Supporting the needs of children and families during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is not an easy task. The effort requires staff and families to work together to keep programs open and help children and adults stay healthy while programs do their best to continue meeting the needs of families. As Head Start and Early Head Start professionals, we are committed to working alongside families to celebrate strengths and, as they are ready, support any challenges they may be facing. Together, we ensure that children continue to learn, grow, and build healthy relationships. One important way we show this commitment is through conversations with families about the program’s COVID-19 vaccine and mask requirements.
As Head Start professionals, we know our families and communities best. We also have the knowledge and experience to offer specific approaches to support each family. The three simple strategies described below can serve as reminders of how we can effectively navigate conversations with families. They reflect what program staff have always done with care and consideration, whether talking with families about their children’s development or about families’ own strengths and needs.
Listen to Families’ Stories
Any meaningful conversation starts with listening.
Our capacity to listen with care invites families to share not only their questions, concerns, and frustrations but also their stories. We may not agree with everything they share. But by listening, we create opportunities to learn more about what families have experienced during the pandemic, what their children may be feeling or talking about at home, and how they are supporting their children and themselves.
Our willingness to listen also leads us to understand what families may be trying to communicate. Often, when people feel uncertain, frustrated, angry, and overwhelmed, what they say and how they say it do not convey the underlying need they want to communicate. Listening can create a space for us to hear. Focusing on understanding can help us listen for the deeper needs behind the words.
We can better listen and understand when we remember the following:
- When families express frustrations about the ever-changing restrictions related to COVID-19, they may be communicating their desire for stability and predictability for their children and themselves
- When families express objections toward certain public health regulations, such as masking requirements, they may be communicating their deep concern for their children’s development and relationships with teachers and peers
- When families direct some angry feelings toward program staff for COVID-19-related changes, they may be communicating their own needs for empathy and support, especially if they feel helpless and powerless to meet all the challenges facing their families
Acknowledge and Reflect Families’ Needs
Acknowledging others’ feelings builds trust and strengthens community.
Our willingness to ask for help and receive support is built on a foundation of trust. We cannot always be sure that we truly understand what families are trying to communicate on the first try. But when we reflect back to the family what we think we heard them say, we can strengthen our own understanding. And, by articulating simply and honestly what we think we heard in a family’s story, we give them a chance to elaborate and correct our understanding. This reflection conveys to families that their concerns are heard.
As the program staff who know the family best, we also know how best to convey understanding and empathy. When we adapt our approaches to each family and help them feel seen and heard, we help to break down the sense of isolation that families often feel. We invite them to be part of the collaborative actions we are taking, and we reaffirm them as their children’s most knowledgeable and passionate advocates.
There are many ways to acknowledge and reflect back what we hear, such as:
- Letting families know that they are not alone in their questions, worries, and struggles; that other families share in similar experiences (e.g., feeling overwhelmed and powerless); and that there are staff who share the same concerns and worries.
- Letting families know that Head Start staff are available and will prioritize support for both children and their families. It is OK to admit if we do not have the answers to their urgent questions and challenges. We are available to listen, to understand, and to invite them to work together with us to find feasible solutions.
- Affirming to families that they are playing an important role in knowing and sharing what their children need. When families share their thoughts and engage in conversations, they are helping the program staff better serve children and families.
Focus on Helpers
Creating the space for genuine kindness and connection can boost our spirits and impart hope. Helping others helps us, too.
In times of crisis or emergencies, we look to the helpers around us. They give us the strength and confidence to remain hopeful, even in the face of continuing uncertainty and adversity.
In the midst of COVID-19, Head Start programs have focused on creating places of safety and sustaining a community of hope and resilience. We are committed to working together, with each other and with families, for as long as it takes to overcome COVID-19 challenges and help children and families thrive.
We do not have to look far for the helpers in the Head Start community — they are right next to us, among our colleagues and friends. Even more often, they are looking back at us in the mirror. The relationships built by all of us in our programs are the heartbeat of our communities.
A culture of helping is at the heart of our common purpose and professional identity. In conversations with families about the program's COVID-19-related requirements, we can remind families who the helpers are in the program and community. Head Start programs, educational agencies, heath providers, and family services professionals have been doing their best to contribute to this community of helpers. It is important for us and for families to know that there are many people who care and who are trying to navigate the many challenges brought on by the pandemic.
We can help to create a culture of helping by:
- Looking for stories of how educators and families are striving to help children find joy in learning and relationships, despite all the obstacles both children and adults face
- Sharing ideas of how program staff can create opportunities to build closer partnerships with families or how program directors can focus on the needs of both children and adults to make COVID-19 challenges more manageable
- Recognizing “small wins” and incremental progress from families, staff, and programs as a whole, while acknowledging that challenges remain
Navigating conversations about public health requirements during these uncertain times of COVID-19 is an important part of the Head Start program’s culture. Listening to families’ stories helps us hear the deeper needs of children and families. Reflecting these needs back to families helps them know their needs are a priority. Focusing our attention and energy on the collective efforts of all our helpers affirms our community and the fact that none of us works alone.
In conversations about public health requirements and guidance, we can integrate these strategies within our relational work. We strengthen the foundation of trust we have built with our families in the process. No matter our roles or job descriptions, we as Head Start program professionals can play an important part in encouraging and engaging in these conversations. Together, we can keep children and families safe while continuing to help them learn and grow.
Resource Type: Article
National Centers: Parent, Family and Community Engagement
Last Updated: January 5, 2022