August 12, 2020 3:18PM
I love to go shopping. Not only do I enjoy the satisfaction of finding exactly what I am looking for, but I also value the shopping experience. Part of that experience is the environment that stores create for myself, the shopper.
The families in your programs are like shoppers. Not only are families looking for a high-quality program with staff that care for and teach their children, but they are also looking for a program environment that is clean, safe, and inviting. Before families learn about the details of your program, they look to your environment to gather basic information. Therefore, the environment that you create, both indoors and outdoors, should be a reflection of who you and what you value as a professional.
This month, we will be discussing the importance of creating a welcoming environment for the families that you serve. Although families might not currently be entering your program regularly, the parts of your environment that they do interact with (such as your outside space, your sign-in table, and your waiting area outside or in the front of your house) can serve as opportunities to engage and communicate with your families.
Why are Welcoming Environments Important?
Now more than ever, your early learning environment plays an important role in your daily operations. Consider the following:
Your environment is a family’s first interaction with your program.
- Your learning environment is a reflection of you, what you value, how you teach, and the energy that you infuse into your work with young children. Every day, whether you realize it or not, families are making observations of the space that you have created for their child. They are looking to see how clean it is, how safe it is, how inviting it is, and what materials are available for their child to play with and learn from.
Your environment serves as a means of communication.
- Because face-to-face interactions are currently limited, using your environment creatively provides the opportunity for you to continue to communicate with your families directly and consistently. Using your outside space to share reminders, resources, and other pieces of relevant information can support your social distancing efforts while continuing to engage with families and show them a glimpse of what is happening inside.
Your environment is an indicator of an equitable, inclusive program.
- Your early learning environment should be a reflection of the children in your program. The pictures, wall art, toys, and books in your program should represent the demographics of the children and families that you currently serve. When your environment mirrors the families currently enrolled in your program, it demonstrates your commitment to creating an equitable and inclusive program that is responsive to the families in your care.
Aspects of a Welcoming Environment
There are three specific aspects of a welcoming environment that programs should consider when working to engage families:
- A welcoming physical environment
- Positive interactions between the staff at your program and the families that you serve
- Ways to welcome new families into your program.
This month, we will be focusing on strategies for creating welcoming physical environments, both in-person and virtually. In the upcoming months, we will explore the other two facets of creating welcoming environments.
Strategies for Creating Welcoming Environments:
As you create welcoming virtual spaces for families, consider the following:
The use of virtual backgrounds
Using virtual backgrounds takes the pressure off of having to show others a very personal part of your life, your home. When you meet with families virtually, let them know that they are welcome to use a virtual background and provide instructions to do so if they choose. Virtual backgrounds:
- Allow families to be present without worrying what is going on behind them
- Minimize the worry of having to clean up or keep others out of their video frame
- Serve as a way of starting conversations, wherein families share with you why they chose that background
A provider at Gonzales Family Daycare shares a video with a child in her program. Adding a colorful visual to an interaction also helps create a welcoming virtual environment.
The name that you display on your screen
The names that people share at the bottom corner of their video serve as a way of learning who one another is and how they would like to be referred. When displaying your name:
- Using your first name, rather than your formal title, sets a relaxed tone and can help families feel more comfortable engaging virtually
- For new families, you might want to suggest that they include the name of their child in parentheses next to their name, so you can start to connect the families and their children.
- Encourage everyone to add their preferred pronouns after their name
To learn more about pronouns, click here
Establishing norms from the beginning
Norms, or group agreements, help create a supportive and respectful virtual environment. When creating norms:
- Have the families think about what behaviors and attitudes help them feel comfortable enough to engage with the group
- Consider what you can do as a facilitator to support a respectful and supportive environment (for example: muting everyone upon entry, showing people how to use the chat feature, asking participants to mute themselves if they are not speaking)
- Write these behaviors, attitudes, and other considerations down and share them with the group (or the individual family) every time you meet virtually
- Revisit them regularly to make sure that are working and continue to support participation and high levels of comfort
To learn more about establishing norms for meeting with families and with staff, read Has Your Remote Team Defined Ground Rules Yet? Here’s How (Forbes Magazine)
As you create welcoming physical spaces for families that adhere to current social distancing guidelines, consider the following:
Move your information board outside.
- Bringing your parent board(s) and other materials for families outside supports ongoing communication with families while still respecting the need to be socially distant.
- Your information boards can serve as a space to provide program updates, community or program resources, and other information that is important to families.
- Moving your board outside will also send the message to families that you want to keep the lines of communication open and that you are doing everything in your power to stay safe and support families simultaneously.
Wear a picture badge (and have all of your staff wear one too).
- A big part of interacting with families every day is smiling and providing reassurance through facial expressions. Unfortunately, the current health and safety requirements of wearing masks and shields does not always allow for that. Wearing a picture of yourself with your name on it can serve to bridge that gap.
- If you have new families in your program, or returning families that have not seen you in months, having a smiling picture of yourself as a badge will help families remember who you are, what your smile looks like, and support families’ feelings of comfort during these unexpected times.
Post plenty of clear signage
- Posting plenty of colorful, informational signs will help families follow the health and safety policies and procedures that you have set in place. As always, make sure any signage uses strengths-based language. Signs can help families:
- Know what to bring (and what not to bring) with them for the day
- Locate the place to wash hands or leave children’s belongings
- Know where to stand if dropping off or picking up
- Learn the schedule for their children during the day
- Better understand how you keep children safe and socially distanced during the days
- Know how to connect with you if they have a question, need to talk, or have an update to share
- Know how much you appreciate their support in adhering to the policies and procedures set forth
At Gonzales Family Daycare, families are greeted with clear signs and social distancing markers. This provider has also moved her family information board outside where families will be able to see it.
Move some of the children’s projects outside
- Since families are no longer allowed to come into the program, it limits their ability to see what their child is working on each day and have conversations with their children about their work when they are at home.
- Posting children’s work personalizes your outdoor environment, while adding color and creativity to that part of your program. Consider the following:
- Create spaces outside where you can post some of the artwork done by the kids and invite families to visit those areas as they wait in the mornings or afternoons.
- Decorate any drop-off and pick-up areas with artwork and other daily projects.
- Attach pictures of individual children throughout the day to the sign-in sheets for families to view and take home if they choose.
Taking the time to create welcoming virtual and in-person environments will only serve to strengthen the relationships that you have with the families in your program. These unprecedented times call for thinking outside of the box and creating new ways of connecting with families. Although these times of social distancing are not forever, being intentional with creating welcoming environments is something that will always be of importance.
Wendolly A. Escobar, Ed.D.
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles
Wendolly’s professional career began over 10 years ago as a lead teacher for a classroom of energetic preschoolers. In her current role, Wendolly is proud to support Quality Start Los Angeles by being an advocate for building authentic and supportive relationships with families of young children. She believes that by creating family-focused systems, early learning programs have the capacity to uplift and empower families and ensure the best outcomes for LA’s youngest learners.