“Head Start has not only given my child a head start in life, but one for me as well.” Head Start Parent, Massachusetts
How can I support the Head Start community as it endeavors to engage all parents?
I can act on the knowledge ...
The concept of parent involvement is so ingrained in the operations of Head Start that there is the risk of taking it for granted. Certainly you and your staff members share the belief that parents should be involved in the program that helps their children gain the skills they need to succeed in school. Everyone agrees that the children benefit from such involvement, and that the parents do, too.
Even so, your staff needs to consider, at regular intervals, some key questions. What do you mean by parent? What do you mean by involved? Whose job is it to involve the parents?
Such questions are especially critical now, with both the structure of the family and the makeup of the U.S. population going through rapid changes.
Today, the person who parents a child in Head Start may be a teenager, a single father, a recent immigrant, a grandmother, a foster parent, an aunt or a great-aunt. Fewer parents are at home full-time with their children. More parents are working two or more jobs or are in school or training full-time themselves.
Families today are more mobile, as they search for better employment and housing. Many families served by Head Start have recently emigrated from Southeast Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe and other distant points on the globe. Families within a program may not share a common language and they may represent widely different cultural beliefs, attitudes and practices.
These and many other factors mean that there is no typical parent and no one best way to get them involved. Traditional strategies to involve parents in Head Start, such as classroom volunteering or membership on the Policy Council, may not meet the interests, needs or logistical requirements of all parents.
Because of the more complex nature of parenting today, parent involvement is too big a task to lay on any one employee. It takes creativity, teamwork and the skills of the entire staff.
The use of the word engage is deliberate. It has the same meaning as the word involve, but it also suggests more. To engage means to pledge or to commit oneself. The word engage also is used in reference to the gears of a motor coming together to successfully operate. In the same way, staff members need to make a commitment and to come together to involve all parents meaningfully.
That commitment must begin with the management team. By holding the expectation that everyone has parent involvement in his or her job description by encouraging, recognizing and rewarding collaborative staff efforts for parent involvement by setting aside the time and resources for staff to reflect on these issues, share ideas and receive training you are showing that you are committed to meaningful involvement opportunities for all parents.
We all know the saying, Parents are their children's first and most important teachers. Children learn not only from the active instruction their parents give them but also from what they observe their parents doing, from the way their parents talk to them and behave toward them and from the home life their parents provide them.
But parents do more than simply teach their children. The greater truth is that parents are a child's first and most important adult. Parents affect almost every aspect of a child's life: self-esteem, health, attitudes, values, behavior, readiness for school and success in life.
The reasons for this are obvious. Of any adults, the parents of a child (or the persons who perform the duties of parents) have the most responsibility for that child. Over the years they spend the greatest amount of time with that child. They have the most invested in that child and their feelings for the child are the strongest and most intense.
Because parents have so much at stake, they have a great deal to offer to the Head Start program serving their children. Head Start has long recognized this. Much of its success has been due to its commitment to parent involvement.
Parent involvement benefits children in several ways. There is the direct benefit from the parents working with the staff, so that more can be accomplished for the children. Children benefit when their parents know about and support what is happening in their education. Parents who develop a habit of involvement are more likely to continue that participation throughout a child's school career. Finally, parents who are involved gain skills in decision making, teaching, management, advocacy and other areas. They develop habits of learning that will continue throughout their lives. These gains can positively affect a parent's self-esteem, attitudes, behavior and employment. This in turn can lead to positive effects on the children.
Head Start programs often struggle to maintain high levels of parent involvement. Traditional methods of involvement, such as having parents serve as classroom volunteers or on the Policy Council, don't allow opportunities for all parents to be involved. They also do not take advantage of the many different kinds of contributions that parents can make.
Head Start developed a vision for parent involvement [PDF, 775KB]. This vision maintains that some of the most important goals for parent involvement in Head Start are to:
- Support parents as primary educators, nurturers and advocates for their children;
- Ensure that every parent has an opportunity for a significant experience in Head Start; and
- Ensure that parents are involved in making policy decisions for the program, which is the foundation of Head Start's unique