Family Partnerships I: Gathering Family Feedback for Stronger Programs

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Many of us have seen this pandemic as a time to reevaluate our lifestyles and our work. With blurred boundaries between work and home, a sense of mutual support, understanding, and empathy is key for providers in moving forward with family engagement.

As we continue exploring what family engagement can look like, we have a chance to tap into the voices and strengths of the families we work to simultaneously improve our program quality and bolster relationships with families. Each family has their own funds of knowledge; these consist of the everyday knowledge and skills that contribute to the overall success of the family, which are passed down from generation to generation. This knowledge comes from life experiences, particularly relevant information to their location, culture, local norms, and social groups. In our February 2020 family engagement tip, we touched on the funds of knowledge families have and how we can shift our perspective regarding the ways families can collaborate with and provide input to a program.

This month, we focus on how to involve families in developing, implementing, and assessing our program’s procedures and routines. We will dig deeper into what this approach can look like and how to involve families in each phase.

In order to make informed decisions for our programs, we rely on different sources of information to figure out what works, what needs aren’t being met, and what possible changes can be made. This data serves as a compass, giving our proposed changes direction and purpose. Our programs typically follow a cycle of phases when we bring about these changes. We will cover each of these phases in the next sections, paying particular attention to how family partnerships can work at each point.  

Phase 1: Getting Data – Tapping into Families’ Perspectives

A classic way we are used to working with families is gauging their opinion about and needs from our program. Whether we are conducting routine surveys for annual family needs assessments, program evaluation, or managing a more specific situation (i.e. COVID-19 procedures, logistic details for a group celebration), there are many options for how to formally or informally gather this type of feedback from families. Here are some ideas:

  • Town Hall Meetings: These communal gatherings can be used for program updates, announcements, planning, evaluations, etc. Town Halls are best used for communication and coordination, like asking for feedback on specific program aspects, gathering ideas for solutions to current challenges or opportunities our program may be facing. *In a virtual Town Hall, you might record the event so you can review and replay the comments shared to make sure you heard them all and integrate them into next steps, as applicable. These can pair with focus groups to dig deep on potential solutions.
  • Long Form Surveys: Longer surveys involve many in-depth questions and are best used for needs assessments and program evaluations. This method works well with family interviews to strengthen relationships and enhance family supports, especially in getting a baseline. Use online or paper surveys depending on what works best for your program. 
  • Focus Groups or Group Evaluations: Focus groups involve a smaller group of family representatives (6-10 people is best) to have an in-depth discussion or evaluation of a particular topic or program, led by a staff member with prepared questions. Ideally these representatives from different backgrounds and family compositions) can create opportunities for deeper, enriching conversations on the variety of family needs and strengths. This approach can work virtually and in person, with proper precautions and may create more accessible time frames for family members.
  • Shorter Inquiries: These shorter forms are best for simple questions and quick opinions. Consider an interactive method at the entrance of your early learning program!
    • Token boxes – These are great for Yes/No, multiple-choice, and scale-based questions. Ex. On a scale from 1 to 5, how much does your family use our Family Literacy Activities?
    • Short Response Survey – Consider limiting the amount and complexity of questions for a short survey! Nutrition Survey with 5 short questions gauging interest on FE activities, home practices, learning preference, meeting availability (time/day).
    • Sticky board/whiteboard – Great way to host brainstorming sessions for on-the-go family members! Help us brainstorm ideas for our Family Culture Night!

Pro Tips:

Some key details to consider when setting up these methods include –

Using data can bring a fresh perspective and open our eyes to deeper issues that we may have been unaware of or been unintentionally blind to.

When we ask families what they think about program matters and how they can be improved, we communicate a message that says “We value what you have to share and see you as a key player of this team.” Not only does this strengthen our relationship with families, but it also opens up more opportunities to collaborate – as is shared in this next section.

Phase 2: Now What? – Involving Families in Process Design

Now that we have all this feedback and data that show what program aspects are meeting and/or not meeting family needs, we can shift in dreaming and designing solutions or changes. How can we continue engaging families in the conversation as this information is processed, needs are recognized, and potential solutions are put forward?

Here are 4 strategies for engaging family partners, inspired by this article from the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality:

  1. Create varied and flexible family partner roles.

We can create roles and opportunities within the program for family members, regardless of their race/ethnicity, educational background, gender, disability or socioeconomic status, to participate, especially in ways that count on their innate capacity as parents/primary caregivers. Family members can take up diverse roles such as those shared in the “Partnering with Families” graphic below:

These are the type of roles that we want to have at each of our early learning programs to ensure strong family partnerships. Each of the roles is listed below in greater detail:

  • Collaborators: Family members participating in focus groups, program clean ups, or participating in pilot processes that come forward from families’ feedback.
  • Decision-makers & choosers: Family members can be representatives in Parent Advisory Councils, School Site Council, and/or parent leadership groups. Groups like these can serve as spaces for family partners to dissect data and feedback from families’ and from there, rank the priority of, and co-design potential solutions.
  • Advocates & Activists: Family members can lead informational or advocacy campaigns for program changes or wider policy issues, particularly in settings like Town Hall Meetings or District meetings.
  • Models: Family members can share their love of learning by volunteering for read-alouds, chaperoning trips or activities, or presenting a show-and-tell on their favorite topic!
  • Monitors: Each family member already takes on this role for their child; intentional communicating information between home and early learning programs to best support early learning so family and educator are on the same page.
  • Encouragers: Consider family members who can encourage and uplift other families to participate in different ways based on their strengths. As an example, encouragers can also volunteer to do themed read-alouds focusing on positive self-image (through topics such as heritage or emotional identity).
  • Supporters: Family members who feel engaged in a program, use their strengths and skills to support their early learning program. This ultimately supports the needs of their own child.

Note: Families may exemplify many of these roles during their time at your program. We want to encourage and provide opportunities for families to fulfill these different engagement roles to ensure everyone has a chance to engage in a way that feels comfortable and meaningful.  

  1. Make participation as approachable and convenient as possible.

Our programs can be welcoming and flexible for family partners that have signed onto these roles. Build empathy and trust from the beginning of the relationship; this can mean including ice breakers and other interactive opportunities to get to know other family partners, teachers, admin, etc.

Reach out to family members individually (in person or by phone), particularly making the effort to acknowledge their personal experiences as valuable. This personalized approach highlights the faith we have in family members as key players, especially when we invite them to discuss program and family engagement matters.

As for convenience, consider these ideas:

  • Meeting Times: Hosting in-person meetings outside of regular work hours to help with attendance barriers. We can use data from surveys to schedule meeting times and formats that are most convenient.
  • Meeting location: On a related note, programs and family partners can decide if virtual vs in-person meetings are most accessible for everyone.
  • Child Care: Providing child care during in-person meetings.
  • Alternative Participation Options: Our teams can also consider engagement opportunities that don’t require in-person attendance, such as 1) meetings that family members can call into, 2) surveys and questionnaires, and 3) helping promote events and sharing information.
  • Communication & Calendars: Whether these engagement opportunities are in-person or remote, our programs can strongly benefit from giving family members ample notice when possible; consider a shared family engagement calendar for specific projects over several months. Send plenty of reminders in multiple formats including personal invitations. Share agendas before events as well as key questions to discuss so family members can come prepared.
  • Language/Access and Inclusion: Engaging families who speak different languages or low literacy levels means our programs are better prepared when we have copies of translated documents or visuals ready to go ahead of time. Following up by checking in with family partners is a great way to ensure we are on the same page. 
  1. Leverage existing community groups and partnerships.

As mentioned before, including strengths-based questions in our needs assessment allows families to open up about their funds of knowledge. Community groups and family social networks can open up opportunities for creative collaboration between programs, families, and community groups. Families can share insight as to what community groups exist, their offerings, and background with supporting families.

  1. Empower family voices.

Family partners’ voices play an integral role in the success of family engagement. Not only can our programs offer environments where their voices are valued, but we can also offer information and background knowledge for more niche family engagement opportunities. Some of those environments include:

  • Leadership committees like: Parent Advisory Committees (PAC), Curriculum Committees, Hiring Committees, Beautification Committees, Family Event Committees, etc.
  • Parent-Educator Conferences
  • Town Hall Meetings & District Meetings

Note for FCCs: While FCCS are not centers, and may not need or have capacity for a variety of committees, there is still much value in partnering with families for decision making and program improvements. Creating a more loosely structured Parent Advisory Committee to support with decision making, best ways to meet needs of new families, etc. can work out for everyone’s best interest while meeting only once a month!

Skill-building opportunities can also help family partners develop their voice. Letting family partners build a meeting agenda and run meetings, bringing them to district meetings, and giving them opportunities to participate in program leadership programs all help empower them in their capacities as leaders.

Collaborating shoulder-to-shoulder with families not only emphasizes their strengths, but also has the added benefit of building that family’s parental resilience; this key Protective Factor is foundational for building strong families.

Phase 3: Sharing the News! – Communicating Results with Families

Let’s fast forward; once we have collaborated with family partners to implement solutions or changes, we have an incredible opportunity to bring back the news to all the families we work with! Incorporating results into our communication with families not only serves to celebrate what we have worked together to accomplish but also brings forward transparency to program efforts. Above all, these results highlight that families are valued as partners and we listened to them. In the long run, this effort to communicate results also signals to less-engaged families that they are welcome to work more closely with us! There are plenty of reasons to share results with families, why wouldn’t we! However, maintaining momentum after working hard together can be a challenge.

Here are some approachable methods to sharing results from these collaborative family engagement efforts, all of which can be done both virtually and in person:

  • Program Bulletins
  • Video or Live Announcements
  • Infographics or Flyers
  • Gallery Wall with Captions
  • Family Meetings
  • *Family Partner Spotlight – This spotlight features a family member that took an active role in the early learning program recently. It can include brief background information of a family partner, interviews that share what they learned, the support they received (ex. Knowledge-building, child care, stipend, flexible scheduling), their favorite aspects of the collaboration, and the realistic time commitment they put forward. These could be shared in newsletters, on the website, on a bulletin board, etc.

Stepping up our communication about what came forward from collaboration with families changes our family engagement landscape by saying “You spoke, we listened!”.

Phase 4: What Works? Assessments and Sustainability

Once we have partnered with family members in these family engagement initiatives, our programs are then tasked with figuring out how to sustain these efforts and this culture that welcomes, invites, and promotes family engagement and development. We may be asking many questions as part of this process, including what works? How can we keep going?

Similar to our initial efforts of gathering data before implementing changes, there are ways our programs can use data to truly see what family engagement efforts brought about the most change, were most positively received, and which ones where less popular or need a re-design. Many of the methods shared in Phase 1 can be used for this part; some additional specific suggestions include:

  • Closing Interviews – These interviews are offered at the end of a program year or as families are exiting their child from a program, to gauge how their experience and development changed while attending. This method provides important insights and can allow us to understand the background for a family’s responses. This is especially a great idea to use with families who are exiting after having been with the program for years as they have seen longer term changes.
  • Closing Surveys – Our programs should include additional questions on existing end-of-year surveys to gauge awareness and effectiveness of specific family engagement efforts taken that year, with little extra effort in preparation.

Many factors affect the sustainability of family engagement initiatives; many programs can start by having a clear understanding of their vision for family engagement and the capacity and resources they have available to make that vision reality.

Program Capacity

As programs design their family engagement efforts to partner with families, it is important for program staff to have a clear understanding of the importance in moving from “early educators serve families” to “early educators and families work together!”. From there, programs can ensure that staff:

  • Receive training on family engagement initiatives
  • Are assigned clear and reasonable roles in family engagement initiatives
  • Are encouraged and supported in engaging families (including the time and resources to do so)
  • Are involved in the design and assessment of family engagement initiatives

Note: Ultimately, consider what works for your program’s capacity and size. Each program is different!

Obstacles to Family Engagement

Engaging families takes some creative planning to reach the best outcomes. Aside from reaching out and designing a variety of family engagement roles, our programs can make engaging more appealing and manageable by trying:

  • Home visits
  • Positive phone calls
  • Text messages
  • Personal invitations
  • Seeking ideas from other parents/families
  • Relationship building through activities and conversation
  • Child Care (free during meetings or discounted offer for taking certain roles when possible)
  • Food and refreshments
  • Stipends

In the end, our program’s family engagement opportunities must work for the full spectrum of families, from least to most involved family members. We can do our best within our capacity to make this happen!

 Transitions Between Family Partnership Initiatives

Continuing a family engagement initiative while families transition out of our program brings its own challenges. Our efforts come back to capacity-building and communication as shown in the suggestions below:

  • Sharing Knowledge and Feedback – We want to ensure that experienced family partners share their knowledge and feedback regarding family engagement projects, as this shared knowledge can be an efficient and inspiring start for future groups.
    • This can be done through exit surveys or interviews, creating a guidebook, and/or writing a letter for the next round of family partners.
  • Training – When possible, having experienced family partners train newer family partners can not only be helpful but also affirms their value and expertise.
  • Tap into Networks – As family partners are ending their collaboration, we can work with them to identify, recruit, and reach out to other families who may be a good fit for these roles.

Once our family engagement initiatives come full circle in these phases, we continue the cycle! This ongoing process is designed not only to strengthen our family engagement culture and initiatives, but our programs as well. This type of collaborative design that values and incorporates both family and program perspectives lays a robust foundation for both our programs and families to meet our common goal – building strong families.

Cristina Espinoza
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles

Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 5 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.