Building Relationships with Families in the Digital Age
April 10, 2020 8:32AM
The past month has put everyone’s tech skills to the test. Within a matter of weeks, many of us have gone from seeing families at drop off and pick up daily to having minimal, if any, interactions with the families that we serve. We have gone from planning in-person conferences, cafés, and other events, to trying to figure out how to best connect with families during this time of being socially distanced.
This month, we will be exploring the ways in which technology can enhance the way you build relationships with families. Technology is a tool that can support your interactions with the families in your program. Not only do different technology platforms offer you an opportunity to reach more families than you might through in-person interactions, they also give families the chance to learn more about the work that you do with their children at a pace that best meets their individual needs. They key is to understand the families that you work with, their capacity related to technology, and your capacity to use tech based on your current knowledge,experience, and workload.
It can seem daunting to think about the wide variety of different options and programs available related to digital communications. Such programs range from easy to use text messaging apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, SlickText) to sending mass emails (Constant Contact, Mail Chimp) to the more elaborate, and sometimes fee-based, family engagement software (click the infographic for sample options and links to each software). The platform that you choose to use in your program depends on your interest, need, capacity, and budget. The key to successful integration of tech opportunities is to find the best fit for you, your families, and your program.
Promoting Equity with Technology
Remember: Technology is a tool to supplement your communications with families, not replace them. When used with care and intentionality, the technology platform that you choose should provide a new level of reach, access, and support to families that might not be achieved otherwise.
In this digital age, technology has become part of the fabric in which we live our lives. Families seek out opportunities to introduce tablets, iPads, and other digital devices into their children’s learning early and often. Schools are introducing media literacy at an early age. As a professional field, it might seem like there is no way to avoid integrating digital communications into the way in which we serve children and families. However, as you think about the ways in which technology can enhance your work, it is important to consider the following:
- Not all families have access to the internet outside of their cell phones. The digital divide is a very real issue when it comes to the integration of technology into your program communications. As you are considering what platforms to use, you may want to survey the families that you serve to better understand the level of access they have to the internet. This first-hand information will help you make better decisions about the technology you choose.
- Equitable use of technology should focus entirely on supporting children and families. Focusing on the needs of the families in your program should drive your efforts to identify a digital platform that best supports their engagement with your program and their child’s early education. When you are family-focused in your search for the correct program or platform, families feel included and are more willing to engage and provide support.
“To effectively communicate with families, ECE providers need to learn how to use – and embrace the use of – all of the ‘new’ communication channels through which parents can be reached” (Daugherty, Dossani, Johnson, & Wright, 2014)
The use of technology can support your program to engage with families in ways that you might not have the capacity to do currently, thus making your program more equitable. The use of technology:
- Creates opportunities for you to communicate with families across language barriers. Websites like Google Translate and Skype Translator support translation into a variety of different languages.
- Allows more families to engage on their own time, at their own pace, and based on their own level of comfort. Not every family has the time to be physically present for conferences, meetings, and events because of their work schedule or other commitments. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in being present. Using apps like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Skype allow families to join the conversation from afar, as well as allow families to schedule meetings with you in the middle of their busy days.
- Acknowledges the unique abilities, capacities, and preferences of the families you serve. Part of being equitable is recognizing that every family can thrive when offered a variety of different types of support and ways to engage. Using technology allows you to connect with each family individually and creates a greater personal connection that can lead greater overall support for the child.
Strategies for Introducing Technology into your Family Engagement Work
Venturing into the world of technology can seem daunting. There are so many options to choose from, all of which vary in price and features. Here are some strategies to assist you as you begin exploring the use of different platforms to communicate with families:
Assess Your Current Capacity
Before you begin learning about platforms, you want to have a solid understanding of what you are looking for and what you have the capacity to use. These questions will help you start to think about what will best meet your needs.
- Do you and/or your staff have a computer and a stable internet connection at home or at the program? Are you looking to download an app on your phone?
- How much time are you willing and able to invest in online communication?
- Do you have a budget for using an on-line platform or are you looking for a free version?
- Do your research and learn about the specifics of each of the programs that you are interested in using.
- Learn about features, pricing, and support options available, such as tutorials on their websites, or virtual representatives to walk you through the process of using their software.
- Ask around and see if someone you know has any knowledge or experiences that they can share with you about the platforms that you are most interested in.
- Once you have enough information, identify a platform that you are interested in using based on your previously identified preferences and capacity.
Create open lines of communication
- Schedule opportunities with families to help them learn how to use the new platform. You can do this by e-mailing instructions, hosting in-person meetings (as appropriate) or scheduling virtual sessions/phone calls to help families get started with the new platform. The technology is only helpful if people feel comfortable and are willing to use it.
- Make sure that you clearly communicate with families what they can expect through the use of this new platform. Let families know how you will use it to support them and their child, as well as how they can use this platform to communicate with you.
- Continue to practice face-to-face communication with families whenever possible. Adopting new programs can take some time to get used to. Check in periodically with families as to how they are liking the new platform so that you can get a sense of how this shift is working.
Opportunities for Sustainable Use of Technology
Although this monthly tip is intended to provide family engagement support during the current international health crisis, it is one that should continue to be part of your regular family engagement toolbox. Here are some ways that you can sustain the use of technology as a regular part of your program, now and in the future, as applicable:
- Offer families the opportunity to attend parent-teacher conferences virtually, in addition to hosting conferences in person.
- Host a twitter chat for families
- Create a closed Facebook group for families in your program
- Host virtual field trips that families can “attend” with their children at home
- Live stream a story time for your families
- Host a parent meeting via Zoom or Skype
- Share resources to all families or child specific pictures or updates via text, email, or other app mentioned previously.
The opportunities for integrating the use of technology into your everyday programming are endless. Although venturing into the world of digital communication can be challenging and intimidating, it can also be very rewarding for the families that are now able to access opportunities and engage with their child’s education that they otherwise would not have had the chance to.
Resources & Additional Information
- https://www.everyoneon.org/ – Find low-cost internet and affordable computers in your area
Daugherty, L., Dossani, R., Johnson, E., & Wright, C. (2014). Families, powered on: Improving family engagement in early childhood education through technology (Issue brief). Retrieved from www.rand.org/t-is-for-technology
Noonoo, Stephen. (2020). Equity isn’t just about technology. It’s about supporting students and families. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-03-26-equity-isn-t-just-about-technology-it-s-about-supporting-students-and-families?utm_source=NCFL+Literacy+NOW&utm_campaign=8b3d246c7c-4.3.2020&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ddbeaff477-8b3d246c7c-68301609
Patrikakou, E. N. (2016). Parent involvement, technology, and media: Now what? School Community Journal, 26(2), 9-24. Retrieved from http://www.schoolcommunitynetwork.org/SCJ.aspx
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.