Promoting Family Engagement: Communicating with Families (2023)

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Communicating with others can be both simple and complex at the same time. Have you ever been surprised that someone misunderstood a message you thought you had communicated quite clearly?

Communication between teachers and families occurs during daily hellos and goodbyes, as well as in more formal activities such as family meetings. All of these opportunities require you to be aware and courteous of the family’s characteristics, including tone, choice of words, and nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions and body language. When you are aware of these characteristics, you communicate in ways that are more supportive and respectful of families. Families will be eager to know how their child is doing, and you can support comfortable and effective communication by offering encouraging responses and asking for clarification if something is not understood.

Importance of Communicating with Families

Positive communication is perhaps the most powerful tool that you can use with families. Effective communication helps to inform, reassure, and engage families, which all helps establish and build a strong partnership between staff and families. A single conversation, positive or negative, can set the tone for a family’s opinion of preschool staff, so it is essential to develop effective communication skills early on. Positive communication skills help to make sure that accurate information is shared, expectations are shared, and trust is established.

Communication and relationships with families help to build trust. Trust is an important part of helping to make sure that you maintain partnership with families and work as a team with families to help children meet their goals. Trust between you and families makes parents feel good about the program and its ability to meet their child’s needs.

Ways of Communicating with Families

It is crucial that programs use communication practices that are sensitive to the diverse language and cultural backgrounds of the families they serve. Each family is teaching their young children how to be successful within their own culture, beliefs and traditions.

Communication preferences may be related to cultural or community values, priorities and commitments. For example, Sohn and Wang (2006) found that Korean-born mothers, even those who spoke English well, had difficulty communicating with teachers face-to-face. Their preference was to communicate with teachers through email or program letters. When communicating with families, it is also important to understand and consider:

  • Different forms of greetings and use of titles that may be preferred
  • Male and female roles defined within various cultures
  • Non-verbal communication and body language (e.g. eye contact, use of touching, use of physical space)

You can ask questions to learn how families would like to communicate about their child’s day. Some families may prefer face-to-face conversations while others prefer telephone or regular (daily) notes. Other ways of communicating with families include:

  • Program website
  • Email
  • Family meetings or conferences
  • Newsletters
  • Articles of interest

Families will also help set the pace and expectation for their communication with you. It is important to acknowledge it can take time for families to feel safe, comfortable and friendly. Different forms of communication can play an important role in easing the process. Using a combination of communication styles with families might work best for their needs to be met. Other ideas may be to translate written communication into the home languages of the families supported in the program and consider having translators that are regularly available for face-to-face or phone communication.

Having Difficult Conversations with Families

Conversations with families can be difficult for a number of reasons. Sometimes, you might worry that families will be upset by something you share and even decide to withdrawal their child from your program. You may also worry the family will stop communicating with you altogether. While conversations with families about concerns may be difficult, they can provide you an opportunity to express your care and support for a family, as well as the preschooler’s development and learning, in a thoughtful way.

Misunderstandings can also occur as your views and understanding of a situation may differ from that of a family member. In these instances, it is helpful to consider the multiple perspectives to a situation. For example:

Example Situation

Mother picks up her preschooler at the end of the day. It’s the third day in a row her daughter has come home messy and with dirty clothes (grass stains and finger paint).

Your Perspective

It’s important to offer preschoolers multiple sensory experiences throughout the day. Sensory experiences support early learning, growth and development.

Family Perspective

We spend money on her clothes and we need to keep them looking nice. We do not go right home after I pick her up and I do not want people thinking I do not keep my daughter clean.

The teacher takes time to ask the parent questions and finds out the importance of keeping her daughter clean. The teacher learns that the family believes clothing is directly related to the quality of care given by their family. By sending their child to this early care and learning program, they believed this was like sending their child to “school” and children are to go to school clean and well dressed. This is in part how the family shows their respect for education. The teacher also talks with the family about how sensory experiences are part of learning experiences and often involve messes. Through discussion, the teacher and family decide that the teacher will change the girl’s clothes during messy sensory play and/or ensure she is covered up.

As a teacher, you want to provide the best possible care for the children in your program and you have an opportunity to consistently observe and learn about their development. Your observations, notes, screenings and assessments are helpful for identifying strengths and possible areas of need that might arise during the preschool years. Sharing these concerns with families is the first step to a supportive planning process.

See the handout, Sharing Concerns with Families, for additional ideas and resources.

Collecting Family and Child Information

Think about a situation when you were asked to provide information about yourself or your family. You may recall experiences that made you feel comfortable and at ease, and others that made you feel nervous, anxious, or uncomfortable. What was it about these different circumstances that made you feel either comfortable or uncomfortable? Maybe it was the particular way or tone in which certain questions were asked or the content or nature of information you were asked to provide? Perhaps it was the available time you had to respond, the environment or space in which this information was shared, or maybe the opportunity to know ahead of time the kind of information you would be asked to provide?

Now think about instances when you as a professional are going to be the one collecting this information. How do you make sure that you are asking questions in ways that makes families feel respected, comfortable and at ease? Collecting family and child information is a critical piece of your work in preschool. As children and families join your program, establishing strong and meaningful relationships with them starts immediately, with getting to know them. It is important to learn about their interests, their heritage and culture, their needs and their hopes and dreams for their children in a respectful way and use this input to enhance the quality of your work in preschool. As you continue to engage with families, think about how you want to be treated with dignity and respect and assume the families of children in your care want to be treated the same way. During this time, it is critical to maintain confidentiality and respect families’ right to privacy.

Sharing Information With Families

Now, think about the ‘reverse’ scenario from the one described in the previous section: Situations in which you were the one receiving information. For example, during a visit to your doctor’s office, what were things that made you feel that the doctor or nurse sharing information with you was doing so in an effective way? What was good or not so good about that experience? What made you feel that the individual was sharing information with you in a respectful way? Was the information provided in a way that helped you understand? Did you have the opportunity to ask questions? Did you feel that the person talking to you had your best interest in mind?

Just as you have to be careful and considerate about gathering information from families, it is critical that you do the same when sharing information with families. As a preschool teacher, it is important to help families understand their child’s development and share with them information that you have gathered about their child. This information should be shared in a respectful way and be considerate of families’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Always use family-friendly language and avoid jargon, including terms, acronyms, or terminology that families may not understand.

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), one of the most important issues in early childhood policy and practice is ensuring that children are ready and prepared for successful school experiences (NAEYC, 2009). As children grow and approach the school-age years, families and professionals often talk about school readiness. In your work at preschool, families may ask you to share information about whether or not you think their child is “ready” for kindergarten.

Often, school districts and communities develop screening programs or processes to help teachers and families determine if a child is “ready” to transition to kindergarten. School readiness involves more than just children and their abilities or developmental milestones. NAEYC believes that schools are responsible for meeting the needs of children and for providing them with the services they need to reach their maximum potential. Specifically, NAEYC supports that promoting school readiness requires: (a) giving all children access to opportunities that promote school success, (b) being responsive to children’s individual differences, and (c) establishing appropriate expectations about what children should be able to do when they enter school.

It is your responsibility to help children learn and develop at their own level and to provide developmentally appropriate services and activities that meet each child’s needs. It is not the responsibility of children to meet school expectations upon entering school. As you meaningfully plan and implement your work, you are setting the foundation for children’s success in school.

Considering that children in your care have varying abilities, cultural backgrounds, and diverse personal experiences, while also keeping in mind that children learn different skills at different rates, it is unrealistic and not expected that all children will demonstrate skill mastery at the same time. As you may have read in the Cognitive Development course, even though there are universal patterns of development that children follow, there are individual differences among children that should be acknowledged. You should assume this way of thinking when considering school readiness, and when sharing information with families about kindergarten readiness.

When talking with families of children in your care, consider sharing the following about what they can do to foster their children’s development and to support your work at preschool:

  • Spend time playing, talking, and engaging with your child!
  • Create routines at home that children follow (e.g., mealtimes or bedtimes).
  • Encourage and answer questions from your child.
  • Engage in book-reading with your child.
  • Familiarize your child with symbols in their environment (e.g., letters, numbers).
  • Talk to your child and encourage him or her to talk to you about the world around them.
  • Provide your child with opportunities for social interactions outside of school.

Involve children in activities that include planning and carrying out tasks (e.g., making a list and going to the grocery store, following a recipe to cook or bake something).

See

Do

When collecting information from families, Banks, Santos, and Roof (2003) highlight the following:

  • Consider using ongoing informal opportunities to engage in conversations with families.
  • Establish rapport with families before attempting to gather information from them.
  • Use a variety of open-ended and close-ended questions.
  • Be respectful of families’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds when asking questions.
  • If possible, try to gather information from several family members about a child.

Whenever possible, use specific examples (e.g., classroom observations, examples of children’s work) to convey information about their children to families. Data can help family members understand that the information you are sharing with them is based on instances where you observed or collected information in an organized manner, as opposed to sharing things based on your personal views or opinion. As part of your work in preschool, it is likely that you collect developmental information on children through assessments, and it is critical that families have access to that information. This also enables families to follow their child’s progress over time.

A great starting point in sharing information with families about their children’s development is by inviting them to observe their children in the classroom. Schedule some time after the observation to talk about what family members noticed and address any questions they may have. If a family is unable to observe during classroom hours, you might ask for their permission to video record a portion of the child’s day so that the family has an opportunity to see the child engaged in the classroom environment.

It is very important to offer families various opportunities to understand their children’s development. Try some of these ideas:

  • Weekly or monthly newsletters:
    This is a great way to share information not only about what’s happening in the classroom, but also about child development, activities that promote child growth, themes explored in your classroom, or community resources. Newsletters are a fantastic way to share information without families feeling singled out.
  • Weekly emails:
    Preschool classrooms are very busy places! You can share information on some of the wonderful learning and discovery that takes place in your classroom in emails to families. These emails can be brief and may include information about activities children were engaged in in your different learning centers.
  • One-on-one conferences with families:
    These may be scheduled at set times (e.g., once or twice a year according to your program’s policy). Additional conferences may be arranged if families request them. Check with your trainer or program director to find out about your program’s policies regarding conferences with families.
  • Phone calls to families:
    This is another great way to communicate with families who may be unable to attend meetings at school or who may prefer this way of communication.
  • Communication journals:
    These are usually sent home with the child and returned the next day. Teachers can share noteworthy observations or events, and families can respond to those or share their own news or reflections.
  • Developmental charts:
    These may be posted inside your classroom or displayed in a general area within your program building for families to review at their convenience.
  • Portfolios:
    These are visual representations of a child’s work and progress. In a child’s portfolio you can include photos or artifacts from a child’s work, writing samples, and other examples that demonstrate a child’s development across time. Included within the portfolio can be notes on milestones the child has met.

References & Resources

Banks, R.A., Santos, R.M., & Roof, V. (2003). Discovering Family Concerns, Priorities, and Resources: Sensitive family information gathering. Young Exceptional Children, 6(2), 11-19.

Diffly, D., & Morrison, K. (1996). Family-Friendly Communication for Early Childhood Programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Glascoe, F. P. (1999). Communicating With Parents. Young Exceptional Children, 2(4), 17-25.

Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (2004). Understanding families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Koralek, D. (2006). Spotlight on Young Children and Families. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Lynch, E.W., & Hanson, M. J. (2004). Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A guide for working with young children and their families, 3rd ed. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Engaging Diverse Families.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/positionstatements/ethical_conduct

National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995). NAEYC Position Statement: School readiness. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/PSREADY98.PDF.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2009). Where we stand summary on school readiness. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/Readiness.pdf.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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