Twenty years ago, I didn’t know what I was doing was called “family engagement.” Working in a cooperative preschool, I got to spend time with parents and their young children in the classroom in what was, for me at least, an ideal learning environment. Families assisted each day in the classroom. One or two family members worked alongside paid staff, including me, as the children played. We learned from each other, parents learned from other parents, and we all learned from the children. After all, they do know more than we do! Right!?
What I realize looking back on what made that experience work for both the adults and children is that when teachers build relationships with families, magic happens. Families know their children on a level that I could never know them as just the teacher. They know if their child is afraid of the thunder, if they like peas, or if the tag in the back of their t-shirt has to be cut out because “it’s scwachy.” As with most anything, success in early education is very much about relationships.
We can talk about the research endlessly – it’s strong and it continues to demonstrate the value of family engagement. For example, we know that the more involved parents are in their child’s education, the better the outcomes. For me, the magic happens when the parent trusts you enough to share about their child and their family. They share about the little things, like the t-shirt tag. They share about the big things like “we are having trouble paying the rent.” What’s magical about that? Trust! If I know the stressors and the good things that are happening in a child’s life, I can respond appropriately, offer help, resources, hugs, or high fives. When we open the door to meaningful partnership with families, we build a secure place for the child that lets the little learner focus on play, books, and new skills.
The long term benefits of family engagement are proven too, but for me it’s about the 65-year-old grandmother who is raising her 1-year-old granddaughter. While setting goals for herself, she struggled to come up with a typical goal of furthering her education or paying off a debt-she had already done those things. So we let that go and focused on goals for the baby. She later sent me a text “my long-term goal is to stay healthy until my granddaughter is grown.” That’s the trust and magic that happens when we take the time to foster positive relationships with families!
About the author: Lenore Friedly designs and implements projects that support families and early childhood professionals with the goal of creating strong, collaborative relationships that support all young children. Developing avenues for authentic partnerships between families and providers is her professional passion. Her previous work in the field, including teaching at a co-operative preschool, supporting parenting teens and working with Early Head Start families, has continuously reinforced the importance of uplifting parents in this important work.
Lenore says, “my hope is that more and more, we recognize that children are stronger when the adults in their world work as partners.” Her current projects include the Bloom Bright family texting service, amplifying Indiana’s Family Engagement Toolkit, and representing the interests, strengths and needs of families in a variety of additional Partnerships for Early Learners projects.