Community is something that every human craves. We all need a community to empathize with, laugh with, and go through phases of life with. During the daycare and preschool years, parents desire a relationship with their child’s teacher as well as with other parents. It’s important that as an educator, you foster an environment that welcomes families to hang out and make relationships.
Fun ways to create more family engagement in your program
It is so important to have opportunities both during and after school hours where families can get together and have some fun. Events like “movie night,” “holiday craft night,” make it fun for parents/caregivers to bring their children and bond with each other. None of these events have to cost a lot of money, and they all foster community for everyone. It’s also helpful to allow parents/caregivers to volunteer in the classroom when they can. Helping with class parties, fun-themed events, or even being a “mystery reader” are great ways to increase engagement. Another great way to include parents/caregivers is to find out what talents they have during your “back to school night.” Then, throughout the year, when you are teaching a certain theme, you can request certain family members to come in and be your guest to share their “expertise.” (I.e.- if a parent is a scuba diver, and you’re teaching about the ocean, have them come in and share about their experience, show their gear, etc.)
Even though this requires more work and effort, I promise you that these events are fun and parents/caregivers will want to help! At my center, I like to have staff each pick one event to be the chairperson for and that helps everyone share the workload.
Host a “back to school” night
Every fall, we love hosting “Back to School Night.” The last two years were virtual, but we can’t wait to do it in person this coming fall. All parents/caregivers come to this event (without children), and we start all together in the auditorium where I speak to everyone about whatever is important for me to address. Then, family members are given two 20-minute sessions where they can visit their child’s classroom and hear about the school year ahead. The second session is for parents/caregivers who have a second child to hear from their teacher, too.
Why is this important? This is the one time where you can get everyone in the same room and give them a message to all get on the same page. This is also a time that each educator can set expectations for the year. Parents/caregivers always appreciate this event, and we usually have close to 100% participation! Having this event really sets the tone for the rest of the year and helps parents/caregivers to meet each other and all of the staff.
Something I love to offer to parents/caregivers is some type of parenting group or book club where they can get together, read the same book on their own time, and meet weekly or quarterly to discuss. This helps families bond, learn, and grow! I always offer childcare for these groups if they do not meet during the day. Since most of these parents/caregivers are working, we typically offer them on the weekends or a weeknight. Lately, we have been meeting on Zoom, and it’s been so nice to hear everyone’s point of view and learn from each other.
Hosting seminars for parents/caregivers is something that is so nice and needed. Families are always searching for answers about specific topics and phases of life that their children are in. Topics like technology, potty training, first aid/CPR, mental health, etc. will be so helpful for the families at your center. You can bring in an expert, watch clips of a Ted Talk, or lead a topic yourself if you have the expertise in it. This can be something that families pay for to help offset the cost of bringing in an expert, and sometimes it can be free if you are leading it yourself or show a clip of a seminar. Allow time for debriefing and discussion, and make sure you send a survey to find out what worked well and what could have been better.
Regularly showcase children’s work
When parents/caregivers see their child’s work hanging in the classroom, hallway, and in their daily reports, it helps them feel included and part of the community. When they can see their child’s work displayed, it gives them a sense of belonging as well as pride in their child. It sends the message that you care and that you are proud of their work as well. Sending photos and videos of their work throughout the day is a bonus. This gives parents/caregivers a chance to save this work and have a portfolio to look back on.
Daily communication through an app
One of the best ways to engage families is through an electronic app. Using an app rather than paper not only makes it easier, but it makes it more fun to interact with families. Apps like HiMama allow parents to “like” and “comment” on photos as well as message back and forth with educators. This is also a safe place to send a message that might be more serious or concerning. However, I always recommend that conversations that are serious happen face to face or at least over the phone, and never over email or electronically.
Daily communication is crucial for families to feel seen and heard, and this is a great way to have this. Be sure to upload individual and group photos so that parents/caregivers can get a good idea of what their children are doing throughout the day. If you only post individual “selfies” or if you only post group photos, families won’t be able to get a sense of what is happening. It’s helpful to have a caption to explain each photo, too.
Have an open-door policy
Obviously, this section will be different for everyone, depending on where you are in this pandemic. But I wholeheartedly believe that every director and even every classroom should have an “open door” policy. Now, this doesn’t mean you would let strangers in. Obviously, only those cleared to be in the building should be allowed. What this does mean is that families should be able to pop in and say hello, ask questions, and make small talk when it is appropriate. When you allow for this, parents/caregivers will feel welcome and build a rapport. Then, when you do have to have serious conversations, it will be easier since you already have that foundation. It takes some sacrifice and adjustment, but I have found it to be the only way to foster an engaging environment. It’s the difference between feeling like a big family and feeling like a business.
Host “parents night out” multiple times per year
A few times a year, we love to host a “Parents Night Out.” Sometimes we charge parents if it is a fundraiser and sometimes we offer it for free. We set a date and have parents drop their children off for 3-4 hours while they go out on a date! We feed the kids, play with them, change them, and usually end with a movie in their jammies. Parents LOVE this event and always look forward to it. The best is when we see parents drop the kids off and go out TOGETHER. It shows that the community we’ve wanted to build is happening.
Create an advisory council that consists of parents
Having an advisory council is something that can really help strengthen your program and add depth to it. When I started my daycare, I had no clue what I was doing. I had my master’s in education, but I knew nothing about running a business! That’s when I started an advisory council. I asked parents of different backgrounds to join my advisory team. They did not serve as a board, but they did serve as a resource and mentors for me. I had a lawyer, educator, financial advisor, and business consultant on my team. I didn’t want more than four, and I wanted to make sure I had men, women, and parents of different ethnicities. The way I run this team is by invitation only, and we meet quarterly. I’m not going to lie- I was SO nervous when we first started this. But after meeting a few times and giving each person a clear role, we went from a struggling new daycare to a thriving business with a waiting list. It was amazing. When you have a parent advisory council, it’s important to have job descriptions and a clear ending to the term. My advisory team serves for one full year and then can reapply for two more. They cannot serve longer than three years. This has been a helpful way to allow parents to step down when they want after a year and let them go when it’s been too long.
Send out surveys multiple times per year
Feedback is super important, and sometimes we avoid it because we don’t want criticism. Ellen DeGeneres said it best when she said, “sometimes you can’t see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others.” We have to allow parents to voice their concerns and opinions and allow for it to be constructive. A few times a year, I send out a survey to parents that is anonymous. It allows for them to share what is working well, what is missing or confusing, and what they would like to see added to the program. Be open to the feedback and try not to take anything too personally. It will only make you a stronger and better program for it. This does not mean that you will change everything based on what a few “squeaky wheels” might say. It just means that you will take all of the surveys together and see if there are any commonalities, both positive and negative, to discuss and assess.
All of these ideas start and end with the leadership of your program. It is important that the director offers opportunities throughout the day, week, and year for families to interact with you, the staff, and other families. I know it is hard to imagine all of these things while we are still dealing with a pandemic, but as it starts to get in our rearview mirror, you’ll be able to implement more and more of these. Having these ten strategies in place will 100% make all the difference for your families. In order to get beyond feeling like a business and more like a family, these are great strategies to get there!