Family Engagement

Parent Tips for Effective Family Engagement

Family engagement is at the heart of successful Head Start and Early Head Start programs as they work to build partnerships with parents, families, and caregivers and to support them as advocates and leaders. These efforts are more successful when programs create opportunities for parents and family members to share their voices and contribute to the program in ways that matter to the families themselves. One way to do this is to invite parents and staff to work as partners from the beginning of a project using a “co-design” model.

Co-design models involve small groups of parents and staff who meet virtually or in person. Their purpose is to improve the program. Groups often begin by setting up norms (ways of working and being together) and then meeting at regular intervals to brainstorm, think, and reflect.

The National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (NCPFCE) and a group of former Head Start parents engaged in a co-design process to reflect on effective family engagement from the parent perspective. The following parent recommendations resulted from the co-design process.

Begin with Foundational Reflections

Create time to think about, discuss, and agree on key questions about family engagement. This focus sets the stage for future family engagement efforts. Ask:

  • Why is it important to use parent-recommended engagement and partnership tips?
  • What does family engagement and partnership look and feel like for families? What does it look and feel like for staff?
  • What is the value of family partnership and engagement for your program?
  • What are the benefits of families having an important voice in your program?

Shift Staff Mindsets and Beliefs

Program staff’s beliefs about families may not always be rooted in strengths-based ideas. Recognize and work to change those beliefs. Doing this allows space for growth, partnership, and improvement. Be sure to:

  • Prioritize family partnership and engagement, as it is key to improving the program’s overall work.
  • See parents and caregivers as experts.
  • Believe that parents and family members have solutions.
  • Count on parents to make real decisions that lead to concrete next steps.

Recognize and Compensate Parents

“Meet everybody where they’re at, of course, but give us the opportunity to show you what we know and what we don’t know.” —NCPFCE Parent

Honor the time, expertise, and contributions of parents and family members. You do this when you:

  • Pay parents and family members for their time and expertise on special efforts and activities, to recognize their mental, emotional, and physical energy.
  • Provide child care, transportation, food, and other material or logistical supports.
  • Recognize parents and family members for their contributions. List them as important contributors in written documents. Thank them out loud when you give presentations.
  • Ask parents to name the kinds of support they need to fully participate.
  • Ask parents and family members how they would like to share their expertise.

Bring Parents in from the Start

“Nothing for us without us.” —NCPFCE Parent

Parents and family members are their children’s advocates. In this role, they are critical members of a program’s community. Include them as soon as their child is enrolled in the program. Invite parents and family members to participate at the start of a new project. To do this:

  • Keep parents and families at the center of all decisions, processes, and systems that involve them.
  • Hold true to the principle of “nothing for us without us” in all work with families.
  • Meet parents and family members where they are.
  • Make space for parents to share their current knowledge, areas of expertise, and desired areas of growth.

Set Up Ways of Being Together

When you set up ways of being together, you create norms. With norms, you have expectations that help everyone know what to expect. Norms also help set the tone and make sure that parents and family members feel heard, respected, and comfortable. Some common norms you could adopt are:

  • Agree to sometimes disagree.
  • Be present and avoid distractions (e.g., norms for limited cellphone use).
  • Be respectful of each other while talking (e.g., norms to discourage people from interrupting each other).
  • Bring your truth. All participants, including parents and staff, speak for themselves and from their own experiences.

Create a Welcoming Space

Be thoughtful about creating a welcoming atmosphere. Make sure this atmosphere respects everyone. You want to ensure that parents and family members feel valued as partners and leaders. You can create this kind of space when you:

  • Begin meetings with time to get to know each other and build relationships. This helps to create an atmosphere of sharing and inclusion.
  • Co-create or co-develop products and projects with families whenever possible. Avoid bringing projects or ideas to families that are fully developed and then asking for their “stamp of approval.”
  • Ask parents which program decisions, projects, etc., are important to them to be involved in.
  • Clearly include and address feedback that parents provide
  • Honor and respect the input of the parents and family members who show up, even if you need to gather input from more parents.
  • Respect all parents’ contributions equally (avoid favoritism or judgement).
  • Acknowledge that family partnerships are essential and that working together takes time.

Ask Questions with Purpose

Be thoughtful about how you ask questions. Frame your questions in ways that help create honest and open dialogue. You do this when you:

  • Let parents and families know that you want to gather their honest input.
  • Ask follow-up questions as needed while paying attention to social, emotional, and verbal signs from parents.
  • Make sure that families know there are no negative results tied to what they share.
  • Ensure confidentiality. Let families know that their stories won’t be shared without their permission.


A focus on listening supports an active understanding of the perspectives of others. You listen effectively when you:

  • Create space for family voices to lead the conversation.
  • Are comfortable being silent and letting others speak.
  • Truly listen to each other. Consider what it means and what it looks like to truly listen.
  • Reflect ideas back to parents and family members in clear ways (e.g., in writing, reflective listening).

Parents’ Perspective on the Benefits of Engaging Parents

In the co-design process, parents offered that by implementing the above recommendations, programs and staff can improve how they:

  • Respect and elevate families’ expertise
  • Support mutually respectful and trusting partnerships between parents and staff
  • Provide families and staff with opportunities for personal and professional growth and development that match their interests and desires
  • Promote meaningful and sustained engagement among parents and staff
  • Intentionally include parents and family members with diverse expertise and experiences

Just as families know their children best, parents and family members know what they need to be able to contribute to programs in meaningful ways. The recommendations here suggest important ways that programs can respect, honor, and partner with families so that their knowledge and experiences drive program services. Additionally, these recommendations can help programs improve their responsiveness to the children and families they serve, enhance the leadership skills of the family members themselves, and contribute to mutually supportive and authentic relationships.

Background & Acknowledgments

In the spring and early summer of 2021, the National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement (NCPFCE) began thinking about its work with parents and family members. NCPFCE staff applied a co-design model in their thinking. Partners and NCPFCE staff recommended three former Head Start parents to be part of this effort. These parents had previous committee experience. The parents attended four virtual co-design sessions. In the co-design sessions, group norms or “ways of being together” were defined. These norms helped to build a strong community among attendees. The group then brainstormed ideas and goals. The sessions were held over two months and in the evening to fit the parents’ schedules. These participating parents were compensated for their time and expertise.

NCPFCE would like to thank the following former Head Start parents — Drayton Jackson, Yolanda Williams, and Victoria Washington — for participating in the co-design model and sharing their insights, thoughts, concerns, hopes and dreams around strengthening family engagement across Head Start services during the co-design sessions discussed in this resource. This resource would not have been possible without their expertise, passion, dedication, feedback, and support.