Building a Family-Centered Early Childhood Program

A family centered early childhood program is about deepening trust

Check all episodes of The Preschool Podcast

Episode #93: Janis Keyser, Early Childhood Education Specialist and Author is here to talk about a family-centered approach to early learning. Imagine a parent who begins their journey in early childhood education with an open dialogue about how their child’s care can match the values, routine and goals of their individual family.

Establishing deep trust between child care professionals and parents is about expanding the relationship of parents in the classroom. How can we bring parents into the early learning experience to create a wholesome experience?

Resources in this episode:

– Learn more about the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #93 – Janis Keyser Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – April 21, 2018


So day one I want to say to parents: “Tell us about your childhood. Tell us about your family. What are you hoping for your child?” That would be a family-centered approach.


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Janis, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


I’m so glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me.


So Janis is here to tell us a bit more about building a family-centered early-childhood program. Janis, maybe you can start off telling us why you chose to write about this topic.


Well, I started in the profession as a young person. And I had studied early-childhood education probably because I was it difficult child myself – my family would have called me really difficult. I had big feelings; I had tantrums. Nobody knew quite what to do with me. And so I think as a young adult I was really curious about children and how they grow and how they learn and where that challenging behavior comes from. So I was really drawn into learning about children and working with children, hopefully to make fewer mistakes that some of the people around me had made.

And so I just jumped into the profession so excited about working with young children. And I shortly discovered that they had parents attached to them, and I didn’t quite know what to do with those parents. I think at first I wanted them to know everything I knew about young children. So I felt like kind of a crusader. My job was to tell parents all this information. And then they realized, “Wait a minute, these parents have a ton of information, goals, perspectives, values, things that they want for their children, and it’s not really my place to tell them what I think they should be doing.

And so that was an evolution in my own work. And I think it reflects an evolution in the larger profession where we’ve come from thinking our job is parent education, maybe parent involvement, maybe they can come and be in our centers and do what we tell them to do for a little bit, all the way to what I think of as family-centered care. And I was inspired by Ellen Galinsky’s work around thinking about really being partners with families in a significantly different way than we had thought about before.

And so I began that journey. And in the meantime, just to mention that I was a teacher I knew a lot about young children, and then one day I became a parent. And I was so incredibly humbled by that experience. So all that stuff I mean about young children, being a parent is really different than being a teacher and an educator. And so – not that parents aren’t teachers – but in terms of the profession of being a teacher, being a parent is really different.

So I was really humbled by that experience as well, and have been on this journey trying to explore what happens when we create family-centered care where families are equal partners in a relationship where there’s respect for family expertise and educator expertise, where two-way communication and shared decision making are an essential part of the relationship, where diversity is not only appreciated but invited and included and highlighted and honored.

And the other thing is that, I think also educators feel so responsible for everything in the relationship of the parent. Finding all the resources and supporting that parent in the best way they can. And when we open ourselves up to the idea that parents need community support, networks of support, then we can become facilitators of that kind of building so that parents are going to leave you, parents and children are going to leave your care. And if they leave with strong connections to a community of parents who know how to talk to each other, who have had experience of being supportive of each other, then they leave with all sorts of tools and resources that they get to continue to grow throughout their lives.


And so this is a lot of super-helpful information, I think, about distinguishing what a family-centered early-childhood program might look like. If you had to explain what it was in a nutshell, versus a non-family center early-childhood program, what would you say in explaining that in a couple of sentences?


So day one I want to say to parents: “Tell us about your childhood. Tell us about your family. What are you hoping for your child?” That would be a family-centered approach. A more traditional approach might be: “We have all these things to tell you about our program. You need to fill out these forms and you need to get this paperwork and you need to be on site at this time.” And so it has a different quality to it. And family-centered care, it also provides lots of information to parents. It’s not like it’s just this free-flowing dialogue. But that dialogue is central to the care and education of children in a family-centered program.


So it’s really, genuinely bringing them to the table and having authentic partnership and relationship with them through your work with the child as an early-childhood educator, and having that conversation with them on an ongoing basis. And so how do you go about doing that, then, as an early-childhood program? What steps should you and could you take to become more family-centered?


Every family is different, just like every child is different. And so some families are going to want to come and hang out in the classroom and participate and observe and see what you’re doing. And this is not only an incredible opportunity for the family to get to know your program, it’s an amazing opportunity for you to get to know the family and the ways that they interact with their children, and to know, “What does this child know in terms of communication systems, nurturance, care? What is this child’s life look like with his family, and how does that inform my practice with the child?”
It may be that you’re doing a social media post where you let me know what’s happening in the classroom, and maybe you’re using software to communicate back and forth with the families daily, drop-off and pick-up, how you staffed your programs so that the educators have time to talk with the families, not only to tell families about what’s been happening at school but to ask them, the families, what’s been going on at home.

The families involved in the curriculum process, when you do documentation of children’s work and investigation and exploration, is that documentation made visible to parents where they can reflect with you on, “What do we think children are learning? What questions are they asking? How can we extend this learning that they’re doing?” And using parents as thought partners and reflective practice partners in the care and education of their child, as well as just letting us know who their family is and who their child is.


It’s interesting because, as I reflect on what you’re saying it almost seems to be what’s really at the core of a lot of this is really wanting to bring families to the table and have that partnership, versus doing the things that you feel like you need to do to communicate information to them, for example. Is that sort of a fair statement?


Absolutely. And one of the things that we start with is, what are the advantages of family-centered care for children, for educators, for parents? And when understand that when children look at their relationship between their educator and their parent and they see that collaboration and they see that mutual respect, that strongly impacts their child’s sense of identity. The child doesn’t feel like, “I have to choose, am I going to my parents? Am I going to be with to my teacher? They’re in conflict with each other and I don’t know where I stand here.”

And then this family gets to enrich the program with full knowledge about who the family is and what’s important in the family, and how can we include those ideas and those values in the care that we provide for children? And how do we negotiate with them when the values and ideas are really different? How do we negotiate in a way that… there’s a concept called “Third Space”, which is if we listen very carefully to each other we can come up with an idea that is better than each of our ideas, but an idea that we can really agreeing on that’s going move the care and education of this child forward.

So I think a lot of educators are afraid of the connections with family. I think that they’re afraid that they might not know the answer to a question that a family asks, that they might not agree with something that the family wants to do. And then they don’t know for sure that they have the tools to really listen to that family really state that question and to find one kind of mutual agreement that then creates deeper trust in the relationship with the family.

And a child is watching that. Everybody is experiencing that. When the family more deeply trusts the program, the educator, the child thrives. And the educator feels more comfortable and has more resources available to them, as well as the family.


Yeah, so I think that’s a really key point here. So I just want to touch on a little bit further, which is I also think that one of the challenges for an early-childhood educator or childcare or an early-learning program generally is, there may be a fear of sharing too much information or what happens with the information that’s shared between families and childcare programs. What would you say to people working in early-childhood education that might have that fear of maybe communicating too much information, or they’re not sure what information they’re going to receive from families how what they might do with that information? What would your advice be to them?


Well, I think it’s about time, venue and skills. The time is always challenging because, by definition, the child is either with the parent or with the teacher. And so trying to find that kind of time to have those conversations, and some of them can happen right on the floor, and some of them can’t happen on the floor. We need to either have a spontaneous meeting that we set up with each other, or one of our regular touch points where we have conferences, or get off the floor and talk to each other.

And I don’t think it’s the quantity that educators are concerned about in terms of information, except for that time constraint. But I think they’re concerned about, “How do I tell a parent that their child is struggling with something? That their child is having behavior issues that we’re trying to think about?” And that goes back to the core of how we define a child who’s struggling. And so if we have a strong image of the child as competent and capable and self-motivated and interested and curious then we are more likely to describe that child’s behavior in that context…

“So it seems like the child becomes really interested in making connections with other children, and she’s trying all sorts of in the venues: she may grab a toy from somebody, today she actually bit somebody when she got really frustrated because it was clear she went to play with them and can quite figure out how to communicate that to them. So let’s talk about kind of what we think she’s working on and some of the strategies we’re putting in place here at the center of the program to help her learn how to be successful in her social investigation.”

And so if the teacher is able to convey the difficult behavior in a child development context and let the family know that there are strategies in place to support this child’s growth through this fairly predictable, fairly expected developmental behavior – or if it’s not developmental then we’ll talk about that, too – then the family is much more receptive to the information.

I think sometimes teachers get frustrated at the end of the day – they haven’t had a good break, they haven’t had a good chance to put that child behaviour in a larger perspective. And so they may vent in a way when the parent comes. And they may need to vent, but the parent isn’t the right place to do that venting about their own frustration.


Yes, and we’ve heard that from a parent on the Podcast previously, in terms of getting feedback from educators, which was really more just telling them that their child had problems. And as a parent you might know that – maybe you know or you don’t know – but it’s really, how can you help in providing that advice? What do we do about it as partners trying to work towards the best outcomes for the child? So I think that’s really helpful advice.

What about as an early-childhood educator, what are some of the other challenges I might face when working with families? So I think as a director or administrator of childcare early learning program, your role would be very central in making sure that you are communicating to your team that the family-centered approach or philosophy is a core part of what you do in your programs. That sort of top-down messaging I think is very, very important. And I really like your example of a new parent and asking them right from the start about any information they would like to share and contribute towards how we do things in the center and about their child as an individual, versus the forms and the administrative things and why we’re great as a program. That’s a really good example.

And so what about as an educator myself when I’m trying to build these relationships, what are some other challenges I might face? And how would I overcome those?


Well, I think that one of the things we’re afraid of often as educators is having parents in a classroom, or having parents share their ideas about what they think should happen in the classroom, or having parents create an in the classroom. And we all of a sudden feel like, “Oh no, we’re not in control anymore of what’s happening.” And if you develop those kinds of partnerships with them, say you plan together about the time in the classroom, and you support them and you also demonstrate and model some of the ways that we interact with children and engage in conversations about what our goals are or thinking is about those interactions.

But I think, classically, a parent wants to do a birthday party celebration in the school. And so there’s all kinds of what an educator thinks of as red flags coming down the pike. Are they going to want to have balloons? Cupcakes and party favors that may not be appropriate for the classroom? That much sugar might not be appropriate for the classroom. And so how you have that conversation with the parent where you celebrate with them their excitement about their child’s birthday and their desire to want to share that with other children in the classroom? That’s the sweetest thing.

“Let’s think about some of the kinds of things that your family does around birthday traditions and some of the kinds of things that we do in the classroom and see if we can find a good place to celebrate it with your child in the classroom in ways that are really significant to your family, and in ways that are going to enrich the classroom. Do you have a series of photos from when your child was a baby? Can we do a slideshow? Can we put together photos and share those with all the children in the classroom?”

And some of the things that we’ve done in our classroom is ask the child their favourite dinner item – not dessert, but dinner item. And then the children in the classroom make that item for the birthday child. So there’s all kinds of ways to find that middle ground that’s going to work for both our program and for the parents without making the parents feel wrong for what they want to do just because it’s different than what our program philosophy might be.


And I think with that very specific example, it’s a really good example of how having the trust and the partnership and the genuine interest in the families contributes to that, because I think it makes those conversations much easier for the educators to have with the families when they already have this authentic relationship with them, versus sort of a one-way communication thing that’s happening. And I think that really sort of brings that to life.

Now if we were to step back to a little bit more macro level on all of this – and you’ve been working in early-childhood education for some time, you’re also a mother and a grandmother – where do you feel we’re sitting right now in early-childhood education with having family-centered early-childhood programs? Are we pretty far along? Do we have a long way to go? And what are the things that need to happen to get us to be more family-centered in early-childhood education?


I think we’re pretty far along. I think we have a long way to go. So I think one of the things is that teachers just need support and tools. And many of us came into this profession because we were just so fascinated with children. But we didn’t come in because we like working with adults necessarily. And so where is the training around working with adults and seeing the partnership a different light and seeing the potential of the partnership in a different light? And certainly in infrastructure kind of way, do we incorporate that training in our early-childhood training programs and the colleges? Are there courses [on] working with families? Are there textbooks on family-centered care, building family-centered care in early-childhood programs?

And so that educators begin to not only learn about those skills but practice those skills, because practicing that kind of dialogue is difficult. And what’s so exciting is that when you practice it you often discover that you come up, you grow in a relationship with parents. You know you grow in a relationship with children. You know children have so much to teach us about who they are as learners and explorers. And as we look at each individual child we learn more about children every single day.

That same work is true in our partnerships with families. When we practice engaging in collaboration with families and thinking about solutions together our work deepens and it gets better and it gets more appropriate and authentic to the children that were caring for. So part of it is, part of it is inspiration as you talk about the excitement of the potential of that relationship.

And so much of that is infrastructure. Are we both training educators to have these skills, and are we building programs in which there’s time for educators to have time off the floor to communicate with parents, whether it’s using technology, whether it’s having sit-down conferences with them, whether it’s looking at the child’s portfolio together, whether it’s inviting parents into the classroom to observe and then talking about those, whether it’s inviting parents into our curriculum planning meetings – parents can both learn and offer in that process.

So I think there’s many, many levels we need to grow and absolutely advocate for educators getting the support that they need to develop both the passion and the skill for creating those kinds of collaborations and relationships with families.


Totally. And like you said it’s very exciting about what we could do with it. And for me this has been a really eye-opening conversation with you. And I think it really, to me, brought to light the changes that you could implement by changing your perception about your relationships with family. And some of the key things you talked about was having that genuine interest in families, and that “authentic” partnership, I really liked that word. And trust in the relationship – I think trust is a key part of this whole conversation. And having what you said as being thought partners and looking at your families as thought partners in your ultimate goal, which is improving developmental outcomes for the children in your classroom.

Janis, you’re also the author of a couple of books, one being, From Parents to Partners: Building a Family-Centered Early-Childhood Program. And also I think very relevant to our audience, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies For the First Five Years. A couple of really great resources for our audience there. Where can people go to find out more about those books, or perhaps get a copy for themselves?


Well, you know, I always want to encourage people to go to their local bookstores, and if they don’t have it they have those books they can order them for you. The From Parents to Partners was published by Redleaf Press, and it’s also circulated by NAEYC, or the National Association For the Education of Young Children. So you could find it in their bookstore. Additionally Amazon; there’s online booksellers that are easy to use where you can get the books as well.


Awesome. Thanks so much, Janis, very cool stuff. Janis, thank you so much for coming on the Podcast today. It’s been excellent having you.


I enjoyed talking to you, Ron.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.

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