By Carmen A Nicholas, PhD
“If a community values its children, it must cherish their parents.”- John Bowlby
High quality preschool programs work! There is a convincing body of evidence that children who experience consistent quality early learning experiences fare better academically and socially in school and in life. The impact is greatest for those from the poorest backgrounds. Unfortunately, large numbers of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are deprived of this in their early years and will in all likelihood, remain behind their peers from more affluent circumstances.
Let’s be clear that it is high quality preschools that make the difference! So, what does a high quality preschool look like? Key components include: developmentally appropriate materials and children engaged in hands-on activities, small class size and ratios, research-based curriculum, appropriate ongoing child assessment with the results used to inform instruction, instructional staff with appropriate qualifications and experience, ongoing professional development, good compensation and benefits, instructional support, and strong family engagement and support. Early education providers who rely heavily on income from children receiving government subsidies generally do not have the resources to provide all the components of quality.
One component of quality that is most often overlooked is meaningful parent engagement, which has the potential for the greatest return on investment. Studies have looked at approaches to parent involvement which foster a positive home learning environment, integrate parents into school programs and build strong school/family/community partnerships for positive impacts on student achievement. A growing body of evidence finds overall positive effects on student achievement, including significantly improved language skills, test performance, and school behavior. Despite this, parent involvement is usually very limited.
One writer has compared the teacher-parent relationship to an arranged marriage. Despite the fact that both have the shared goal of enabling positive growth in the children, the bond often starts out shaky. Parents are concerned about their children’s health, safety and learning. At some time all parents worry about or more of the following;
- he or she may be left unattended, bitten, hit, bullied, or otherwise mistreated by other children
- the teacher may not like their child and won’t treat her/him as they would prefer
- the program is not academic enough, their child plays all day and is not learning to his/her potential
Most threatening to the relationship is when parents are afraid to share their concerns with the teacher lest s/he becomes irritated and takes it out on the child. On the other hand, the teacher feels that her/his job is at risk if parents are dissatisfied with them. He or she struggles with managing large groups of children, many with challenging behaviors. This results in high levels of professional burnout which further compromises the relationship with parents and children. It is therefore not surprising early education directors identify lack of parent involvement as one of their major concerns.
High quality early education programs with the most vibrant parent involvement are guided by a set of principles that are universally accepted in the field and embedded in their mission, policies and practices.
- Partnership: The relationship between families and staff is one of equality and respect in the context of a mutually beneficial partnership
- Shared Power: Power is shared and families are treated as the best advocate for themselves and their families
- Family Strengths: All families have some strengths and are seen as assets, not barriers to overcome or work around
- Cultural Competence: Each family’s culture is valued, recognized and respected.
- Family Driven: Families determine program services that impact them and are given choices of activities that meet their needs and interest.
- Social Support: The program facilitates the creation of social support networks or connections to reduce isolation and promote child and family wellbeing.
- Hope and Joy: Families and staff experience hope and joy spontaneously working together.
Full implementation of the above principles transforms programs from a child-centered to a family-centered approach. This takes a change in mindset, time, training and some tangible resources. However, here are some good no cost/low cost practices that support family engagement:
- Create an environment where parents feel welcome and at home in the center. Examples include making center orientations fun by having parents engage in a scavenger hunt; creating a welcome banner with families using children’s artwork and having each person to sign, posting a picture of parent and child in the learning center or on the child’s cubby; prominently placing a bulletin board with pictures of new staff and families, celebrating the happenings in families, e.g. Happy Birthday Carmen Harris (Trevor’s mom), having a pot of coffee ready in the morning so parents can grab a cup on the run, your own and your families great ideas!
- Conduct a survey of families’ needs, interest, skills and talents or better yet do this periodically in a group wish lists night format. Have parents determine which activities will be implemented and give them leadership in planning the activities. Seek ways for parents to contribute a skill, talent or resources for the benefit of the other parents, school or community. For example, a parent who is a paramedic or knows one could be asked to conduct a CPR/First aid class for all the parents; have parents to plant and maintain a small garden at your center; your own and your families great ideas!
- Sponsor joint staff and family fun activities such as bingo nights, board games, storytelling and book reading pajama parties; your own and your families great ideas!
Parents will come if:
- they are involved in choosing and planning the activity
- feel that staff and other parents care about them and their presence
- they have something valuable to contribute
- activities are planned at convenient times, children can go with them and an appropriate meal is provided.
“You can take the child out of the family, but you can’t take the family out of the child.”- Anon
Useful Articles and Websites
Flannery, Mary Ellen; Does High- Quality Early Childhood Education Look Like? http://neattoday.org/2012/04/04/
Jordan, Jamilah R., Wolf, Kathy G., Douglass, Anne (2012).Increasing Family Engagement in Early Childhood Programs. Young Children 67(5), 12-23
Provided by Childrens Service Council at Broward County.