Centering Equity: Authentic Family Engagement Is Bi-Directional: Engaging in Meaningful Family Partnerships

There are multi-faceted benefits to strong family and community partnerships
Blog Post
Dec. 3, 2019

For young children, families are the chief facilitators of their earliest learning experiences, their connections to the array of resources within their communities, and their access to all services and supports. For these reasons, it is not surprising that strong, productive family partnerships in early learning have clear ties to long-term cognitive, academic, and social-emotional benefits for children.

This is particularly true for children and families of color from low-income communities, for whom a key strength lies in supportive family systems, deep relational bonds, and meaningful family traditions. Where historical inequities and segregation have eroded the effectiveness of traditional institutions, families of color have relied on strong familial and social networks, including extended family members as well as “fictive kin” (i.e., other adults who share a close bond although not related by blood) who support parents and contribute positively to children’s lives.

Acknowledging the multi-faceted benefits of strong family and community partnerships, particularly for children of color from low-income communities, this topic has been a focal point of discourse in early learning professional circles. The movement in the prevailing language from “parent involvement” to “family and community partnership” signifies a potential intent toward genuine co-construction of early learning programs and opportunities with an intentional elevation of family voice. National organizations have contributed to the field in defining and refining best practices through the dissemination of research, thought leadership, engagement, and oversight of programs. For instance, the Office of Head Start articulates a strong model for family and community engagement – the Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) framework, focused on families as partners in learning, program development, and advocacy. Head Start also emphasizes the formative role of the Parent Policy Council, centering families’ role in programmatic decision-making. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has disseminated research and guidance for programs and systems for effective family partnership, included family partnerships as a key component of NAEYC accreditation, and offered substantial guidance around partnering with diverse families as part of their Principles of Family Engagement work, which offers guideposts for effective family partnership.

Federal agencies have facilitated progress in elevating the prominence of family and community partnerships in early learning discourse through the implementation of policy and guidance to state and local agencies. In a 2016 joint policy statement, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services presents a framework for effective family and community engagement, provides recommendations to state and local education agencies for implementation, and highlights resources to support both programs and families as effective partners in early learning.

Acknowledging the role of community context in early learning and the degree to which community ties are key assets for children of color, a lack of consistent articulation of vision is increasingly problematic. Moreover, for programs and districts that primarily serve children and families of color, family and community partnership has been a particular challenge. This can be attributed to inadequate shared understanding among early learning professionals about family and community assets, challenges, and circumstances, and the eroded trust between communities and educational institutions that stems from generations of segregation and institutionalized racism.

Many local communities and programs strive to include families through opportunities to volunteer, home learning activities, parent-teacher conferences, and more. But their effectiveness is often weakened by the failure to build understanding and establish shared values around partnership. Without a strong foundation in cultural and community awareness, even well-intentioned efforts to welcome families can be received with distrust and fall short of establishing genuine partnership. Among the most prevalent barriers that families and providers face in establishing and sustaining meaningful partnerships are the challenging life circumstances that many families in low-income communities face, the failure of districts and programs to make policies clear and accessible to families, and a lack of cultural literacy that leads many providers to have low expectations of families’ interest in participation.

Growing in prevalence are multi-generational approaches that emphasize the importance of parent education, home-school connection, and practices that are informed by the realities and values of the families served. The Aspen Institute identifies three core components of multi-generational programming: 1) Education – high quality early learning opportunities for children and postsecondary education for families; 2) Economic supports – cultivating financial mobility for families leading to increased access to resources; and 3) Social capital – developing and leveraging formal and informal networks of support.

As a local example of success in family partnership and engagement, Briya Public Charter School and Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C. leverage their partnership to collectively respond to the needs of the surrounding community by providing a network of care and support that is informed by families’ cultures, languages, and other existing needs. Overall, Briya and Mary’s Center believe that with their comprehensive approach to care and education, families are able “to break the cycle of poverty and achieve long-term healthy outcomes in all aspects of life.”

When we fight for #EquityInECE, it is our duty to learn from the families and programs at the center of successful early education stories. This includes showcasing innovative approaches to meaningfully communicating and partnering with diverse families, developing partnerships that are reflective of the local context and communities where young children grow and learn. When we approach family partnerships this way, the strategies and lessons learned from these community-defined approaches can be framed in a way to provide insight into how to further inform the development and implementation of larger systems-level practices, policies and supports to authentically partner with families.