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All in the Family

Engaging Families in Children’s Early Learning

Ask any parent, teacher, or researcher, and they will tell you the same thing—education starts, and extends, well beyond the walls of the classroom.  Parents are children’s first teachers, and families play a crucial role in education, especially for the youngest learners.  Noting the importance of this, the week of September 26-30 is being celebrated as Head Start Family Engagement Week.

Since its beginning, the federal Head Start program has made community and family engagement a key piece of its efforts to prepare at-risk children for school. Of course, other early childhood educators also emphasize engaging parents.  NAEYC and Pre-K Now collaborated on the paper Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood Education Programs: An Integrated Review of the Literature, which provides guidance on family engagement based on a review of a range of literature. They recommend that early learning programs:

  • Integrate Culture and Community: Utilize role models of diverse backgrounds; translate materials in to the native languages of participating families; provide an interpreter; interact with families and children within communities, outside of the classroom environment.
  • Provide a Welcoming Environment: have staff available at the entrance to guide families; post clear signs; encourage parents to provide feedback through a variety of avenues.
  • Strive for Program-Family Partnerships: include families in decision-making regarding both their individual child and the program; provide resources to be used at home that connect with classroom activities.
  • Make a Commitment to Outreach: when possible, make home visits so teachers can learn from families; provide education activities that families can do at home.
  • Provide Family Resources and Referrals: provide preventative health and family services, including transportation and child care; provide opportunities for families in parenting and adult education classes.
  • Set and Reinforce Program Standards: emphasize outreach; provide ongoing professional development to expand culturally-sensitive, evidence-based family engagement practices.

During the 2009-2010 school year, NIEER collected data on family engagement policies in state-funded pre-K programs. The table below presents a list of family engagement activities and the number of programs that require them.

Table 1: Family Engagement Activities in State-Funded Pre-K Programs, 2009-2010

Family Engagement ActivitiesNumber of ProgramsPercent of Programs
Participating/volunteering in classroom or school events917%
Parent/family shared decision making and governance, parent advisory committee815%
Program orientation815%
Parent/family workshops611%
Family literacy activities59%
As per federal Head Start regulations59%
Parent/family education classes47%
Parent/family participation in determining activities/events47%
Specific activities are locally determined2648%
Other activities, beyond answer choices above1324%
Family engagement activities not required by state policy917%

* Note: Most programs require multiple family engagement activities; therefore the percentages do not total 100 percent.

Of the 54 programs profiled in the 2010 Yearbook, the most popular answer was “locally determined,” indicating that there is a great deal of variation in family engagement policy. Allowing local providers to determine their own family engagement activities allows for customization based on local needs, but there may be great inequality in the level of engagement from site to site. For more information on family engagement policies in state pre-K programs, see this blog post with data from the 2009 Yearbook.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.