1.2: Implement processes for developing family-program/school partnerships

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Decades of research studies confirm what professionals who work with children already know: children benefit when families and schools work together in partnership. Children whose families are actively engaged in their education have been shown to have better academic achievement, social skills, and behavior compared with children whose families do not participate. Family engagement has for many years been part of federal school policy. Title I schools are required to develop “school-family compacts.” These compacts describe how teachers, administrators, and staff will work and partner with families. State governments are also mandating that schools engage with families. For the benefit of young children, early childhood programs should work closely with families as well, especially around managing challenging behaviors that may disrupt a child’s time spent in the classroom. When families and school staff know, understand, and trust each other, children are less likely to be suspended and expelled.

How do I do this?

Make your program a welcoming place. Be positive when you talk with families. Make sure you start the relationship off right by having your first communication with a family be about something positive their child did, and overall there should be more positive communications than negatives ones. Use words and actions that convey respect, support, and appreciation. Researchers have found that parents are more likely to be involved in their child’s education when they feel invited to be involved by both the child and the program or school.

Train staff on when and how to use the form. Create a systematic process for recording discipline. This will encourage staff to be accountable for how they respond to children’s behaviors. This will also help staff be transparent. Stress that the information gathered will be used to make your program better and not to evaluate staff, and then stick to your word.

Learn more about the children and families in your program. Talk with both the children and adults about what life is like at home, or visit them at home when possible. This will help you and your staff understand a child’s home context—including culture, language, parenting practices, significant events or crises—and the way it may affect the child’s behavior in the classroom. These types of conversations will also help build empathetic, trusting relationships between program staff and families, in which both parties can see each other’s skills, strengths, and points of view.

Identify, promote, and formalize staff actions that facilitate partnership building. Bring your staff together to construct a family-school partnership plan that all staff can buy into. This plan should identify specific and actionable steps staff will take to build and improve the quality of partnerships with families. The plan might include fostering a respectful, two-way dialogue with families, giving them chances to have a presence in the classroom, learning about each other through home visits, and setting mutually agreed-on goals for the child. Staff should be held accountable for putting these steps into use, which will then become formal processes that all staff follow routinely. Examples of other specific steps you can take include:

  • Schedule activities at times that working families can attend.
  • Make sure communication occurs (and written resources are available) in families’ native languages, using staff or parent volunteers as translators.
  • Create a school directory so families can form a community with each other, if they wish.

Develop the capacity of your staff to work with and build close personal relationships with families.Positive relationships between staff and families protect against the use of exclusionary discipline. These relationships help because having an established relationship allows for more joint problem-solving, with parents and teachers talking about what happens at school, each offering their perspective, and working together to think about possible strategies to address the problems. Help staff recognize the benefits of family-school partnerships, and make positive relationship building with families an everyday goal. Address this goal as part of staff professional development. Identify specific staff training needs regarding partnering with families, such as whether they need help forming goal-oriented relationships with families or how to work with children with disabilities and their families. Where applicable, identify “cultural brokers” from among your staff (or parent volunteers) who are members of a minority culture and are willing to help facilitate interactions between families of this culture and staff and parents of other cultures. This can be especially helpful if there are staff available who speak the languages spoken in children’s homes.

Try to bridge cultural differences between home and program, especially those of socioeconomic class and race/ethnicity. Researchers have found that one reason middle class White families tend to be more involved at school is that schools (and their staff) tend to be middle class White institutions. This is an example of “cultural match.” These families speak the same language as the teachers, understand the unwritten social “rules” of the school, and feel able to treat school staff as equals. When school staff and families instead come from different backgrounds, there can be a “cultural mismatch.” Just as deeper understanding builds trust, misunderstanding can create mistrust. This can be due to lack of information or to overt or implicit bias. However, this does not mean cultural matches are naturally better for children than mismatches, and that we should always aim for a match as a solution to this problem. Instead, to help fix this problem, start by understanding your own cultural context and know the ways it may differ from those of the children attending your program. Avoid making assumptions about children’s families based on stereotypes or previous experiences with other “similar” families. Use open, honest, and direct communication to identify misconceptions you may have of them, or that they may have of you, and work to build more authentic relationships where both parties truly know each other. Below are a few tips for starting conversations, see the Resources section for more.

  • You can also invite parents into the school to share something representative of their culture (such as a holiday tradition or a food) with staff to begin the conversation, and then as relationships are built over time, progress to discussing potentially more sensitive topics such as parenting practices and behavioral expectations. Discussions can be held between parents and staff or just among staff.
  • Check out this resource for educators leading dialogue and reflection about diversity and equity. It includes steps to help you prepare, icebreakers, ways to reflect, and group activities.
  • Read a vignette to illustrate how assumptions can result in misunderstandings.

Empower parents to assert themselves as true partners. Researchers have found that parents are more likely to be involved in their children’s education when they feel confident in their ability to help their children do well both academically and in their social-emotional learning. You can encourage this feeling of confidence and power in parents by respecting their perspectives; letting them know that they have abilities, ideas, and knowledge that can help their children succeed; and being truly willing to engage them as partners in caring for and educating their children.

  • You can also work to increase parents’ understanding of child development whenever possible, so that they feel more knowledgeable and better able support their children’s growth. If you do not have the capacity to do this, connect them with other resources in the community that can, such as your local health department, community college, or Child Care Resource and Referral agency, which may provide classes or online information.
  • Also, don’t wait until there is a behavior incident or challenging behavior to talk with families! Having positive interactions with parents encourages them to stay engaged. It also helps them feel good about the role they are playing in guiding their children’s learning and behavior.

What Barriers Might I Run Into and What Are Solutions?

Potential Barrier: My staff and I are excited to engage families but are not getting many responses back.
Solution: Parents are sometimes unsure about engaging with providers/teachers in school and out of school. Many things can stop parents from wanting to engage: language barriers, lack of time or transportation, not understanding how much it can help their children, lack of confidence that they can make a difference, feeling that they are not welcome at the school, or previous bad experiences with schools. These are hard things for you as staff to work against, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort! Even though it may take time, showing genuine interest in including families will help improve classroom climate and help teachers better understand children. It may take time to build interest and trust from the families, but using some of the strategies we have outlined here persistently over time should pay off.

  • Hold school events at times when working families can join in. Let them visit your site and see the hard work you have put into making it inclusive and welcoming for families.
  • Start a home visiting program that will let your staff connect with families in their own space. This can help build a respectful connection between families and staff that will help children grow and give teachers a resource aside from suspensions and expulsions when behavior problems come up.
  • Try making a bulletin board that shows how many home visits staff have made and how many parents have visited the school. Show families and teachers what your goal is and the progress you have made.
  • Check out these 19 tips for engaging families from EdChange.

Potential Barrier: My staff and/or I am uncomfortable talking about cultural differences (in race/ethnicity, social class, etc.) between our staff and the families we serve, and the way this discomfort might affect our use of discipline in the program.
Solution: That is ok! Many people feel uncomfortable talking about cultural differences. Discussion and reflection are key to building cultural awareness and creating a positive program/school climate, so your willingness to try is very important!

  • Check out this resource for educators leading dialogue and reflection about diversity and equity. It includes steps to help you prepare, icebreakers, ways to reflect, and group activities.
  • This resource from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is directed at teachers working in their classrooms, but these tips on how to feel confident creating a positive environment for discussing diversity can be helpful for talking to staff.
  • Start small and then grow! Begin a conversation by talking about the posters and books that are available at your program and how making them reflect the population you serve can make the program feel more welcoming. Check out this list of children’s books on bias, diversity, and justice.
  • You can also invite parents into the school to share something representative of their culture (such as a holiday tradition or a food) with staff to begin the conversation, and then as relationships are built over time, progress to discussing potentially more sensitive topics such as parenting practices and behavioral expectations. Discussions can be held between parents and staff, or just among staff.

Where do I go for more resources?


Albright, M., Weissberg R., & Dusenbury, L (2011). School-family partnership strategies to enhance children’s social, emotional, and academic growth. Retrieved from https://www.cde.state.co.us/cdesped/school-familypartnershipstrategies

Gary, W.D., & Witherspoon, R. (2011). The power of family school community partnerships: A training resource manual. Retrieved from http://www2.nea.org/mediafiles/pdf/FSCP_Manual_2012.pdf

Henderson, A.T. (2012). Family-school-community partnerships 2.0: Collaborative strategies to advance student learning. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/Family-School-Community-Partnerships-2.0.pdf

Hoover-Dempsey, K.V. & Sandler, H.M. (1997). Why do parents become involved in their children’s education? Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 3-42.

Mapp, K.L. & Kuttner, P.J (2013). Partners in education: A dual capacity-building framework for family-school partnerships. Retrieved from http://www.sedl.org/pubs/framework/

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Policy Statement on Family Engagement from the Early Years to the Early Grades. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/ecd/16_0152reportclean_logos.pdf

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