What it means: Teachers seek information about children’s lives, families, and communities and integrate this information into their curriculum and instructional practices. Programs help families share their unique knowledge and skills and encourage active participation in the life of the school.
Programs that effectively engage families invite them to apply their knowledge and skills to classroom projects and school-wide events. Two of the 15 recognized programs are parent co-ops (Rainbow School and Sunnyside Child Care Center at Smith) in which families are truly essential to program operation. However, every participating program has created a culture in which families regularly share their talents. They use methods such as the following.
Gathering Information. Programs actively seek information about the families they serve to build relationships with and among families. At enrollment or when entering a new classroom, parents complete getting-to-know-you forms and/or inventories of their skills, interests, and talents. Staff members then use this information about the children’s lives, families, and communities to enhance the curriculum and to identify opportunities for parent participation.
Other ways to get to know families include
- publishing a family directory at the beginning of the year to help families learn one another’s names and to encourage parents to connect with each other outside of school for play dates and birthday parties.
- implementing classroom switch days. According to Jim Clay, director of School for Friends, “Teachers find these days so valuable to get to know the children in another classroom, exchange ideas with other teachers, and visit with children they have taught in the past or with children they will teach in the future.” Teachers also get to know other families or see familiar families again during drop-off and pickup times.
Providing Information. Offering a list of tasks, ideas, and opportunities is another way to guide and encourage families to participate in the program. Thoughtful staff efforts ensure that family skills and talents are well matched with the program’s needs. For example, when it is time to plant a garden, a program can call on parents with knowledge about plants.
Programs can also build relationships by sharing information about staff with families. Some ways programs accomplish this include
- posting staff photographs and brief biographies on websites or bulletin boards
- providing staff updates (new hires, departures, marriages, births, degrees obtained, trainings attended, vacation dates, substitutes, and so forth) in newsletters
All of this information supports an active and engaging program that includes structured and unstructured, formal and informal participation in the curriculum and social events.
Structured Family Participation. Some programs invite families to share their culture, skills, and talents through more structured events. The Family of the Week activity at School for Friends integrates information about families’ lives and communities into the classroom schedule and environment (for example, through books, toys, and dramatic play). Grandparent/Grandfriend Day at Montgomery County Community College Children’s Center and Grandfolks’ and Special Friends’ Day at The Family Schools strengthen connections between generations as well as between the families and program. Grandparents sometimes plan their schedules so they can attend these special days. It’s important to note that some programs and families prefer structured activities, while others are more comfortable with informal and social activities.
Social Events. Each program hosts a variety of events to bring families together including
- regular potluck meals
- festivals and celebrations, often incorporating families’ cultural heritage
- family fun nights
- parent coffees
- Week of the Young Child™ events
- community days/open houses
It is more important for programs to provide activities for families than to fret over what those activities should be. Given a variety of opportunities—formal and informal, curriculum related or purely social—families are likely to participate. As Diane Bellem, vice president of the Georgia Training Institute, which is part of Sheltering Arms, explains, “By having a number of activities, both simple and elaborate, parents have multiple opportunities to contribute.”
Developed for NAEYC's Engaging Diverse Families Project through a generous grant from the Picower Foundation.