providing strategies and tools that support children to learn at home and in the community.

    Remember, to do these things, you will need to know about your families. It is important to ask families if and how they want to be involved. Ask them what a meaningful experience would look like for them and when it might be the best time for them to be involved.

    Do not make assumptions about how a family could help you but identify their strengths and offer appropriate opportunities. For example, just because you need a bulletin board completed does not mean a parent would find the volunteer opportunity of cutting out a border meaningful. At the same time donning gloves and given cleaning tools to clean an empty room may not be respectful or inclusive to a parent who wants to volunteer in the classroom to spend more time with their own child. An inventory of actions and activities that families could choose from would be one way to approach the list of what needs to be accomplished.

    A robust interview, orientation to the program, questionnaires and surveys about the family will help you to gather information. Remember that not all families may feel comfortable with reading and writing in English, so be sure to arrange for translators or to relate verbally, based on individual family needs. Invite families to engage with the program through newsletters, flyers, or an actual invitation from the children in the classroom. Be creative! Engage the children in the process as appropriate and remember the cultural considerations your families identify while you are building your partnerships and focus on creating positive, strengths-based relationships. You will all benefit, but in the end, it is about the benefit for the children.

    Building a sense of community goes beyond a simple partnership with families. In a classroom we are connected by the common interest or purpose of quality education and services for young children. This is our community of learners. To enhance the educational experience of the young children we serve, we work to make each child and family feel valued, connected, and that they belong.

    Photo 9.4 Preschool girl by Lori Heron on Unsplash is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Where to start?

    Prioritize the suggestions from the list above and identify your pathway for engaging families in your program or classroom. Add your own ideas:

    The Importance of Professionalism in ECE as it relates to families

    Image 9.5: Cover of Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Profession text (P2P

    As you learned in Chapter 2 about professionalism, you will remember that included in the NAEYC P2P (Power to the Profession) document we are given guidance that in striving to build this profession, we must do so in a way that elevates the knowledge and skills of families and communities. We as ECE professionals are obligated, professionally and ethically, to develop relationships with all families and the communities we serve, paying particular attention to those from diverse cultures, languages, and experiences which are often marginalized.

    "Knowledge from families is essential to developmentally appropriate practice."

    Rhian Evans Allvin, 2018

    To do this, it is essential in our work to create opportunities with families that value their experiences, views and beliefs, and current world views. When we actively integrate this knowledge of our families in the curriculum and the classroom it ensures that we are more able to respect, learn about, understand, and embrace families’ cultures and communities; and supports us to build stronger partnerships and connections with families and communities with the end goal of supporting all children.

    Preschool children often come to school with an understanding of how they are supposed to speak, move, behave, express themselves, and interact with other children and adults that has developed by watching how these things happen in their own homes. These beliefs about how they are supposed to conduct themselves are largely informed by their families’ cultural backgrounds and ways of being.

    It is our knowledge about a culture or a family, shared by the family, that supports us as professionals to use this knowledge to tailor curriculum to the child’s understandings and experiences.

    Questions to Ask Families
    • What are the cultural norms guiding children’s development? (For example, are the children the center of the home or expected to be more in the background? Do parents do everything for the children or are the children expected to do more for themself?)
    • What are family beliefs and practices for displaying photos of the children and families?
    • Do you work with families to create classroom labels, dictations, and signs reflecting the children’s first languages?
    • Are you aware of cultural norms regarding touch and personal space?
    • Do you discuss cultural differences in a positive, respectful way?
    • Are you aware of cultural norms for communication style and person-to-person contact?
    • Do you view cultural differences as potential resources or as challenges to overcome?

    According to NAEYC (P2P) the guidelines for early childhood educators that relate to our connections with families include:

    (a) we should identify and participate as members of the early childhood profession. We serve as informed advocates for young children, for the families of the children in our care, and for the early childhood profession,

    (c) we should demonstrate professional communication skills that effectively support relationships and work young children, families, and colleagues.

    Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) and our Work with Families

    Image 9.6 Woman on floor with a young boy from is in the public domain.

    Developmentally Appropriate Practice is an ECE teaching approach from NAEYC that states “each and every child, birth through age 8, has the right to equitable learning opportunities… that fully support their optimal development and learning across all domains and content areas” (NAEYC, 2020). In a DAP approach the teacher supports the child’s development (socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively) based on their knowledge of each child. This knowledge is used to make appropriate decisions about classroom materials, appropriate interactions and learning experiences that are most likely to be effective and support the development and learning for the group and each individual child.

    The DAP Position Statement from NAEYC also guides expectations for our work with families. DAP Guideline #2 is Engaging in Reciprocal Partnerships with Families and Fostering Community Connections. This Guideline states: Developmentally appropriate practice requires deep knowledge about each child, including the context within which each child is living. Educators acquire much of this knowledge through respectful, reciprocal relationships with children’s families. Across all ages, families’ expertise about their own children is sought out and valued.


    Thinking about connecting with families

    How has your thinking changed about the role of families and how you connect with them in your classroom?

    What is your first goal related to connecting with families as you move forward in your professional practice?

    Image 9.7 Childcare provider with father from is in the public domain.

    Engaging Families in Meaningful Ways

    Take another look at the definitions for family involvement and family engagement, and notice how they are the same and how they are different:

    • Family involvement is parent participation in educational systems and learning activities that foster a child’s well-being. It involves conscious and intentional attempts to provide information to families and to encourage them to participate in their child’s learning. This strategy simply involves families in education in some way. The “unintended consequence” of this approach can be that parents are seen basically as helpers who follow the teacher’s directions. They are not seen as valuable partners in their child’s education.
    • Family engagement is a more holistic and intentional approach in which the responsibility for supporting the child’s learning falls on the parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, friends, and the community; all play a critical function in continuing and reciprocal engagement. Family engagement involves the teacher building relationships with families, learning from the families how they would prefer to be involved in their child’s learning, and working with families to understand and plan how they choose to be engaged. This would include desired times and methods for sharing information about the child’s experiences. Family engagement offers a broad variety of approaches and activities that can be offered at home, in the community, or in the classroom or program.

    In the pursuit of quality in our work we strive for intentional family engagement. While doing this work it is important to consider family-sensitive environments. The concept of family sensitive implies that the teachers, providers, and other early learning professionals will exhibit positive and respectful attitudes towards families. Knowledge about each individual family, their strengths, the experiences in their lives, and the values and beliefs that influence their decisions, along with responsive practices with families are the foundation for supporting and building positive parent and child outcomes. Included within this context is a specific focus supporting families by acting as a resource to empower them to promote their child(ren)’s healthy development. These relationships with families also focus on reciprocal information sharing and empowerment of families by building mutual respect.

    Appreciating what families bring to the program is a significant construct of family engagement. Because families are the experts about their child, each parent/family has specific expertise to contribute. Parents know how a child interacts with others, how the child responds to new people and situations. Parents know what a child is interested in and likes to play with. Parents also know about and can share how a child expresses his or her wants and needs. Families also bring to the program their individual pride in raising their children along with an understanding of the challenges that are inherent in the job of parenting. Parents come into a program with their own specific needs for support and information. An important element of our relationship building process with families is to identify and to build upon the strengths of the individuals involved. This will demonstrate respect, show appreciation, and value contributions of the family in support of the child.

    To engage with families in meaningful ways we must be able to communicate effectively and inclusively. Inclusive communication refers to an approach aimed at establishing communication using all available means to understand and to be understood. We need to broaden the options for communication so that we can be sure that the family receives and understands our messages, and that we receive and understand what they want us to know about them or their child. To be inclusive, we need to be aware of challenges to communication that children or their families face. There are families who speak languages other than English, and who have hearing, vision, or reading challenges or disabilities. Some families may not have access to a car to come to school, and some families may not have a computer or internet account to send and receive email. Effective and inclusive educators also understand that there is diversity in culture and language use as well. People communicate differently, and a variety of strategies may be needed to help smooth communication.

    Some general examples of thoughtful strategies for inclusive communication to use in a classroom are:
    • Ask families how they would like to receive information from you- whether it is best to email, call, text, or meet in person.
    • Ask what time of day is best and try to connect at that time.
    • Be flexible! If one communication method does not work, try another.
    • Be patient and allow time to respond or react. Try counting silently to allow for processing, finishing a sentence, or answering your question.
    • Engage as many senses as appropriate—hearing, sight, and touch.
    • Limit background noise and music.
    • Look and speak directly to the child or parent. Face the person and do not cover your face so that they can read the cues on your face or read your lips.
    • Make sure only one person is speaking at a time- do not talk over another.
    • Speak slowly and clearly with shorter sentences, but do not talk down to the child or parent.
    • Use visual supports, gestures, and body language along with words.
    • Use interpreters if a family is not comfortable speaking the same language as the teacher. (Do not put a child in the position of translating, but ask for a family member, friend, or community resource to translate the information.)

    How will you begin to create a meaningful engagement and communication plan for your children and their families?

    What do you need to know and consider to engage families fully in their child’s education?

    Photo 9.8 Stick Figure Drawing by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash is CC BY 2.0

    Equity is the extermination of privilege, oppression, inequalities, and disadvantage through fair and impartial treatment. Equity is not equal, or one-size-fits-all. Equity is working with each child and family to individualize and differentiate strengths and areas for growth, to create a plan that gives each what is needed to grow and thrive. In this intentional and meaningful engagement, equity-based opportunities can also serve to help family members to be effective advocates for their child(ren). In considering equity in your approach, remember translation, interpretation, work with cultural groups as partners, and recognizing the importance of building (and even rebuilding) trust with families who face discriminations and bias. For family engagement to be meaningful it must be equitable.

    Family-teacher conferences and family events are common strategies for engaging families in classrooms and programs. We need to remember that the main and essential factor in family engagement is to build strong, positive, and effective relationships with families that can help children and families thrive. Family-teacher conferences also support the first NAEYC principle of family engagement: “Programs invite families to participate in decision-making and goal setting for their child” (NAEYC, n.d.). These planned and intentional times to meet are opportunities to share information about the child’s experiences, development, and learning. It is also the time to plan what can be done at home and at school to support the child’s continuing progress.

    Consider these things when planning and preparing for conferences and events:

    • Accommodate different languages.
    • Discuss different experiences.
    • Learn about and consider cultural norms.
    • Plan for varied schedules.
    • Share different kinds of information.
    • Let the family speak.

    “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”

    William James, an American philosopher and psychologist

    This page titled 9.2: Families today is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jessica Kirchhofer & Ardene Niemer.

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