Welcoming Diverse Family Structures

Welcoming Diverse Family Structures

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:

Program & Classroom Family Communications

  • 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?

Environmental Design & Family Visibility

  • Are there photos in common areas and in classrooms of families at work and at play that depict many ways that children and families interact and engage in the world?
  • Do posters, children’s art, children’s literature displays, photos of our real program families (including staff) depict the many ways that people work, play and live in families?
  • Are children and adults depicted playing, working, dressing, and engaging in activities that are not limited by their gender or that do not conform to stereotypical gender roles?

Daily Classroom Activities

  • During Play:
    • Do family and people figures represent different cultures, families, and gender roles and activities?
    • Are there props that encourage multiple ways of playing family or any other imaginative play?
    • Do children feel comfortable using all of the different props and dress-up materials?
  • During Reading or Storytime:
    • Does the children’s literature on display and read represent all different kinds of families?
    • Do books represent children and grown-ups in ways that expand stereotypical notions of gender?
    • Are books used for discussions with children that allow them to share their own experiences, ask questions and explore the many ways of being?

Intentional Teaching Moments

  • Do staff members matter-of-factly talk about and recognize a diversity of families, occupations, and genders?
  • Do staff members communicate with children about similarities and differences?
  • Are children’s & families’ stories shared with other children in ways that encourage respectful exploration of each other’s experiences and ideas?
  • Are children encouraged to share their work and ideas with others in ways that invite conversation and exploration?

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 weightWe, 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 familyHonoring 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:

Program & Classroom Family Communications

  • 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.

Environmental Design & Family Visibility

  • 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.

Daily Classsroom Activities

  • 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.

Celebrations & Holidays

  • 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.

Intentional Teaching Moments

  • 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!

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!


Cristina Espinoza
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles

Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 7 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.