Our public view of nuclear family structures has changed in the past decades – from a “typical” family, mom and dad married with children – to more diverse family structures. Today, many families are made up of LGBTQ+ parents, single parents, separated/divorced parents, stepfamily members, multiethnic family members, foster/adoptive family members, multigenerational families, biological guardians, etc. What hasn’t changed is the importance of families. Yet, how can we ensure that our early learning programs are valuing and including families with an array of diverse structures?
In our last Family Engagement tip, Family Partnerships III: Building Programs that Reflect Cultural Diversity, we touched on race, ethnicity, and culture as it pertains to welcoming families in our programs. This month, we continue the conversation on diversity by focusing on diverse family structures and how we can work alongside families to reflect on, prepare for, and create a welcoming environment for all families.
Where Are We Now? Reflecting With Families
As we highlighted throughout the Family Partnerships series, tapping into families’ insight helps us not only improve our early learning programs but also better serve and support families. Their perspectives can enhance our awareness of each family’s unique strengths and needs.
Let’s consider the following areas and related questions as we reflect upon our program’s inclusion and representation of diverse family structures, as inspired by Aimee Gelnaw at WelcomingSchools.org:
- How consistently does our program communicate to families how we are valuing them in our program, in group settings and activities? Specifically, consider how are families are part of open houses, handbooks, etc.?
- Are application and other documents for families, friendly to diverse families? Do they use language such as families, parent/parent or parent/guardian rather than mother/father?
- For example, “Please bring this letter home to your family” (rather than to your “mommy and daddy”) or “Dear Families, welcome to our new program year…”
- Do all children and families see themselves represented in letters and announcements?
Once our early learning programs have gathered this information and feedback from families, we can reflect and prepare to better support and include families.
Looking for help starting these conversations? Check out this 1-page survey that allows families to share about their family structure and preferences. This can be a great starting point for programs in this process while also learning about the families you serve!
Preparing for Change: Socioemotional Factors to Consider
Our early learning programs are often one of a child’s earliest experiences with diversity, as Dawn Kurtz shares in this piece by Rachael Stoffel for Child 360. This presents us with an incredible opportunity and responsibility, which can feel inspiring and daunting at different times. Here are key socioemotional factors to consider when reflecting on our beliefs and practices around diverse families:
- Recognizing differences helps foster confidence & respect in children: “You’re teaching children about respect for others. Celebrating the beauty in our differences helps to build a stronger community, diminishes prejudice or fear and enriches our society by creating global citizens in our children,” Kurtz shares.
- Recognize our assumptions carry weight: We, as early educators, play an integral role in helping shape how a child views themselves, their family unit and the world. For instance, if we speak about families in exclusively “mom and dad” terms, kids notice. When we are aware, we can intentionally loop in examples and encourage children to realize that every family looks different.
- Be open to curiosity and conversation about differences: “Remember, children are merely making observations of differences—what makes a boy or a girl, differences in skin color—they are not making assumptions that fall into what we, as adults, know as racism or prejudice,” Kurtz says. “Every conversation and interaction is a valuable opportunity to begin supporting inclusive ideas and identity development early in life.”
- Emphasize the importance of family: Honoring diverse families boils down to the idea that every family is valuable and important. Making every family important in the classroom space is an excellent way to encourage your students to understand and respect the value of all families and not just the ones that look similar to their own families.
We have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to shape how children learn to view themselves and the world. What’s more, their views and experiences create a ripple effect that reaches their families – an effect that can be profound, healing, and supportive.
Making it Happen in Your Program
Now that your program and families have done the work – reflected, discussed, and prepared – let’s get to it! It’s time for action. Here are various ways to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for ALL families:
- Recognize and respect families not attending activities or dropping off their child when they celebrate non-Christian holidays & traditions.
- Incorporate a broader definition of family. This can include more spaces for family members on applications & more roles and titles to choose from on said forms.
- Communicate with families well in advance of upcoming events and invite their participation either in planning or leading activities.
- Ensure committees include a broad representation of family structures to have all voices heard and included.
- Train staff on creating inclusive environments for all families, including practices like using preferred gender terms, using “family member” as an identifier instead of “mom” or “dad”, and checking in with families before assuming family member relationships.
- Create spaces to include pictures of families like a “Families Gallery” that includes every family (including staff) in your program. Ensure that these photos are at eye-level to children and part of ongoing day-to-day conversation.
- Invite family members and children to share their preferred pronouns, if they are comfortable doing so.
- Adjust lyrics to common children’s songs to be more inclusive.
- During Reading or Storytime:
- Engage children in making their own books, especially “My Family” books. These can be displayed with other literature in the library, though make sure they are sturdy enough to be handled regularly by children.
- Provide different books & stories representing family structures of those served. Ensure that these books are accessible and uniformly valued by program staff.
- Survey families to ask what types of stories they want their children to learn about, specifically related to families and non-traditional topics like gender, adoption, divorce, grandparents, biological guardians, etc.
- During Playtime
- Add characters to dramatic play environments, like multiple sets of “family” figures so that children can select the grouping that most looks like their own families.
- Invite family members to play time, offering story lines, roles, and games that utilize their perspective.
- Make a conscious effort to include families around the holidays.
- Ex. Moms from a same-gender couple for Mother’s Day,
- Ex. Alternate options for children and families to feel included on days that don’t include them, such as those who don’t have biological parents or have foster parents.
- Offer intentional events geared towards male engagement and non-traditional biological guardians like grandparents and aunts/uncles.
- Use photos and prompts that encourage children to write, tell, or draw stories about all kinds of people and families.
- Select and/or create songs that allow children identify with the people and experiences that they sing about. Use this as a launching pad to create a comfortable opportunity for children to discover and discuss differences.
- Provide materials and opportunities for children and families to express their ideas about themselves, their families, and experiences.
Resources for Your Early Learning Program
As you prepare next steps for yourself and your program, check out the following ready-to-use resources, including checklists, booklists, and articles from Quality Start Los Angeles and other empowering and inclusive sites!
- Quality Start LA – Proud to Be Me Booklist
- Creating a Welcoming Early Childhood Education Program – Checklist from Welcoming Schools
- FamilyEquality.org – Inclusive Schools: Family Survey for Teachers
- SocialJusticeBooks.com – Early Chilldhood: Learning About Family Structures Booklist
- WelcomingSchools.org – Celebrating Inclusive Mother’s Day & Father’s Day
- ClubPequesLectores.com – Libros infantiles sobre familias y su diversidad (Spanish booklist on diverse families)
Whether our program is just beginning the process of becoming a more inclusive classroom or has already taken great strides to do so, we can continue raising our expectations and learning from families. Cheers to the work you do in recognizing and appreciating all families!
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles
Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 6 years, including having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as a youth development promoter in Costa Rica. In conjunction with Quality Start Los Angeles, Cristina is passionate about supporting families to feel empowered in the changing landscape of their surroundings with their children’s wellbeing at the forefront. She is a champion of strengths-based systems and services that build resilient families and youth.