Preparing to Engage Families in the Era of COVID-19

July 17, 2020 2:37PM

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Traditionally, relationships with families have been built through consistent face-to-face interactions.  The more you saw the family and spent time engaging with them in both formal and informal conversations, the more you learned about the child and the stronger the relationship with the family was.  This upcoming school year, however, the way program staff builds relationships with families will look very different.  With social distancing measures still in place for the foreseeable future, early learning programs will be challenged to develop creative ways to stay connected with families. 

This month, we will be exploring strategies for navigating new ways to build relationships with families.  Although face-to-face interactions will be extremely limited for the time being, you can still develop strong relationships with families that are critical to the success and well-being of the children in your care.        

“Discuss [the families’] concerns as well as the plans you have put in place for the children’s safety.  They may have valuable input that will make your program run smoothly.”

Judith Terrell, Terrell Family Child Care Owner

How will family engagement change in the upcoming school year?

The start of a new school year typically provides programs the opportunity to connect with and learn from the families.  This year, however, orientations, school tours, and parent meetings will look very different.  Some changes that families may notice are:

  • Families will no longer be able to come into your center to drop off or pick up their children.
  • Families will be encouraged to participate in curbside drop off and pickup, wherein a staff member will receive the child and do the necessary health and wellness checks before walking them into the classroom.
  • Children might be limited as to what they can bring into the classroom with them.
  • Communication will continue to be digital as that is the safest way to distribute information to large groups of families.
  • Administrative staff might be working remotely.

Why take the time when there are so many regulations to follow?

Although the way we interact with families will change, family engagement remains an important component of early learning programs. 

Family engagement is a key component of quality

Research indicates that one of the core components of a high quality educational program is building and maintaining strong relationships with families.  No matter the circumstances, families should always inform your plans and communications.  Now, more than ever, families will need increased engagement opportunities to support social connections, ensure that their concerns about their children’s safety, and their own, are being addressed and met.

Family engagement is an issue of equity

Family engagement is not a one-size-fits-all practice.  High quality family engagement practices allow you to get to know each family more personally so that you can create spaces for them to learn, share, and connect in ways that best serve their unique needs and interests.  When done authentically, the end result is a learning environment that promotes cultural sensitivity and inclusion, provides families increased access to information, and supports developing a deeper understanding of the families that you serve.

Planning for the year ahead

With the beginning of another school year around the corner, it is important to plan and prepare while keeping the families you serve in mind.  Here are a few strategies, supported by feedback from QSLA providers, on what to consider as you begin your preparations:  

Demonstrate empathy and understanding as you begin planning to re-engage families

These past few months have been challenging for many families.  Keep in mind:

  • Reintroducing their children to a social environment, such as an early learning program, can be cause for concern, particularly if the family has no other options for keeping their children at home.
  • Many families are confused and unsure as to whether their children will be safe throughout the day.

“Families are having a difficult time, where things are very unstable, and where every day they must adapt to the increasing changes they are facing. Programs need to be flexible with families. Some families have work. Some do not, which means that some families do not have enough funds for the program co-pays. Sometimes, they do not have enough money for gas, or to fix their car when it breaks down, which undoubtedly affects their participation.”

Janet Linares, Family Child Care Owner

They will have many questions regarding the use of masks and what social distancing looks like in an early learning classroom.

Allow the families to inform your plans

This summer provides a great opportunity to learn more about the families that you serve so that you can use that knowledge in intentional and thoughtful ways.  Consider the following:

  • When it comes to sharing information, every family has a unique preference based on their access to the internet, personal feelings and experiences, ability to learning new digital skills, and level of comfort with technology.
  • As face-to-face interactions are limited, it is important to learn more about how each family prefers to communicate with you. Consistent communication is important to building strong relationships.  Taking the time to ask families how they prefer to connect individually with you will support the development of healthy, reciprocal relationships. 
  • During enrollment and/or orientation, add digital communications to your list of things to review and learn more about during the enrollment and orientation process.
  • Ask families, through a survey or over the phone, about the digital platforms that you currently use, including their comfort with those platforms. This feedback can inform how you use technology to better engage families.

Remember, every family’s situation is different.  Be sure to gather information in different ways to ensure that a diverse set of voices are represented.  Listening to the families you serve and finding ways to meet their needs, that are equitable and cost-effective, will be essential to keeping families engaged.

Communication is of utmost importance

Clear, direct, and open communication during this time of uncertainty will serve to quell anxieties as well as build trust with the families in your program.  As you begin reconnecting with families:

  • Provide information regarding new health, safety, and communication policies verbally and in writing for clarity and consistency.
    • Have written information for distribution to supplement conversations that you have with families about these new procedures.
    • Create a space for families to ask you questions about the written information that you send out in advance regarding these new health, safety, and communication procedures.   
  • Ensure all staff are trained on the new policies and procedures so that they can answer questions about them using consistent language.
  • Check in with your families individually to ensure that the plans you have put in place for on-going communications meet their needs.
    • Be flexible with your communication plans as families adapt to the new systems and provide feedback through the process.
  • Encourage families to engage with you across communication platforms by sharing at-home learning activities for families to do together, as well as other resources for support (i.e. rental assistance, food banks, etc.). Families will appreciate regular communication and will be more likely to respond positively. 

 

Remember that, when it comes to navigating uncharted waters, less is more.  Be patient as families adjust to these new norms.  Be empathetic to the many changes they are experiencing, both in your program an at home.  The time that you invest in planning have a big impact on how effectively your program runs for the rest of the year and how capable you are of tackling any challenges that may come your way. 

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A special thank you to the following QSLA providers for their input and feedback based on their experiences with families during this time:

  • Judith Terrell, FCC owner
  • Janet Linares, FCC owner

Watch the Lunch & Learn Webinar on this Family Engagement Tip!

Preparing to Engage Families in the Age of Covid-19

July 21, 2020

This Lunch & Learn webinar will explore how to engage with families during this time of continued social distancing.

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.