Both the early care and education (ECE) and home visiting (HV) fields build on the central role of families in support of their children’s development; however, the fields differ in how they incorporate families into services. Home visiting works with parents to improve outcomes for their children, while early care and education is typically more child-focused, with parents supporting and extending what occurs at programs. Both fields are beginning to recognize that family engagement occurs along a continuum, which distinguishes between more and less meaningful ways to engage families. Extending this continuum can allow HV and ECE providers to engage families more authentically in services.
In home visiting, family engagement encompasses several ways of describing families’ participation in services. These can include the number of home visits, the time span that families receive services, or how actively families participate in visits (as rated by their home visitor). A typical way to think about family engagement in home visiting is to determine the percentage of families that are enrolled and receiving visits at the one-year mark. One way for HV programs to increase engagement is to assure that the goals of home visitors and families are aligned.
In early care and education, family engagement encompasses families’ participation in activities that support children’s early learning—either at the program site or at home—or their relationships with providers and teachers. Family engagement can refer to the frequency of parents’ activities to support children’s learning, relationship-building activities (e.g., parent-teacher communication), or the quality of the family-provider relationship. One way programs can increase engagement is to establish a welcoming environment—for example, by offering an open invitation for parents to visit the center, encouraging parent input into educational programming, and including parents on advisory boards.
Both the HV and ECE fields increasingly view opportunities for family engagement along a continuum, and increasingly focus on meaningful ways to engage families. An example of meaningful engagement in home visiting is this Engagement Continuum, which focuses on how programs can successfully retain families in services and improve the likelihood that they will complete the program. In this model, families are considered meaningfully engaged when they use the skills learned in the program.
In early care and education, the idea of a continuum reflects an interest in shifting from parent involvement to family engagement—i.e., a shift from focusing on program activities that families can be involved in to a goal-directed relationship between the provider and parent. The idea of meaningful engagement centers on a sense of shared responsibility for children’s learning and development, as well as progress toward families’ identified goals.
A next step for both fields is to extend the family engagement continuum to include engaging families more authentically in services. This step emphasizes understanding families’ values, beliefs, goals, strengths, and needs, and incorporating these into service delivery. To engage families more authentically, we must consider how we define family engagement and how we can better reach families. Both fields generally think about family engagement as occurring at the location of services (i.e., at the ECE program or during the home visit). A focus on these types of opportunities restricts both the location and timeframe in which family engagement can occur. Historically, families in both home visiting and early care and education have reported barriers to these engagement opportunities, including time constraints, work conflict, and access or transportation issues.
By expanding the continuum of family engagement to encompass partnerships that center on communication as a means to achieve child and family goals, we can be more flexible and innovative in how we engage families. To advance relationships and trust through more, and more diverse, goal-oriented communications, we can use technology such as text messaging or social media. For example, HV programs increasingly use text messaging to communicate with parents between home visits and to deliver content, reminders, and tips. This technology could be expanded to solicit input and feedback from families as well. In early care and education, text messaging is sometimes used during enrollment or to communicate during special situations. Text messaging can also be used to solicit family feedback through surveys. Both fields can use social media platforms to share information and engage families, either privately or more widely (for those families who are interested) using chat groups as learning communities.
If early care and education and home visiting continue to expand how they authentically engage families in services, both fields will benefit. Families will benefit, too, especially if they feel welcomed to engage more meaningfully in services; this, in turn, may increase initial uptake and sustain engagement over longer periods.