Partners in care: Building bridges between families and Early Childhood educators

By Lesleann Whiteman 

TransitionsA healthy parent-teacher relationship contributes to positive growth and development of the childEarly childhood educators are expected to work in collaboration with families in their care to support children’s developmental outcomes, but is such an expectation realistic? As an early childhood educator, building genuine parent-teacher partnerships may be a challenging task as teachers have to create a balance between the families’ childrearing values and the child development theories and philosophies which guide their early childhood programmes. Additionally, early years teachers need to consider the families’ past school narrative/experiences against their expectations of the role of families in the care and education of their children when establishing a parent-teacher relationship. As such, the purpose of this article is to review the key research findings about the benefits derived from a genuine parent-teacher partnership, to explore the common barriers to positive parent-teacher partnerships and to provide practical rules of engagement for building bridges between families and early childhood educators.

Key research findings

The significance of the parent-teacher partnership has been well documented in the literature (Ebbeck et al., 2000; Wise, 2002 & 2003; Small, 2006; Klein et al., 2007; Halgunseth et al., 2009). Of particular note are the essentials of the family-teacher relationship put forth by Klein et al. (2007) who claim that such a collaboration supports children’s emotional health, helps parents to pay closer attention to their children’s growth and development, and helps families to address specific social issues that may affect their parenting role. Similarly, Halgunseth et al. (2009) suggest that genuine family-teacher partnerships within the early years setting have contributed to children’s love for learning, academic motivation and enhanced social-emotional skills, despite their socio-economic backgrounds.

On the other hand, Small (2006) advocates that quality family-teacher partnerships can serve as a conduit for services such as early intervention treatment for children’s developmental delays, social services to address socio-economic issues, and at times, adult education to address family literacy. Therefore, a genuine family-teacher partnership could help ensure that relevant resources and support services which are critical to strengthening the family unit are provided to families to safeguard their economic and social stability. Nevertheless, although the literature has documented the varied benefits of the family/parent-teacher partnership, there exist some common barriers to the promotion and sustainability of such a partnership, a few of which will be discussed here. 

Common barriers to positive parent-teacher partnerships

In working with early childhood educators in Trinidad and Tobago, common barriers encountered when establishing a collaborative working relationship with the families in their early childhood programmes were observed. Barriers included:

  • different child rearing values between families and the teachers
  • different socio-economic, educational and language backgrounds
  • different schooling experiences
  • different expectations about the roles of families and schools in the care and education of young children
  • different views on children’s development.

These diverse differences all play a role in establishing a barricade between early childhood teachers and families working together for the common good of children’s growth and development.

A review of the literature revealed further challenges which may hinder parental involvement. Demircan et al. (2015) suggests there are four main barriers to parental involvement in children’s education. They are:

  • parent’s beliefs about parental involvement and the level of their socio-economic status
  • the child’s developmental progress
  • different developmental goals, attitudes and language used by parents and early years teachers
  • social issues which focus on the historical, political and economic climate of the country.

Therefore, it is safe to conclude that families and early educators bring to the family-teacher relationship diverse cultural backgrounds, experiences and expectations of their roles within the care and education of the lives of young children, and there is need for close examination to determine how these differences negatively influence such a relationship. There is also a need to determine how these cultural differences and expectations about children’s growth and development could enhance the diversity of the family-teacher partnership.

It is a well known fact that miscommunication creates misunderstandings. When the family-teacher partnership is bounded by such differences between the early childhood teacher and parents, it would be useful for the teacher to take time to understand the families’ cultural values surrounding childrearing practices and their beliefs surrounding education and socialisation. Keller et al. (2005) emphasise that a child’s family is the focal point of their cultural experiences which lays the foundation for their future behaviour as adults, so it is always a significant step for early childhood educators to take the time to understand parent’s cultural expectations for their children. Such an understanding would enable early educators to share their programmes’ goals and objectives for the children in their care, and negotiate with parents how both sets of expectations could be achieved in the best interest of the children.

Therefore, there is value in teachers helping families to understand how their active participation in the centre’s family involvement activities are related to positive developmental outcomes for their children. Globally the call to engage families is ubiquitous in early childhood programmes and early educators have created, used and shared many different strategies to meaningfully engage families in a collaborative relationship. The final part of this article will highlight some of these strategies which may be used and adapted in local and regional early childhood programmes.

Practical rules of engagement for building bridges between families & early childhood educators

Caribbean early educators have first hand experiences living within diverse cultural communities and, as such, they find it easier to understand the cultural beliefs and practices of the families in their care. Nevertheless, there is still a need for early years teachers to have an open and direct conversation with families about their educational, social and life goals for their young children. Engaging families is one way of sustaining such a dialogue.

In this section I have chosen to highlight some innovative rules of engagement early childhood educators could implement and adapt into their early childhood programmes as they work towards establishing a genuine family-teacher partnership.

  1. To establish TRUST, open the door to good rapport. At the beginning of the school year, provide a short biography about yourself, interests and your philosophy about early childhood care and education. This idea by Hernandez-Sanabria (2008) would create opportunities for parents to share their own interests and talents, as well as their childrearing beliefs and expectations for their children. Additionally, such a strategy sets the tone for positive interaction within a non-judgmental and optimistic framework between families and early educators.
  1. To EMPOWER families to take responsibility for their children’s learning and developmental outcomes by creating a profile template of each child. Such templates could assist parents and teachers in sharing information about children’s development, as well as communicate to families’ teacher sensitivity and level of responsiveness to their needs. As such, families would feel at ease when expressing a need or concern about their child’s growth and development, while teachers would be able to provide child development information and practical suggestions to help children achieve developmental milestones. Additionally, it would be prudent for early educators to note families’ preferred modes of communication and reach out daily to parents to either offer practical help/suggestions, to share with them one positive aspect of their child’s day, or simply to listen to their concerns. When such a rapport is established with families it makes it easier for early childhood teachers to discuss issues of concern when they arise during the school year.
  1. To SUPPORT families in the creation of a directory of community services by establishing collaborative relationships with agencies that offer services for young children and their families. Such a partnership would help teachers show a personal interest for the families in their care and ensure that the family-teacher relationship is based on equality, parity and interdependence as teachers better understand the families for who they are.
  1. To MOTIVATE families to be actively engaged in their children’s growth and development, a parent/talent assessment tool can be used to actively engage all immediate and extended family members in an Early Education Centre’s activities. This idea by Hernandez-Sanabria (2008) could be used to involve grandparents, uncles and aunts with reading of stories, cooking, gardening, woodworking and musical activities. For example a hardware could be approached to provide free or subsidized materials to be used in a fatherhood engagement initiative centering on theme related projects with male family members. Such parent-child projects help to extend the child’s learning experiences from the pre-school to the home and sustain that home-school connection. As such, simple family engagement activities such as literacy nights, family art exhibitions, cooking fiestas and game days can provide opportunities for families to be involved in children’s learning journey within an early childhood programme.

Conclusion - Take away reminders:

  1. Consider families’ practical needs when planning family engagement activities by providing options for participation. (Remember, one size does not fit all).
  2. Early childhood professionals need to know about the families in their care: who they are, and what they want for their young children.
  3. For parents who are unable to physically visit the early childhood centre: reach out to them via the phone (at a convenient time), social media (What’s app or Facebook messages) or little personalised notes via designated family members.
  4. Connect families to community resources that could strengthen their family unit; early childhood professionals are not trained to respond to welfare and therapeutic needs of families, but could help them connect to the relevant supportive agencies.
  5. The family-teacher partnership is based on caring, respect, and shared power because early childhood professionals and families bring to the partnership different cultural backgrounds and experiences as it relates to the role of parents and educators within the early childhood programmes. Such differences could either impact positively or negatively on the collaborative relationship between families and teachers.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which teacher attitudes help to build positive relationships with families?
  2. Which parent attitudes help to build positive relationships with teachers?
  3. Should early childhood educators further the needs of families within their early childhood programmes?
  4. How should early childhood professionals meaningfully engage the families in their care on sensitive childrearing issues?

REMEMBER: Implicit in the family-teacher partnership relationship is the concept of empowerment; it is always wise for families/parents to believe that their engagement would benefit their children’s developmental outcomes.


Demircan, Ö, & Erden, F. T. (2014). Parental involvement and developmentally appropriate practices: A comparison of parent and teacher beliefs. Early Child Development and Care, 185(2), 209-225. doi:10.1080/03004430.2014.919493

Ebbeck, M., & Glover, A. (2000). Immigrant families in early childhood centres: Diverse expectations. In Landscapes in Early Childhood Education: Cross National Perspectives on Empowerment – A Guide for the New Millennium (pp. 239-249). New York: Peter Lang.

Halgunseth, L.C. (2009). Family engagement, diverse families, and early childhood education programs: An integrated review of the literature. Young Children, 64(5), 56–58.

Sanabria-Hernandez, L. (2008). Engaging Families in Early Childhood Education. Retrieved May 23, 2016, from  

Keller H, Voelker, S. and Yovsi, R. D. (2005) Conceptions of parenting in different cultural communities: the case of Western African Nso and Northern German women. Social Development 14: 158–180.

Klein, A. S., & Miller, M. (n.d.). Early Childhood NEWS - Article Reading Center. Retrieved May 23, 2016, from  

Kreider, H. (1998). Families and teachers as partners. Harvard Family Research Project.

Small, M. L. (2006). Neighborhood institutions as resource brokers: Childcare centers, interorganizational ties, and resource access among the poor. Social Problems 53(2): 274–292.

Wise, S. (2002) Parents’ expectations, values and choice of child care: connections to culture. Family Matters 48–56.

Wise, S. (2003) Cultural transition in early childhood: the developmental consequences of discontinuity between home and childcare. In: Eighth Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, 12–14 February, Southbank, Melbourne, NSW, Australia.

About the Author

Lesleann Whiteman holds a Master of Education (Ed. Admin) from the University of Sheffield UK, a Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood Education) with 1st class Honours and a Certificate in Early Childhood Education from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. She also possesses a Diploma in Early Childhood Studies and Certificate in Counselling in Education from Roehampton Institute London, UK. 

Ms. Whiteman has worked for twenty-seven years in the area of early childhood development with diverse organisations in Asia, the United Kingdom, North America and the Caribbean to ensure that Early Childhood Teacher Education Programmes use a holistic curriculum approach in training early childhood educators. 

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