Making Connections. The Professional Obligation to Value Families
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If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times: families are their children’s first and most important teachers. Yet the last time I uttered this sentence was the first time in quite a while that I paused to think about its implications. If parents are teachers, how are we to distinguish the teaching role of early childhood educators, especially given the long-standing, widespread misconception that they need nothing more than empathy and experience to be effective?
As we advance through the Power to the Profession dialogue to create a professional field of practice for early childhood educators as a well-respected and well-compensated profession, I think we need to be clear that recognizing families as the experts on their children and supporting them in their role as their children’s “first and most important” teachers does not undermine the professional responsibilities of early childhood educators. Rather, it underscores the breadth and depth of professional knowledge early childhood educators need to carry out their formal responsibilities to fully support each child’s cognitive, social and emotional, physical, and language and literacy development. Early childhood educators can accomplish these professional responsibilities only by drawing on families’ knowledge and expertise about their individual children. For educators, combining professional knowledge and knowledge gleaned from families is essential to using developmentally appropriate practice—which, by definition, must also be culturally and linguistically appropriate—and to enriching the ongoing relationships between teachers, children, and families.
As we strive to build this profession, we must do so in a way that elevates the knowledge and skills of families and communities. Early childhood educators are obligated, professionally and ethically, to develop relationships with all families and communities they serve, including those that do not share their culture, language, or experiences. This requires, among other things, that educators seek out information about and value families’ experiences and community perspectives by actively incorporating these funds of knowledge in the curriculum and the classroom; that they respect, learn about, understand, and embrace families’ cultures and communities; and that they partner with families and communities in the healthy development and learning of their children.
Yet, though they may be obligated to act in these ways, many are far from prepared to do so. From mining the rich data we collect through early learning and higher education program accreditation, we have come to understand that NAEYC standards related to effective family and community relationships are often among the most challenging for individuals and programs to meet; this is particularly true in contexts where cultural, racial, and/or linguistic diversity is high. While the vast majority of educators might say that they truly value families and want to collaborate with them, putting our values into practice can be a struggle, particularly when faced with the constraints of competing priorities, limited time, scarce resources—and our own biases.
Knowledge from families is essential to developmentally appropriate practice.
We live in a world in which our divisions sometimes overshadow our commonalities. Yet professional early childhood educators have a responsibility to honor the role of families, even when we don’t understand their journeys or agree with their politics. As early childhood educators know, the work begins with relationships. Through a project developed at San Francisco State University, for example, early childhood educators have been supporting children in writing and illustrating the personal stories of their families and communities as a way to create meaningful relationships built on understanding. These issues and this work is complex, but I would challenge anyone to read those stories and not see the ways in which the educators, the children, and the families all rose to the challenge of building a bridge across a divide.
Sometimes, that divide is vast. I will never forget a call I got in 2010 from the director of a center in Arizona that served infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. It was during the intense political storm that was whipped up when Arizona’s elected officials passed Senate Bill 1070—at the time, the strictest anti-immigration measure ever enacted. I and my colleagues throughout Arizona’s early childhood field were vehemently opposing the measure politically, but our struggle was nowhere near as great as that faced by this particular center director. In her telling, half of the young children’s parents belonged to an organization that espoused the values of white supremacy; the other half of the parents were Mexican immigrants. All of them lived in close proximity in a community along the border between Arizona and California. So we talked: what kind of bridge can be built in these circumstances? How does one hold family meetings? Coordinate parent volunteers? Navigate lunch table conversations that are imbued with the ideologies and perspectives children overhear at the dinner table?
Conversations like these are complex, without easy answers or quick fixes. But the conversations demand and deserve our time, attention, intention, and best thinking. This isn’t work to be done on the side, on the fly, or after the fact. The leadership, theory, pedagogical knowledge, and practical experience needed to navigate these situations require us to lean in, review our guiding documents, and have continuous conversations with families, community members, mentors, coaches, researchers, program administrators, and teachers.
The complexity also highlights the reality that early childhood educators need empathy, experience—and so much more. They need to know, as professionals, how to take the lead in working with families who, for a variety of reasons, may not readily engage with teachers or programs. They need to know how to move beyond traditional forms of unidirectional parent outreach to a more intentional, meaningful, and shared family engagement and empowerment process. They need to know how to accurately and transparently assess and improve their own efforts to reduce bias and advance equity in their classrooms and homes. Building their knowledge, skills, and competencies through the acquisition of a postsecondary degree, early childhood educators will be increasingly prepared to meet the professional and ethical obligations of their chosen field of practice. And when they are increasingly prepared for the job, the children with whom they work will be increasingly prepared for school, and our country will be increasingly prepared for the future.
NAEYC, as a professional association for early childhood educators, is here to help. We maintain and continue to develop resources to help you navigate your world as an expert, a leader, and a lifetime learner. Please spend some time on NAEYC.org, and be sure to explore
- NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment
- NAEYC Standards for Early Childhood Professional Preparation
- NAEYC Early Learning Program Accreditation Standards and Assessment Items
- DRAFT NAEYC Position Statement: Advancing Equity and Diversity in Early Childhood Education
To find colleagues across the country who are getting to know or are already familiar with these guiding documents, and who are facing real-world experiences similar to or different from yours, I urge you to post questions, share your insights, and engage in discussion on HELLO—our online community platform (hello.naeyc.org). We know that with each conversation will come a little more understanding to help us be better prepared to lead with children, putting their healthy development at the center of all that we do.
It is the professional responsibility of early childhood educators to honor and reinforce the vital role families play in promoting their children’s learning and shaping their everyday experiences. That means challenging assumptions, creating collaborative spaces, listening and learning, seeking understanding, and embracing the power that families bring to your learning community, just as we embrace and are grateful for the power that you bring to ours.
NAEYC’s Statement on #FamiliesBelongTogether
The research is clear and so are NAEYC’s core values: we have an obligation to strengthen the bonds between all children and their families. When children were being forcibly separated from their parents at the US/Mexico border, we relied on both to publicly state our opposition to those actions—and were joined by an outpouring of support from our members, partners, and allies.
That overwhelming response became part of the reason that family separation as a practice was ended. Yet children are still being threatened with harm, and so we continue to advocate for an urgent and ongoing focus on the children who were separated as well as on a solution that does not involve incarcerating children.
As an active member of the Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign, we recognize the power of our individual and collective voices and will continue to act to address this and the many other issues and opportunities regarding children, families, and educators today and every day. Find the latest from NAEYC on this issue at NAEYC.org/FamiliesBelongTogether.
Photograph: © Getty Images
Rhian Evans Allvin is the chief executive officer of NAEYC. She is responsible for guiding the strategic direction of the organization as well as overseeing daily operations. Before joining NAEYC, Evans Allvin was a guiding force in Arizona’s early childhood movement for more than 15 years, including serving as CEO of Arizona's First Things First.