Being in the Early Childhood Field, specifically working with Early Head Start (EHS) children and families, three contemporary issues cause me to pause and reflect on my work: barriers to family involvement/engagement, effects of COVID, and collaboration with families.
There is a difference between the meaning of family involvement and family engagement. Family involvement indicates that parents are doing what is asked by the school. This includes parents showing up for parent-teacher conferences, open houses, classroom visits, etc. However, parent involvement does not equate to parental engagement. Parental engagement refers to parents being present in every aspect of their child’s education. It is more than showing up. Family engagement means working together with providers. Parent engagement is critical to creating a successful learning environment for the child.
Unfortunately, there are many barriers that prevent parents from being involved/engaged in their child’s education. Some of those barriers include poverty, lack of childcare, scheduling conflicts, fear, distrust, misunderstanding, cultural beliefs, and feeling unwelcome. I have firsthand experience with many of these examples. One example was when I facilitated family meetings. I observed many times where my EHS families would not show up to these meetings; often due to lack of childcare, multiple family obligations, transportation difficulties, domestic violence, and lack of adequate housing. The barriers were so many. It is critical that we, as teachers and other service providers, respect these realities.
The effects of COVID have a profound impact on the way providers interact with children and families. As a Head Start Coach, I have witnessed the difference in how teachers and parents interact and how teachers interact with children. I have come across many complaints from families who do not get the opportunity to see or speak with their child’s teacher. This is partly due to the restrictions resulting from the COVID pandemic and parents not allowed in the building. Although teachers are trying to establish and maintain virtual ways to communicate with families, this is also a challenge considering the environment, family circumstances, scheduling, and lack of access to technology to name a few of the barriers that prevent families from attending any virtual meetings.
Collaboration is a key behavior that can help engage families. Parents are the child’s first teacher. They know their children more than the providers, they see their children in all aspects of their development, and they are the experts. Therefore, providers should always aim to problem solve and work collaboratively with families for the betterment of the child.
Although challenges are many and varied, service providers who take the time to develop a relationship with families and understand their unique circumstances will increase the likelihood that a long-term collaboration will be created to the benefit of the child’s growth and development.