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March 15, 2012
Giving Children and Families a Head Start: Research-based Tools for Parent and Family Engagement in Early Childhood
Voices from the Field
Kiersten Beigel, MSW, is the Family and Community Partnerships Specialist for the Office of Head Start in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As a social worker, I believe that people are shaped by their relationships within different social contexts. For the infant, toddler, or preschooler, that context is largely the family. For the family, that context is largely their network of extended family members and the community. One of the most lasting ways to support children’s lifelong learning is to ensure that early childhood programs build effective relationships with families and community partners in order to support the interests, needs, and aspirations of families.
Head Start was founded in 1965 to give economically disadvantaged children a “head start” on kindergarten. What began as a five-week summer program has since grown into a comprehensive year-round support system for young children and their families. While the focus remains on school readiness, Head Start and Early Head Start programs also support broader social and cognitive development and provide health, nutrition, and social services to both children and their families. At the center of this is the idea that children develop in the context of their families and culture, and that parents must be respected as the primary educators of their children. At Head Start, we engage families as nurturers, teachers, dreamers, goal-setters, leaders, and advocates. These relationships ideally equip families with the information and the strategies they need to support their children’s educational experiences and to inform their future partnerships with teachers and administrators.
Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, Director at the Office of Head Start (OHS), explains, “Families play a critical role in helping their children be ready for school and for a lifetime of academic success.” She adds, “We [at Head Start] want to support the relationships between children and their families in an inclusive way, and work with children’s caregivers to reinforce the learning that goes on during a typical Head Start or Early Head Start day.”
To effectively engage families, strategies need to be broad and inclusive, and as diverse and varied as the families and communities served by Head Start across the nation, tribes, and territories. As such, OHS has invested in research-based resources that can assist programs with implementing systemic, integrated, and comprehensive approaches to parent, family, and community engagement.
|The National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement
In October 2010, OHS funded the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (NCPFCE) to help identify, develop, and disseminate evidence-based best practices to Head Start/Early Head Start programs. The Center’s work focuses on sharing practices that strengthen families and communities in order to support the positive growth and development of young children. The NCPFCE is a partnership between the Brazelton Touchpoints Center at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Family Research Project, with the Council of Chief State School Officers, National PTA, and Save the Children as active members of the leadership team.
In September 2011, OHS worked with the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement to develop the Head Start Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) Framework. The PFCE Framework provides programs with a relationship-based, research-informed, organizational guide for implementing relevant PFCE standards and practices. Since its release, OHS has received a lot of feedback from programs about the Framework. For many programs, it reinforces what they are already doing well, while also highlighting areas that they may have been overlooking. The Framework has also prompted questions about how to measure progress toward family outcomes and about the best approaches to understanding family progress and child progress in tandem.
Head Start programs are using the PFCE Framework in various ways. A few programs have told us how the Framework is helping them think about ways to involve teaching staff in family engagement practices so that family engagement is not the work of the social services team alone. Other programs are cross-walking the Framework with other documents, such as program strategic plans, and applying the Framework to activities, such as self-assessment processes and continuous improvement.
The PFCE Framework is not only for Head Start and Early Head Start programs; it can be adapted for use by any early childhood program, elementary school, or educational agency. In fact, early education leaders in the states of Maryland, North Carolina, and Rhode Island have proposed using the Framework in the implementation of their Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge work related to engaging and supporting families. The Framework cites elements that all educational institutions have in place. For instance, the PFCE Framework names leadership, continuous improvement, and professional development as three important program foundations for achieving systemic, integrated, and comprehensive PFCE. All schools have administrators and school boards (leadership), evaluation practices (continuous improvement), and teacher trainings (professional development) in place as existing structures.
Below (Figure 1) is one example from the Framework of how these three types of structures can be used in support of a specific PFCE outcome—family well-being.
|Outcome||Indicator||Foundation Areas and Related Strategies|
|Family well-being||Parents and families are safe, healthy, and have increased financial security.||
• Program Leadership
• Continuous Improvement
• Professional Development
• Ensure staff members have appropriate training and supervision and manageable caseloads.
• Collect data for individual families and aggregate it so that programs can review the effectiveness of family services.
• Gain knowledge about mental health, child development, and a variety of parenting practices, including unique ways to engage fathers.
In addition to these structures, the PFCE Framework also highlights four key factors (or “impact areas,” as they are called in the Framework) in parent and family engagement:
By highlighting these aspects of family and community engagement, the Framework alerts Head Start programs, early education programs, and elementary schools to the best practices and most important organizational structures needed to engage families and support their children’s early learning.
In January 2012, the National Center released a new resource entitled Using the Head Start Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework in Your Program: Markers of Progress. This Guide defines indicators for each of the elements in the PFCE Framework. It allows users to identify aspects of their work that can be strengthened, and it offers ideas for new and innovative ways to enhance efforts. It is a valuable tool for supporting information-gathering that can be used to set priorities, determine goals, and develop a strategic set of actions for improving PFCE practices. It, too, can be adapted for use with other early childhood providers and elementary schools.
The systemic, integrated, and comprehensive approach that is brought to life in these tools brings vision and innovation to the field of early childhood, and it represents an opportunity to increase understanding in early childhood settings about how to implement successful strategies for parent and family engagement. These tools clarify the importance of the roles that various staff play in supporting effective engagement. In addition, the tools are good communication mechanisms for community partnerships, particularly between early childhood providers and local educational agencies. Most importantly, the actions that result from using these tools will increase the likelihood of better outcomes for children and families.
Please visit the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement webpage to download the key resources discussed in this article:
This resource is part of the March 2012 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.