Often times, advocates are viewed negatively or as confrontational. Typically advocacy is associated more with families of special needs children. However, it is vital that all families understand how to advocate for their children. When families have the skills to articulate strengths and needs, they are empowered to become lifelong activists for their children’s education. Supporting families to feel empowered helps them learn to ask questions, handle conflict, and feel that what they do changes things. It is of utmost importance that families feel like their needs and desires are heard. Fostering positive advocacy in families, by helping them have confident constructive voices, is vital to a program’s ability to truly connect.
Connecting with families can only happen when trust is established. Trust begins with the provider making a conscious effort toward relationship building and partnering. So how can we make this more stress-free, especially for families?
- Provide a welcoming environment
This makes it easier for families and staff to develop relationships. Everyone at the center should make it a priority to greet families. Smiling is also very important. Look pleased to see all family members, even when they appear to be unhappy. Work hard to remember names. People feel valued when their names are remembered. Offer assistance and think in terms of “hosting” waiting guests. Offer to take their coat, bring them water, tell them where the restroom is, etc.
- Understand the importance of informal conversations
Formal conversations, such as family-teacher conferences, are intimidating for some families. In addition, families are often hurried and have little time for lengthy discussion. While this type of discussion is important, it has a time and place. Having more consistent casual dialogue, at pick-up and drop-off for instance, can often help in fostering relationships. This can be particularly true with families who seldom speak out.
- Stay strength-based
One of the simplest things you can do to positively partner with families is to regularly share encouraging information. Sincerely praise families when you notice something positive that they or their children are doing. All families are unique and interesting. Pointing out strengths proves to families that you see their value. This can allow families to be more open to bringing up a problem.
- View the family as the expert
Ask families for their input about the program and let them know that you take their opinions seriously. Encourage questions and thank families for asking questions. Listen more than you speak. Take time with your answers to questions, while thinking about what can be learned from each family or what value they may bring to the program. Try not to “sweat the small stuff.”
- Follow up
Follow up and encourage families to do the same. Following up shows families that you value the input they have given.
Sources: Family Engagement Training, Katherine Herron, Early Childhood Center, Indiana University 2015; “How Can Early Childhood Settings Encrouage Parents to Advocate for Their Child?”, http://www.hfrp.org/family-involvement/fine-family-involvement-network-of-educators/member-insights/how-can-early-childhood-settings-encourage-parents-to-advocate-for-their-child, Harvard Family Research Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education, The Family Involvement Network of Educators