TEACHING YOUNG CHILDREN | VOL. 9 NO. 2
Even when teachers understand the importance of engaging families in their preschoolers’ learning, putting these ideas into action can be a challenge. Here’s how staff in one setting took what they knew about family engagement and put it into practice.
Know the families in your setting
Throughout 25 years of teaching in multiple school settings, I reaped the benefits of consistent family engagement. Attendance at events often numbered in the triple digits. However, as families began to shift their interests, I found that I needed to update efforts to align with these changes. In our program, overall family engagement was low and father engagement was even lower, so I brainstormed ways to appeal to the dads in our program.
When the faculty at Riverview School asked the question, “How do we encourage dads to make room in their busy schedules to spend a morning at school?,” they didn’t realize that a simple snack and a popular sport would prove to be the answer.
Fifty parents, mostly fathers, attended Donuts for Dads, where they were greeted with an inspirational and lively message from instructional assistant Donald Dorsey. Donald shared the importance of the presence of a strong male role model in the lives of young children and encouraged dads to stay active in their child’s school. The families joined their children in the classrooms to hear members of the local high school basketball team read a story. Staff and attendees were invited to wear their favorite basketball team’s shirt.
These types of events paid off. When Ginny Gleason, resource teacher, collected meeting attendance data, she was amazed. “As a program, we moved from having just a handful of fathers participating to over 400 fathers engaged in activities. One out of every three parents who attended program events was a father or father figure. We are creating parent leaders who will be movers and shakers when their children enter the elementary school setting,” she said. An initial goal to provide just one family meeting focusing on father engagement turned into a measurable increase in overall father engagement.
Taking family engagement outdoors
At another school site, instructional coach Joan Largie, teachers Cathy Barhold and Alex Gage, and family advocate Ebony Turner organized a gardening event to attract families who tend to shy away from traditional indoor academic settings. Ebony reached out to families personally—“I shared information at family meetings and reminded them before the event. I also created invitations.” Joan shared, “Parents came out and planted with their children. Most of the parents brought vegetable starter plants as well as gardening tools. Some of them started their own gardens at home.” When the vegetables sprout, the children eat them for snack at school. The surplus crops are donated to a community sharing center. The success of this event inspired Joan to write a grant that will partner her school with a local home improvement store to expand this event next year.
Building from within
As families became more comfortable engaging with our school online, our website and Facebook pages became important ways to stay in touch. Families learn about program activities, comment on posts, and see other involved parents impacting student learning.
We also had some success inviting community members to participate in activities. For example, instructional coach Marlene Winsten reached out to the local zoo to find different ways to engage with the community. She worked closely with zoo staff to create an ongoing plan that remains a family favorite. Zoo staff visit classrooms with engaging experiments and activities, children take field trips to the zoo, and the zoo and school work together to organize family and school events.
When each family arrives at the zoo, they interact with their child’s teacher and meet the teacher’s family as well. Marlene sets up a meeting area inside the zoo that offers bubble play and a shady spot for families to rest. After each event, she uses SurveyMonkey to create electronic surveys for both parents and teachers. Questions include, “How does your child learn about nature?” and “How comfortable do you feel taking your child outdoors to play?”
After the zoo day, the schools and families work together to write thank you cards for the zoo staff.
Teachers often say that in order to improve children’s skills, we must “meet them where they are” and build on what they know. The same can be said of family engagement. Teachers need to understand families’ needs before we can create inviting opportunities that address them.
Angie Doucette, MS, is the education manager and coordinator for the Brevard County Head Start program in Florida. With 25 years of teaching experience in early childhood, reading, and elementary education, she has developed several parent education programs and is committed to family engagement. Her program serves the families of 624 children.