New Thinking about Family Involvement

How many of you remember your parents going to conferences or to Open House nights? How many of you remember your parent serving as a driver or chaperone for field trips or other events? Those are fairly common experiences. As you will read in the next part of this chapter, educators now think much more holistically about family involvement. There's compelling information from research about the importance of that involvement, and there are both state and national policies recognizing and recommending that involvement.

When families are involved, there is a communication to children about the value of their families. Sometimes, that value may not be what is intended. When Keeley's mom, Kerry, assists in the computer lab at her school, Keeley may think that the school believes that her mom is smart and that Keeley's teacher appreciates her mom. However, if Keeley only observes her teacher communicating with her mom to talk about Keeley's problems in class, there is another message. If the only request for help is to bake a cake for the school fair, there is yet another message.

All children want to feel pride in their families, and that pride will probably influence how the child feels about herself. Extensive research, much of it very current, shows that families are critical to children's success. We think that the findings of some of those studies are an important foundation to your philosophy about family involvement and to your decisions about the role families will play in your future work.

Research on Family Involvement

Significant research over at least 25 years has demonstrated that "family involvement is critical to the educational success of children" (Kniepkamp, 2005, p. 16). To elaborate on that finding is an additional conclusion from the research: "When schools acknowledge the relevance of children's homes and cultures and promote family involvement, they can develop a supportive environment for learning through meaningful activities that engage and empower families" (Ramey & Ramey, 1999; Rhodes, Enz, & LaCount, 2006). As our schools and programs become more diverse, that relevance of home and culture takes on greater importance and expands teachers' responsibilities for collaboration with families. Before we describe some approaches for developing partnerships and collaborations, we'll look at the benefits of children, families, schools and communities.

Benefits for Children as Students. "When schools and families work together, children have a much better chance for success, not just in school, but throughout life" (Henderson & Berla, 1996, p. 1). The benefits for children may look like they are too broad for your thinking about young children because they generalize across a wide age span (ECE to high school). But if you keep in mind that the patterns for success begin in early childhood, then the benefits have much relevance for work with young children. Those benefits of family involvement include:

  • Higher grades and test scores
  • Better attendance and more homework done
  • Fewer placements in special education
  • More positive attitudes and behavior
  • Greater enrollment in postsecondary education

These benefits are very much in parallel with the kind of results reported for high-quality early childhood programs such as Head Start and the Perry Preschool Project (Schweinhart, Barnes, & Weikart, 1993). Although few studies have followed young children to adulthood, those that have done so have similar findings. Many of the dispositions, feelings about learning and school, and commitment to study begin at home. The development of attitudes, values, and lifelong habits calls for a partnership between you, the early childhood educator, and the families of your children. What about the families? What happens to them when they are involved with schools or programs?

Benefits for Families.  The benefits to families are encouraging, and especially critical when you think about the difficult issues that today's families face while raising children. The major benefit to families is that they experience an increase of confidence in themselves and in their child's educational program. Because they feel valued by the educators working with their children, they see themselves as more capable of assisting those educators, but, even more importantly, they see themselves as more capable of helping their children at home. That kind of confidence is bound to increase the levels of involvement of families in children's education, and ultimately children's success in school.

One of the additional benefits that often accompanies family involvement is the increase in the number of parents who, themselves, pursue additional education. Head Start has consistently demonstrated this benefit. Although it has not been well documented, there are countless stories of parents and other family members who have experienced success as family participants in the Head Start programs. From there, many of those family members progress to workshops and training sessions, and again experience success. Once they complete this step, postsecondary education (community colleges and universities) doesn't look so daunting. In our travels to Head Start centers around the country, many an early childhood educator talks about how she or he started as a parent volunteer or a member of the advisory board. Those stories are definitely enough to encourage our work toward family involvement. But how about our programs and schools? What kind of benefits can we expect from family involvement?

Benefits for Schools and Communities.  The kind of benefits that schools gain include improved teacher morale and higher ratings of teachers by parents. It follows that if teachers are feeling valued and there is a culture of energy and positive thinking, children will be affected and learning will be enhanced. Other benefits include the kind of assistance and support families can provide to programs. Sometimes, it's an extra pair of hands; sometimes, it's resources from a parent's hobby, career, experiences, or travels. That support and help again influence the quality of educational opportunities that are offered to children. Ultimately, those schools have students with higher achievement, and everyone feels good about that kind of benefit. It makes sense that those schools would also have better reputations in the community. Most communities care about the education of the children who live in them. Those schools that produce high achievement will naturally be valued and supported by community members.

The research on family involvement leaves little doubt about the importance and the benefits of families' participation in children's education. Early childhood educators have traditionally encouraged parent involvement, so the transition may not be so difficult to involve families. Understanding families and communities is the starting point, and the goal of this chapter. From that understanding, it will be important to develop a philosophy about families. One of the basic tenets of successful family involvement approaches is that families are seen as the child's first teacher and are valued for their support and caring of their children. Think of families as learning environments for the children you meet.