All in the Family: Engaging Families in Children’s Early Learning

Ask any parent, teacher, or researcher, and they will tell you the same thing—education starts, and extends, well beyond the walls of the classroom.  Parents are children’s first teachers, and families play a crucial role in education, especially for the youngest learners.  Noting the importance of this, the week of September 26-30 is being celebrated as Head Start Family Engagement Week.

Since its beginning, the federal Head Start program has made community and family engagement a key piece of its efforts to prepare at-risk children for school. Of course, other early childhood educators also emphasize engaging parents.  NAEYC and Pre-K Now collaborated on the paper Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood Education Programs: An Integrated Review of the Literature, which provides guidance on family engagement based on a review of a range of literature. They recommend that early learning programs:

  • Integrate Culture and Community: Utilize role models of diverse backgrounds; translate materials in to the native languages of participating families; provide an interpreter; interact with families and children within communities, outside of the classroom environment.
  • Provide a Welcoming Environment: have staff available at the entrance to guide families; post clear signs; encourage parents to provide feedback through a variety of avenues.
  • Strive for Program-Family Partnerships: include families in decision-making regarding both their individual child and the program; provide resources to be used at home that connect with classroom activities.
  • Make a Commitment to Outreach: when possible, make home visits so teachers can learn from families; provide education activities that families can do at home.
  • Provide Family Resources and Referrals: provide preventative health and family services, including transportation and child care; provide opportunities for families in parenting and adult education classes.
  • Set and Reinforce Program Standards: emphasize outreach; provide ongoing professional development to expand culturally-sensitive, evidence-based family engagement practices.

During the 2009-2010 school year, NIEER collected data on family engagement policies in state-funded pre-K programs. The table below presents a list of family engagement activities and the number of programs that require them.

Table 1: Family Engagement Activities in State-Funded Pre-K Programs, 2009-2010

Family Engagement Activities

Number of Programs

Percent of Programs

Participating/volunteering in classroom or school events



Parent/family shared decision making and governance, parent advisory committee



Program orientation



Parent/family workshops



Family literacy activities



As per federal Head Start regulations






Parent/family education classes



Parent/family participation in determining activities/events



Specific activities are locally determined



Other activities, beyond answer choices above



Family engagement activities not required by state policy



* Note: Most programs require multiple family engagement activities; therefore the percentages do not total 100 percent.

Of the 54 programs profiled in the 2010 Yearbook, the most popular answer was “locally determined,” indicating that there is a great deal of variation in family engagement policy. Allowing local providers to determine their own family engagement activities allows for customization based on local needs, but there may be great inequality in the level of engagement from site to site. For more information on family engagement policies in state pre-K programs, see this blog post with data from the 2009 Yearbook.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

2 Responses to All in the Family: Engaging Families in Children’s Early Learning

  1. […] the panel also discussed a number of issues NIEER has recently explored, including policies on family engagement, how to reform Head Start, and the 10 states that do not offer state-funded pre-K. More of […]

  2. […] members can be the biggest advocates for early learning opportunities, especially when they are fully engaged with their children’s […]

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