Family Engagement In Early Childhood Settings

Check all episodes of The Preschool Podcast

Episode 167 – As much as early education is all about working with kids, it is also about supporting young parents in their journey of raising their child. In this episode, we interview Mary Muhs, the Department Chair of Early Education at Rasmussen College, on how to build a strong family culture at your program. She shares how family relationships can influence the quality of your work with the kids in the classroom and strategies on communicating with parents that center on relationship-building.  


Episode Transcript

Mary MUHS:

And that way you’ll just always continue to grow and the parents will see that you’re trying and that you’re really working to engage them. And they’ll work to engage with you back because they see it as a give-and-take and a positive for their child.


Mary, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Oh, thank you for having me!


We are delighted to have on the show today Mary Muhs. She is the department chair of early-childhood education at Rasmussen College. And we’re here today to talk to Mary about family engagement. She’s also the author of a book about Family Engagement In Early Childhood Settings, so she knows a lot of the ins and outs about this very important subject. Welcome to the show, Mary.


Oh, thank you, I’m glad to be here.


So, we always like to learn a little bit about our guest’s background. Why did you get an early-childhood education? And how did you get to be working as department chair at a college in early-childhood education?


Sure, wow. I actually fell into early-childhood education a little accidentally when I was in college. I was planning to be a speech communication major – potentially even broadcast journalism – and found myself doing a summer camp in the summer, between college years, teaching drama to camp kids at a local child day camp in my city. And I just absolutely loved working with the children. That was just inspiring to me. And I enjoyed it so much that I started looking for courses, [in] my junior year, in early-childhood education at the college that I was at the University of Illinois in Urbana [Illinois].

And I started taking child development classes, added that to my minor, I guess you could say, and started taking those my junior year and into my senior year and ended up graduating still with a speech communication major but with an early-childhood education certificate – really a minor in early-childhood education. And so that was kind of my inroads into early-childhood.

And after that I started working in early-childhood programs, both for-profit [and] not-for-profit programs in different parts of the country and then I found myself as a center director for a very large early-childhood program. And I loved it so much that I was getting tired. I really found that my love of children was still there but I really found the love of teaching adults, working and training and professional development.

And so after earning my master’s degree in 2006 I decided that I wanted to take that master’s degree and translate it into teaching college courses. And it was kind of accidental there, too – I actually went in to apply to teach a course while still working as a center director during the day and teaching a course at night. And I found that they had a position open for a coordinator for the early-childhood education program in that area.

And so I decided to take the leap and I found myself at Rasmussen College as a local program coordinator for early-childhood education and just grew that opportunity into a national position as department chair for all the early-childhood education programs at Rasmussen College.


Very cool. And you’ve gone on to write a book, as I mentioned, about family engagement. What inspired you to write a book, first of all, and, second of all, about that subject?


Sure. I have loved to write since I was a little kid. I remember writing a book when I was in I think third grade or so – that was for a book-writing contest in my school and being able to go to a state competition and then share my children’s book with everyone. And I loved it then but I just never got into it as I grew older. And it was always one of those lofty goals: “You know, I’d like to be an author someday.”

And I ran into a colleague of mine who works with Redleaf Press and she said, “If you have ideas send them on.” And so I was lucky enough to get my idea accepted. And family engagement has always been something that is, just like working with adults and teachers, it’s working with adults as the parents or as the families of the children and it’s very similar. And we come to the world not having parenting classes in order to become a parent; you kind of get them by default and learn while you’re doing. So, you need as much help as you can get and early-childhood educators are on the forefront of that.

So, family engagement has always been something that I’ve enjoyed looking into, enjoyed exploring and enjoyed supporting the parents of the programs of which I led or worked in as I grew in the field. So, that’s kind of where I came from in writing this book, Family Engagement In Early Childhood Settings.


Cool! So, tell us some of your just general thoughts about family engagement in early-childhood setting. What are some of the things that childcare programs are struggling with? How can we think about this subject? How can we approach it, maybe in the context of how the book is designed or how it’s written in terms of a framework or anything like that?


Sure. Family engagement is a really broad topic and sometimes we refer to it as “parent engagement” and how to get parents involved in early-childhood programs and get them involved with their children. And it’s just a huge topic but it’s often one that gets kind of set aside and it kind of ends up to be an afterthought. We have policies and procedures in working with families. We offer them the curriculum nights or we offer them potlucks to come by and celebrate a holiday like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or do a picnic outside in the afternoon in the summertime.

But do we really engage them? Do we really get them to be a part of every day, rather than just kind of coming in from outside and peeking in for a second and then going back to their role as parents? We all are kind of doing this together. And I remember a while ago hearing the old saying, as well as reading books and articles, about, “It takes a village to raise a child.” And I really am a firm believer in that because parents can’t do it alone. I mentioned, we don’t get courses or books in how to raise children so we kind of have to look to others to help us do that as parents.

So, when we created the Family Engagement In Early Childhood Settings [book] it was created as a “quick guide”, as they call it. And it’s a way for people that are looking for support in how to build better family engagement opportunities in their programs, how to communicate better with families, how to handle it when families are more challenging to work with –perhaps they have less time or there have more obligations – how do you help support their needs?

It was a way for them to quickly look at this book and say, “Okay, I’m not going to be able to read an entire novel about this but I can look quickly at page 23 and find this information.” And practical things that then they can do in their programs right away to help improve that engagement opportunity with their families.


So, let’s talk about that a little bit. What are some other practical things that I can think about doing as a director or a teacher in an early-childhood [education] setting?


You know, the most practical thing is to think about it as a continuum, that it’s not just something that we’re going to call in families to come and do that little event on that holiday. Instead we want to develop a relationship with that family and we want to get to know them as soon as possible. So, even from before a family starts you have to kind of think of that continuum.

So, if a family is looking for a program to bring their children to they need to have that connection right away. So, even something so simple as making sure that your website, if you have a website – you need to have a website in this day and age – is updated, interactive, has information that will really help that family see your program’s personality, your program’s culture, what makes your program special and unique and ready for their child.

And then looking at social media opportunities and engaging families even before they join your program in social media so that they can see the life of your program and really understand, what other families go there? What other types of activities do you have? Who are the teachers? What types of creative events do you have for the children on a daily basis?

So, it starts really with that first impression, which is often before we even know them. So, it makes it really hard to be a director of a program and really build that engagement. But it really is starting from that early in a program or in a family’s life cycle with a program. And then, of course, it’s everything during the family’s life with you from deep communication, give-and-take communication, to providing them in’s to be able to participate with their child in daily activities, including them in the development of their child and what types of goals they want to have for their child and what goals you think their children are ready for.

So, it’s really an ongoing process from before you even know they exist as a family at your program all the way until they leave, graduate or move to a different program down the line.


And what about training of your teachers in the classroom on this? Is that something that you touch on at all your book?


We do talk about it in the book because it is something that… it’s almost a way to sort of instead of having a training that tells people what to do with families – and we can do that and we do have many references in the book specifically about communicating with parents and different strategies and styles for communicating with them – but it’s really also an ongoing practice.

So, it’s a great opportunity. And building family engagement is a great opportunity for reflective practice. And we like to think of reflective practice as a way for ongoing, continual improvement.

And so when you’re having a reflective practice opportunity is during staff meetings every week, sitting down with your teachers and saying, “So, how’d it go this week with families? Did you have any interactions that were particularly helpful, exciting or really stimulating? Did you have any activities or conversations with parents that were troublesome or challenging? How can we do that? What did you think about it? What made you think it was a challenge? What can we change the next time?”

And really thinking about it on an active basis, not just at a training session once or twice a year but kind of on a constant rotation so that you can quickly apply those things to the next conversation you would have with that family or with another family in a similar situation. And that way you’ll just always continue to grow and the parents will see that you’re trying and that you’re really working to engage them. And they’ll work to engage with you back because they see it as a give-and-take and positive for their child.


Yeah, and I like the way you’ve kind of positioned is around sort of one-time trainings or policies, procedures or checklists, versus a continuum, which is all about a relationship. And it’s something much deeper than that. And certainly that’s very sensical to do it that way.

And one of the things that I’ve struggled with a little bit – and of course at HiMama in our software we’re all about family engagement – but we do run into a challenge sometimes in early-childhood education where directors are very sensitive to what information is shared with families and when and why. Is that something that you’ve run into in your experience as well?


I can totally understand that. And being a director for many years, you want to be really careful with what you share with parents and how you share it with parents because you know that it may be interpreted improperly or incorrectly. Or, it could be shared at a time that they weren’t ready to hear it. Or, it might not be something that we can really make that determination of.

And one thing I always think about it is, when you are working with a child who is showing signs of delays in development or challenges in development and you see it, as an early-childhood provider, you’ve been watching this child day-in day-out for four weeks or months on end and you’ve seen this child’s developmental delays or developmental challenges right in front of you and you’ve got observations to show and you have examples to share.

But, sharing that with a parent has to be done at the right time so that the parent is ready to hear you so that you’re ready to share it and that then you have something to do about it. So, it’s not one of the things you could just throw out there at pickup time at the end of the night –  “Oh, by the way, I think I’ve noticed some developmental challenges with your child,” because that wakes up that whole parent sensitivity side where suddenly Mama Bear or Mother Tiger comes out or Father Tiger comes out and says, “I’ve got protect my child and you’re saying my child’s not perfect.”

And I think that that’s the challenge, as a director, is balancing what you share and when you share it and how you share it. And I think if you’ve developed a relationship with that family, that’s real give-and-take from Day One, from the very first time they walk into your program, and you are already asking them lots of questions and you’re already asking them to share experiences with you and their observations with you and you’re sharing them back.

Those conversations that are tougher will be a little easier to have down the line. But you still need to share them at the right time. And so often we think the only time we can share is that drop-off in the morning or pick-up in the evening. And setting aside time to have a conversation with the family is just as important.

And I think we talk about in early-childhood having parent-teacher conferences, similar to how they do in public school or older grades. And that is a great idea and it should definitely be done. But when you think of parent-teacher conferences… I don’t know about you, but I never liked them as a child and my parents didn’t necessarily go. Even though I was a good student I was a very private student and I didn’t necessarily want them to hear about my day from my director or my teacher’s perspective.

And so for a parent who is experiencing their first parent teacher-conference for their two-year-old child or their preschool child, that’s intimidating for some parents. “Oh my gosh, what are they going to tell me about my child?” That’s not good, right? And that’s not how it should be. It should just be kind of conversations all the time with families where you set up, “Hey, you know what? You’ve been here three months. Let’s sit down and have a conversation about how things are going. It doesn’t have to be a formal meeting; it doesn’t have to be a formal conference. Let’s just sit down and share about how your child is doing; what we’ve noticed; what you’ve noticed.”

When you do that more naturally and less formally it really opens up communication. And those difficult messages or those messages it might be nervous to share are much easier to deliver. And you’ve got the times to do it that are much more advantageous for the family. And they’re more likely to accept them than they might be if you just kind of sprung it on them at their annual parent teacher conference. I hope I answered your question.


Yeah, you can almost see an analogy, too, on the business side of things, with performance reviews with staff, right? It’s kind of the same idea. Like, if you just have a performance review once a year that can be quite stressful and you might surprise people with information. But if you’re having that conversation constantly and you’ve got a great relationship that’s built on trust you can have those conversations anytime and you should be in, sort of, I guess, the same idea. And that’s why I think your point is going full circle, back to the point about having that relationship, just makes it so much easier to have those conversations.


It does. And relationships take time and that’s always our challenge, I think, in this world and society and in early-childhood, is we don’t think we’ve got the time to build those. But it doesn’t have to take years to build that relationship. It could take just weeks; it could take days. But it does start from the very beginning.

And parents are those Mama and Papa Bears – they want to protect their child. So, they’re going to be instantly looking for that connection to keep their child safe and secure and cared-for. And so if you have to start at the very beginning to really build those relationships strong.


And as a teacher, a director of an early-childhood education program or classroom, we’re super-duper busy. Why should we prioritize family engagement over all the other million-and-one things that we have on our plate on any given day?


Oh, that’s a really good question. I think we need to prioritize it for a couple of reasons. One reason is that our business is a business. So, early-childhood education, while it is a service and we’re providing a service to the child and their family, we’re still operating a business. And whether you’re for-profit or not-for-profit, that doesn’t matter. You still have a client. And that’s the family.

And it’s not the child who decides to come to your program, it’s the family that decides to come to your program. And however that family is made up, whether it’s grandparents, whether it’s guardians, whether it’s biological parents or adoptive parents, that doesn’t even matter. We have a multitude of family relationships and styles nowadays. And it’s really that it’s the family is contracting a service and a business to provide care for their child.

And so if you really want to have a successful business as a center director or as a business owner or even as a teacher you want to make sure that the client is happy. It doesn’t mean they’re always right, just like you’re not always right. But it does mean that you need to do whatever you can to keep them satisfied with what they are paying for.

The other thing is, I think, families can also make or break that child’s relationship with you. It’s so easy for a child to follow their parents’ lead or their family’s lead. It’s who they trust; it’s their first teacher, their first caregiver. And they’re going to trust that person. And if that person is nervous around you or doesn’t trust you for some reason, whatever the reason that is, the child’s not going to, either. And it’s going to really harm that relationship you have with the child, which is the most important relationship you can have.

And so it really kind of should be a three-way street: a child, educator and family. We should all be working together in that kind of triangular shape or three-legs of a stool. And if one leg isn’t there then the stool is going to fall over. And it’s the same kind of idea in early-childhood. They’re that important. And we sometimes just kind of forget that; for whatever reason, we forget it.


Yeah, and I think there’s an increasing amount of research that supports [the idea] that involving the families is so important. And at the end of the day it’s all about supporting the children’s development. And of course families are going to be critical to that, both at home and also being involved in what happens in the childcare programs. So, I think that’s very well-said.

Now, if I’m listening to the Podcast and I want to get in touch with you, Mary, to continue this conversation, learn more about family engagement and pick your brain about that, how can I best get in touch with you?


Well, you can email me. I’m always open to conversation starting in email. I’m not too good at any kind of voicemail opportunities these days; I’m really bad at returning any messages. But, e-mail is a great way. And you can email me at You can also check out the book, Family Engagement in Early Childhood Settings, on Redleaf Press’s website []. You can purchase it there as well as a lot of other books that you might find interesting and helpful to your work in early-childhood.


Awesome. Mary, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom on family engagement. It’s been a pleasure having you on the Preschool Podcast!


Oh, thank you so much, I’ve enjoyed it. I hope to be back someday!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!