We know that there are many benefits that are gained for a family and child when the family is engaged and connected with the teacher and/or the school. At the same time, we also know that there are barriers to family engagement, and many parents cannot or do not become engaged or connected in their child’s schooling experiences. These barriers can be on the part of the school or the family.
Some barriers result from limited resources, but can also stem from beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes of families and school staff. Some common examples stem from lack of teacher time because of other responsibilities and teachers seeing family engagement as just another task to complete. There are also teachers who do not understand or seek to understand a parent’s communication style or work to build those relationships. This mismatch may be the result of cultural or language differences; teachers’ misperceptions of the parents’ abilities; limited family resources such as time or lack of transportation; parents’ lack of comfort and not feeling welcome at school. Some parents may have had negative school experiences that cloud their ability to make positive connections, or they may be unfamiliar with American culture and expectations around family engagement in schools. There also may be a belief from families that teachers only connect with “bad news”. This one-way communication system does not allow for opportunities to share information.
From the teacher perspective, some teachers may not feel respected by a parent, or may feel that a family has challenged their authority or questioned decisions. Mobility in urban areas can also challenge connections due to more frequent movement of the families. Finally, many families may simply not see the value of being engaged with their child’s education and do not believe they could have any meaningful role in their child’s schooling.
Each one of these barriers can be mediated through building an invested interest on both sides, clear and intentional communication, relationship development, and an attitude of partnership. There are barriers, however, that present a more complicated challenge. This is by no means a comprehensive list but is offered so that you can begin thinking about building a collection of resources or a resource file that you can offer to families when barriers are identified and/or disclosed. It is important to learn about safety and structure for children and families and how to offer non-judgmental support.
Challenges to making connections with families who are experiences distinctive situations might include:
- Dysregulated children and/or dysregulated adults: dysregulation refers to a poor ability to manage emotional responses or to keep them within a socially acceptable range of typical emotional reactions. This can include sadness, anger, irritability, and frustration. We know that a parent who has emotional dysregulation will also most likely struggle to teach their child how to regulate. Dysregulation can also be the result of early childhood trauma, child neglect, or traumatic brain injury. A person might also be biologically susceptible to react emotionally, which can be triggered by ongoing, but low levels of negativity or invalidation in their life circumstances.
- Families who are impacted by domestic violence, substance use disorder, mental health challenges, and other difficulties. Recent statistics show that up to 12% of children under 5 years old live with at least one parent with an alcohol or substance use disorder (SAMHSA NSDUH, 2009–14). When a parent has a substance use disorder, it can have negative effects on their children and on overall family functioning. Children who live with a parent with a substance use disorder are at increased risk of experiencing other challenges, such as mental illness, poverty, domestic violence, academic problems, abuse, and neglect.
Remember that in early learning and education, your role clearly states your responsibility as a mandated reporter. This means that you are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the appropriate state child protection agency. You are required to report incidents where there is a reasonable suspicion that abuse or neglect has occurred or there is a substantial risk that abuse or neglect may occur, but must not, investigate on your own.
You should include in your orientation process a clear and detailed conversation about this mandate. You want to create a culture of safety where you operate with shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices with the intent of zero harm to children. It is important that you review your goal of partnership and working together in family engagement and communicate to families that you are not “out to get them”.
- Tough decisions about inclusion in the program: Inclusion can be defined as children with and without disabilities learning alongside each other, integrated into the same classrooms and all receiving an appropriate, high quality education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment – to the maximum extent appropriate. There are many benefits to inclusion such as resources to support individualized and differentiated learning, teachers having the support of other teachers and specialists, children learning with other children their age, and children learning to accept and value differences.
To be successful with inclusion, the decision needs to be made case-by-case. All children have different needs and there is always a variety of different ways to meet those needs.
- Is your learning environment structured for inclusion?
- Can the child learn and make progress in a group setting?
- Can the teacher provide appropriate instruction so that all children can understand and be engaged?
- Can the child tolerate an inclusive classroom without being over stimulated or overwhelmed?
- Does the list of pros outweigh the list of cons for the child’s best benefit?
Community Resources for Families
We have mentioned that families need community support. There are many ways that that communities can support families and their local school districts. Many school districts form committees to reach out to local businesses for support. For some this might look like donations for school events, but it can also be in other ways. For example, if there is a school district that has the children of a large factory or business in their catchment area and few parents are coming to the school to volunteer or to attend events and conferences, the school might work with the factory on how to make it possible for parents to be at the schools more often without fear of losing their jobs.
Some factories could close one day for conferences, allow paid time off, or allow parents release time from work for when they want or need to be at school events. There have also been businesses that have events like a “Lunch and Learn” in which the business brings in a qualified community member to talk about how to prepare your child for kindergarten, how to engage in enrichment activities on the weekends, how to find quality childcare in the area, etc.
Community Supports for Families
Communities can also help families by providing new crosswalks with traffic lights on busy streets for families who need to walk to school or maybe organizing walking school bus groups in neighborhoods for those who live too close for bus service. There are also public health departments that can arrange for vaccine days or dental health check days in schools. Social Service workers can be available to help families who many need to apply for nutrition assistance or state medical insurance or help in paying utility bills, etc. When families, communities, businesses, and schools work together; children are benefit and the community thrives. The possibilities are endless when there is a willingness for community entities to communicate and brainstorm ways to support children and families.
As part of your ongoing work with families, building partnerships, and engaging them in their child’s education, you may become aware of resources that the family could benefit from. What are the resources available in your community or beyond that you could share contact information about with families?
Consider these broad categories, and use the template in Appendix 9.1 to build a resource list for your reference:
- Basic family needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Where are your community food and/or clothing banks? Where could you refer a family for housing support?
- Cultural and language supports for families. Many children in our classrooms represent multiple languages and multiple cultures. Who in your community can you turn to for information and support? Are there interpreters and translators available? Is there a community organization that focuses on specific and individual cultures for supports?
- Developmental supports and referrals. Teachers monitor child developmental as part of an ongoing curriculum and assessment cycle. When you identify possible concerns, or a parent shares concerns with you, where can you refer for assessment?
- Resources for medical issues. Families sometimes do not know where to access medical help or insurance. What are the health care services and supports available nearby?
Final Thoughts: The benefits of connection
A positive relationship with families, along with a program that is committed to family engagement is vital to a child’s success in school and life. This includes parents, teachers, schools, and the community, and is uniquely important in the earliest years of a child’s education. We know that children need support and guidance as they are developing skills across all domains: motor, social, emotional, physical, and cognitive both at home and school. We also know that it is also important for educators to build relationships with families and help parents understand how they can support the learning that is happening in the classroom in their home.
Parent engagement and positive relationships between home and school support improvement in children's health; well-being; and cognitive, academic, and social skills. There is also a positive influence that works to decrease challenging behaviors in children. Family engagement has also been shown to increase parent satisfaction with early childhood services.
We have all heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child—and the continued support of that village to help the child succeed in school. Family-school-community partnerships promote family and community involvement in children’s schooling. When early care and education programs encourage parental participation in learning activities, provide opportunities to advocate and guide policies and form partnerships with local organizations, children, families, programs, and communities all benefit.
A shared understanding and commitment between families and educators will create the conditions where a love of learning can develop in our youngest students.
When families and community members are involved in student learning, students improve their skills in all areas, and gain advocates that promote their success, helping them feel more confident at school and in life.