When I began teaching more than 25 years ago, my dream was to be an amazing teacher. I wanted to love, nurture, and provide a quality education for the little ones placed in my care. I was 21. Call me naïve, but I must admit that I never once thought about working with families. And so I encountered a great surprise when I began my first teaching job. Parents! They wanted to help out in the classroom. They wanted to know what I planned to teach their children. Privately, I thought, “Go away. Just let me handle the business of educating your children. I’ve got it under control.” But alas, this was not to happen, so I avoided encounters with families, except for brief interactions before and after school and at bi-annual conferences. What I found was that the more I avoided them, the more parents pursued me, and the more they scrutinized me. And, for heaven’s sake, they should. They were concerned, after all, with their children’s education. What a great thing . . . except that I was pretty much scared to death.
I eventually warmed up to the families of my students. I chit-chatted with them at school events and even attended some events outside of school that put me in contact with students and their families. Some of the interactions were great, while some of the encounters were uncomfortable and strained. What I realized, though, is that most parents just want information. They want to be kept in the loop about what their children are learning at school. Those of us who teach in early childhood classrooms need to remember that our students spent the first years of their lives in the home environment and have only recently encountered the “world of school.”
As the years passed, I began to see the need for more regular communication with families. I decided that every week, I was going to send home a newsletter, letting families know what I would be teaching in the week to come. What an amazing difference this made! Families felt comfortable knowing what was happening at school and approached me with specific questions and comments about the week’s activities. This one simple effort led to huge breakthroughs in communication with families.
It’s important to understand that family involvement is more complex than helping out in the classroom. It really means developing and fostering effective partnerships between teachers and parents. When teachers and families work together, great things result for children. A growing body of research has focused on the benefits of family involvement in early education. This research indicates that there are benefits to children’s overall well-being, their academic growth, and their future academic success, as well as benefits to parents and teachers who work together for children.
Here are some suggestions:
—Make personal contact early in the school year. Try to meet one-on-one, either in person or by phone. Rather than merely “talking at” the parent, engage in friendly conversation.
—Have a back-to-school night. Send personal invitations and be sure to warmly greet each family member who participates.
—Begin sending out a weekly newsletter. Let families know the day of the week they can expect the newsletter and BE CONSISTENT about sending it home. This is a great way to communicate the weekly events that keep families connected to their children’s education.
—Meet with parents one-on-one. Set a warm, friendly tone for conferences. Share positive information about the child and delightful anecdotes about the child’s experiences in the previous weeks/months. When discussing problem areas, engage the parent in the conversation about suggestions for further growth.
—Offer opportunities for parents to help out at school.
While involving families in the school environment is a great way to build partnerships, the research strongly indicates that the greatest benefits to children occur when family involvement happens in the home. Teachers can assist parents with this kind of involvement by offering suggestions for fun activities that promote children’s growth and development. Be sure not to put pressure on families to do the teacher’s job, but rather to encourage activities that promote relationship between parent and child. Try some of the following ideas:
—Send home an activity backpack. Determine a theme, such as reading, math, cooking, etc. Provide related materials (books, pencils, crayons) and instructions for completing the activity. Design an activity that requires the child and the parent to work together.
—Encourage families and children to read together. Offer suggestions for fun follow-up activities, such as dramatizing story events, retelling a story with paper bag puppets, or creating a booklet of the major story events.
—Encourage parents and children to cook together. Explain the literacy and math skills that are developed through following a recipe and measuring ingredients.
—Explain the importance of recognizing familiar print in the environment. Encourage them to discuss street signs, store signs, product packaging, etc., as they travel through the community. Pointing out the individual letters at the beginnings of words helps children make a connection between functional print and reading.
—Suggest to families that they make mealtime fun by having lively family discussions or creating silly stories together.
The benefits of family involvement are far-reaching and relatively simple to implement. It is our responsibility, as educators, to work closely with families to build effective partnerships and to encourage natural and meaningful engagement between parents and children in the home. We can’t force families to actively participate in their children’s educational growth, but we can certainly make family involvement opportunities appealing and fun!