As an early childhood researcher who studies family engagement in Head Start programs, I never tire of stories about how a relationship between a parent and an early care provider transformed a child’s life. Consider the parent who is struggling with a child’s overactive behavior, and the teacher provides suggestions on how to create new family routines to provide a more structured environment. Or a case where a child witnesses a violent car crash, and parents and teachers join together to provide consistency and support to alleviate the child’s trauma. I have heard teachers describe how parents have offered insights regarding their children, such as a favorite game or story used to soothe a child, and these tips have strengthened the teacher-child relationship. Central to these stories is the connection and collaboration between the adults in the home and in the early educational program, providing the foundation for the preschool child’s enhanced learning and growth.
Unfortunately, we have little empirical research on precisely how parents and teachers develop quality relationships, and how these relationships lead to quality experiences for children. The release of new measures of family and provider relationship quality, developed by Westat and Child Trends and funded through the Office of Head Start and Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation within the Administration for Children and Families, offers an exciting opportunity to understand the components of quality relationships between family members and early care and education providers, with the eventual goal of informing the process of family engagement efforts during early childhood. These new measures, developed through a rigorous four-year research and survey development process, assess provider/teacher knowledge, attitudes, and practices, as well as program environmental features that facilitate strong family and provider/teacher partnerships across different types of early care and education settings, including Head Start/Early Head Start, center-based programs, and family child care. They capture both parent and provider/teacher perspectives of their relationship and are appropriate for diverse populations, including low-income and high-income families and ethnically/racially diverse providers/teachers and families.
The mandate for a strong home-to-school connection is found in the origins of Head Start, the nation’s largest federally-funded school readiness program. From its inception in 1965, Head Start was organized around a dual-generation model of intervention. This means that both children growing up in poverty and their families were to receive supports and benefits from the program. Over the years, Head Start has offered a variety of ways to meet this commitment, such as by including family perspectives in the curriculum and classroom experiences, encouraging parental decision-making, and providing supports and opportunities for parents to achieve family goals. In 2011, the Head Start Parent, Family and Community Engagement Framework offered a comprehensive set of strategies to improve family engagement in Head Start Programs.
The new measures of family and provider/teacher relationship quality offer Head Start programs and other early care and education (ECE) providers ways to better measure and improve strategies of family engagement. I suggest that implementing these measures might translate into four different impacts:
1. These tools can assess relationship quality beyond actual contact hours, as it has been historically measured. Perhaps a family cannot interact with the teacher in traditional times or settings, but the family develops a strong relationship via other avenues, such as through sending notes or following through with school requests to contribute materials for learning.
2. These tools can assess relationship quality in terms of areas of improvement. Parents and teachers have different interactions with the same child. By having multiple forms of the family and teacher/provider measures, points of connection and disconnection between parents and teachers/ECE providers can suggest improvements.
3. These tools can assist teachers in developing a better understanding of family needs. For example, a parent with a history of interaction with ECE settings may approach a relationship with a care provider very differently from a parent with no prior experience, who is a recent immigrant and faces a language barrier.
4. These tools can inform program quality and help quantify, over time, what is working in an ECE setting and also what needs to change. Parents may value different things in a provider, and families have different needs. These tools could identify situations where skills of teachers need improvement via professional development and where parents may be in need of outside support (e.g., economic and/or health resources). The measures could help program administrators select professional development strategies that enhance the cultural competence and responsiveness of the providers they are supervising.
Decades of research within Head Start support the link between family engagement and greater parental satisfaction with children’s early educational experiences. Moreover, children with families who are involved go on to demonstrate stronger developmental and academic outcomes.Therefore, we should be encouraging ECE programs to measure and attend to the relationships between parents and providers. After all, the children are watching us to see how we work together. Let us offer a good example.
Dr. Mendez is an expert in the conduct of culturally competent research and service delivery, including the translation and validation of measures for Latino populations. She has extensive experience conducting intervention and longitudinal studies of ethnic minority preschool children and families. She has been the principal investigator on federal grants examining home-school relationships, family processes, and Head Start children’s academic and behavioral outcomes. She also serves as a Core Advisor for the Administration for Children and Families’ Center on the Early Care and Education of Dual Language Learners.