Ideas for Partnering with Families

Kim Garcia, Family Advocate

Using a team effort

Kim Garcia is a family advocate from Northeastern Head Start of Nevada in Elko, Nevada. She talks about:

  • Using a team effort in working with a family experiencing homelessness. [00:00:42]
    Read the transcript

    Using a team effort

    The story of a homeless family that we've just been working with the last – this is their second year in the program and, you know, they were a family we took a chance on. We provided full-day services for both children – one in Early Head Start, one in – in Head Start. We did have some challenges. It was a team effort.

    We would kind of case manage in private what the challenges were with this family. One was medical issues: trying to get immune records; birth certificates; also due, two health care – care screenings. One of the children in Early Head Start was – was diagnosed with a severe eye disorder and needed medical surgery months later. And so I think we were really critical in helping with that intervention, or he would have lost his sight at some point down the road.

    The mother had a seventh grade education. There was a lot of one-on-one sessions trying to help her get a job. They lived in a camper trailer – four of them. You know, I think a lot of homeless cases, you know, it comes to the forefront there usually is domestic violence, substance abuse, alcohol, those things of nature, and sometimes that does intervene into, you know, matters of the law – law enforcement or DCFS involvement.

    But this is a family that just kept on plugging forth day-by-day. Now she's working full time. Then it was transportation; how are we going to help her with transportation? And we were able to find a neat bus in our area that provided transportation, And she's still on the wait list for low-income housing, but the family is really thriving and really is an advocate participant in our program now.

Dora McKean, Home-Based Educator

Speaking with sensitivity

Dora McKean is a home-based educator who works for the Monterey County Office of Education Head Start and Early Head Start in Monterey, California. She talks about:

  • Speaking with sensitivity. [00:01:22]
    Read the transcript

    Speaking with sensitivity

    There was one time that I was at a family's home and there were several other agencies that – that came by to help out with the situation, and I was really shocked at the manner that one of the people spoke to the family. It was really – it was really rude and – and – and negative. It was – he was a little condescending, I think.

    And it helped me to understand when I start working with families, and when I talk to this particular mom, that I needed to be a little vulnerable myself and be really honest and – and relate some of my own story, that I had had some times when I struggled too, and that, you know, we all have a little something that – times that we've had that are hard and – and we get through them, and – and that we were going to get through it together.

    And to just really verbalize that I didn't feel the way necessarily that other people that she talked to felt, that I really understood the importance of saying that out loud, because I realize that she'd actually heard those words from other people, that she actually heard people put her down for circumstances, and she needed to hear from me that I wasn't one of them.

Shirley Fan-Chan, former Chief of Training and Technical Assistance Officer

Strength-based philosophy

Staff who work with families experiencing homelessness

Gaining the trust of parents: Genevie's story

Shirley Fan-Chan is the former chief training and technical assistance officer from Horizons for Homeless Children, a nonprofit, private organization in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Horizons for Homeless Children has two direct services programs for homeless young children and families: 1) Community Children's Center, which serves all the homeless young children living in the family shelters in Boston; and 2) place-based programs, which are located at the family shelters across the state of Massachusetts. She discusses the following:

  • Horizons for Homeless Children's strength-based philosophy.
    Select this video [00:00:17] | Read the transcript

    Strength-based philosophy

    Horizons for Homeless Children's philosophy is strengths-based. We start with what families do well, then support the families' needs and goals by drafting a family-driven plan. We create a blame-free environment that allows parents to receive non-judgmental and respectful treatment from all staff.

  • Staff who work with families experiencing homelessness.
    Select this video [00:01:31] | Read the transcript

    Staff who work with families experiencing homelessness

    In some cases, Head Start and Early Head Start program staff might identify themselves with some of the families and begin to feel the vulnerability the families have shared with them. They need to be able to hold a strong and good boundary with the families.

    Other feelings related to their work with children in transition is that many staff may not be able to see the effect of what they are doing for the children if the families leave suddenly. This may cause the staff to feel angry or disappointed. Staff need to get support for their own mental health to sort out those feelings. Head Start programs need to provide continued support to the staff.

    Staff who work with homeless children for long periods of time may also develop detachment issues. Mental health support will help the staff to re-engage with their work and to understand the importance of their sensitivity towards the families and children. It's a balancing act.

    Staff need to receive adequate clinical supervision or mental health support in order to separate themselves from vulnerability as they relate to the homeless families. Supervisors can offer objective suggestions to – to staff to deal with those feelings.

    Our staff at Horizons for Homeless Children receive a wide range of training to enhance communication between parents and teaching staff. It is critical for our staff to understand that effective communication can empower parents in many positive ways. Trainings on special needs or different population-related topics, such as domestic violence and substance abuse, are very helpful.

  • Gaining the trust of parents: Genevie's story.
    Select this video [00:02:22] | Read the transcript

    Gaining the trust of parents: Genevie's story

    Parents don't automatically trust you, especially if they have felt the system failed them tremendously. When they come to your program, you are just one of the bureaucrats they have dealt with since they became homeless. You have to prove to them that you are not and that you do care about their well-being.

    One of the families that we worked with, her name was Genevie – who has four children – enrolled her three young, beautiful girls two years ago at Horizons for Homeless Children. She lived in a substance-abuse transitional program across the street from our program. As a result of the drug use and neglecting her health, she lost many of her teeth. Her self-esteem was lower than you could imagine at that point.

    She didn't make eye contact with anyone including her children's teachers. Her head was down every morning when she walked into the center. No eye contact, no acknowledgment. We could tell she was angry from her tone of voice when she spoke. Only one thing made her proud – her three beautiful daughters. They came every day with pretty, colorful dresses and very neat hair-dos. No one could break the ice with her. Then I realized the girls could be my ice breakers. I complimented them on their neat hair, beautiful barrettes, and beautiful, colorful dresses day after day. Many days later, the mother responded with a smile and said, "Hi, you look good too." She started to open up.

    The best part was her self-esteem had risen. Every day she walked in with a smile and acknowledged all the staff in the hallway. Once her self-esteem lifted and she believed in herself, her motivation and her self-reliance made it easier to handle other aspects of her life. She finished her job training program, pursued a part-time employment, and moved to permanent housing within two years.

    The transformation we saw in her was amazing. It was not just from her appearance, it was the confidence that she radiated from her inside to her outside. All our teaching staff and advocates could see that transformation and it touched all our hearts. How we present ourselves to connect with the parents is really the key to support them, and it is important to be creative and patient.

Christina Murphy, Director of the Campaign to End Child Homelessness

Training on the impact of trauma

Providing comprehensive services

Christina Murphy is the director of the Campaign to End Child Homelessness at The National Center on Family Homelessness. The National Center on Family Homelessness has been working to raise awareness and galvanize action to ensure stable housing and well-being for families and children who are homeless since 1988. The Campaign to End Child Homelessness works to increase public awareness, inform federal and state policies to better address the needs of children and families in homeless situations, and improve programs and services to meet the needs of those children and families. She talks about:

  • Training on the impact of trauma.
    Select this video [00:01:31] | Read the transcript

    Training on the impact of trauma

    Young children who are homeless need the safety, predictability, and reassuring routines of Early Head Start and Head Start programs. They need positive relationships with and support from teachers and staff. They need developmentally responsive, educational activities to help them learn the skills they will need to be successful in school. Homeless children need nutritious food and care from a nurse or doctor if they are sick. They need safe places to go and calm down when they are feeling angry and upset.

    It is important for anyone working with young homeless children, including Early Head Start and Head Start teachers and staff, to take into account the high rates of trauma in the lives of homeless families and to understand that experiences of homelessness and traumatic stress may impact the day to day functioning of homeless parents and children, as well as their interactions with teachers and staff.

    Early Head Start and Head Start programs offer a range of services, from assessment to skill-building, that are essential in order to address the impact of trauma on homeless children and to keep them on a path to healthy development. It is important that all services provided by Early Head Start and Head Start programs are trauma-informed and that all Head Start staff receive training on the impact of trauma on young children so that services are effective and do not inadvertently re-traumatize children and their parents.

  • Providing comprehensive services.
    Select this video [00:00:46] | Read the transcript

    Providing comprehensive services

    Comprehensive services for homeless children are critical. The needs of homeless children are often extensive. These needs often go unaddressed within the homeless service delivery system. The assessment and services provided by Early Head Start and Head Start programs are essential for identifying and beginning to address these unmet needs. For Early Head Start and Head Start teachers and staff, this means providing early intervention services and creating integrated and accessible referrals and connections with other service systems. It is essential that the people providing the services that homeless children need actively create integrated service plans, as opposed to addressing a range of issues in isolation from others.

Tamara Perez, Social Worker and Parent Involvement Coordinator

Using a holistic approach

Working with families

Supporting and training staff

Tamara Perez is the Head Start social worker and parent involvement coordinator at Bright Beginnings, Inc. Child Development Center, an Early Head Start/Head Start center for children and families experiencing homelessness in Washington, DC. She talks about:

  • Using a holistic approach.
    Select this video [00:01:10] | Read the transcript

    Using a holistic approach

    Families in homeless situations need to know that both Early Head Start and Head Start programs take a holistic approach with children and families. Both programs provide comprehensive services in health, education, parent involvement, and social services. This approach is intended to cultivate healthy growth in children. Parents learn the importance of being involved in their child's education.

    The value of comprehensive services for homeless children is critical. Many homeless children have never seen a doctor or don't have a primary care physician. Head Start will ensure that a child has updated immunization, a dental home, and proper medical, nutritional, and mental health services. Educational programs are tailored to meet the needs of each child. While in Head Start, homeless children gain valuable experiences that will promote their growth and development. Head Start disabilities and mental health services provide early identification and treatment so that Head Start children can reach appropriate development levels.

  • Working with families.
    Select this video [00:01:12] | Read the transcript

    Working with families

    When working with families, whether they are homeless or not, each family must be treated with dignity and respect at all times. They should never be made to feel inferior because of their current circumstances. Programs have to make sure that they have trained individuals such as social workers or family support workers that are sensitive to families and their needs. It is important that families are linked to community resources that will help them tackle and overcome obstacles and work with them to achieve their desired goals.

    Staff deal with a wide range of emotions when working with homeless families. Workers have to remember that each family comes with strengths and weaknesses and families should never be compared to one another. Each person's situation is unique and must be addressed accordingly. At one point in time, that mobile family could have been homeless, but with determination, encouragement, and proper resources all families can thrive.

  • Supporting and training staff.
    Select this video [00:00:31] | Read the transcript

    Supporting and training staff

    Programs have to continually train and support their staff across the board. Workers have to be abreast of best practices, teaching techniques, and current data and statistical information as it relates to child development. Another component to professional development is staff addressing their own social and emotional health. They have to be aware of how their own attitude impacts the children and families that they serve.

Mary Vanderwert, Minnesota Head Start State Collaboration Director

Supporting parents in being parents

A program that works well

Mary Vanderwert is the director of the Head Start State Collaboration Office in Minnesota. She discusses the following:

  • Supporting parents in being parents.
    Select this video [00:00:35] | Read the transcript

    Supporting parents in being parents

    Parents need lots of support in this really stressful time that they are, as well as the program, focusing on the needs of their children along with all those other things they have to do. They have to get enrolled in services; they need to get housing found. They may be dealing with mental health issues or other legal issues that come along with homelessness. But to be able to remind them that they're parents too, and to support them in that and – and create some spaces where parents can be with their children in a – in a more normal sort of typical way that families interact.

  • A program that works well.
    Select this video [00:03:13] | Read the transcript

    A program that works well

    In our state, one of – one of our programs has dedicated a family service staff who is also a teacher – she – she does both of those things – who spends her days in the shelters, and she works with… If a family comes in with a young child, both birth – birth to five, she immediately enrolls them in Head Start and begins working with the family. They're enrolled as – as a home-based option so she does weekly home visits until – until there's an opening in a center.

    During those home visits, she works with the parents on the things they need to do to – to get their family stable again, but she also works with them on how to be a parent and how – and – and provides opportunities and activities for them to sit with their child and focus on their child for at least some period during each day. They also do field trips to the library to do story hours or they take field trips into the community, so those children and – and families are interacting with all of the families in the community and – and are learning about the resources that are available to them.

    One of the stories I need to tell you about that – that particular program is that family service worker got to know a family that was having some legal issues. For some reason, they weren't able to get services because there was something on their record, and that family service worker walked them to the – to the county office to try to get that cleared up. And when they couldn't clear it up in the county, she actually used some of the Head Start funds to get a bus ticket down to the Twin Cities to be able to get to the – the government office that they needed to get to to – to understand what was happening with their record. Come to find out, this dad had a brother who had been using his name and had run up some debts and – and – and used his identity to do some things that were illegal. And so she was able to work with this dad to get those things squared away and cleared his record. So then they were able to get into housing. But because she was a Head Start worker, she – and had access to some resources – was able to really walk through this whole process with him and get that resolved for the family when, you know, perhaps another resource wouldn't be able to.

    That program also has an arrangement with a high quality child care center so that infants and toddlers that need that care can go right into that child care program. So during the day they have good care, they have good food, they have a place to sleep, and – and then their parents can take care of business and pick them up in the afternoon. They're able to stay there then as their family gets stabilized and until they can get them into another program. So that's – that's a program that's working well in one of our communities.

Khari Garvin, North Carolina Head Start State Collaboration Director

Offering comprehensive services

Making linkages

Khari Garvin is the director of the North Carolina Head Start State Collaboration Office. He talks about the following:

  • Offering comprehensive services.
    Select this video [00:00:54] | Read the transcript

    Offering comprehensive services

    Head Start's commitment and Early Head Start's commitment from the very beginning was always to serve the most vulnerable citizens, the neediest of the needy. And – and – and by virtue of the fact that Head Start offers comprehensive services, it – it can provide services to – to these families that they otherwise may not have the opportunity to access: health services; education; food certainly could be an issue, and so nutrition would be – Head Start could be a source for that; medical services; physical exams; dental exams. These are all things that – that for someone who's living in poverty or someone who – who – who is homeless may not necessarily be able to access. And so, Head Start and Early Head Start programs certainly can help these families not only access these – these resources, but to become self-sufficient so that when they exit the program they'll be well-equipped to access them on their own.

  • Making linkages.
    Select this video [00:01:09] | Read the transcript

    Making linkages

    Homeless families with children birth to three or – or three to five, really, I believe all need the – the same thing. Now – now, clearly, some of the services would be tailored to the developmental needs of that particular child; so an infant would clearly need something different than a four-year-old would need. But other than that, the – the same kind of interventions, I think, are very important.

    We need resources that will help these families identify stable housing situation, for one. Also, we need staff who can help families understand how to access the resources that that particular community or state may already have available in terms of Medicaid and – and – and – and perhaps school vouchers and this sort of thing. And – and then also, too, the – the role of the comprehensive services is critical because these are families that, since they move around so much, aren't in any place long enough to – to – to get fully integrated into the system. So this – Head Start and Early Head Start are – are – are programs that can really help make those linkages for those families.

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Strategies for Partnering with Families

The high mobility and trauma associated with families experiencing homelessness may necessitate different approaches to partnering with these families. Families in homeless situations are often overwhelmed with what is happening in their lives and they can benefit from support and help in setting priorities. These families are often less likely to volunteer in the classroom, participate in parent meetings, attend parent-teacher conferences, or serve on policy councils. They often have extensive demands on their time, which limits the amount of time they can be involved in Head Start. In addition to supporting families experiencing homelessness, Head Start staff should also pay attention to self-care to prevent or reduce stress and burnout.

Challenge Strategy
Develop relationships
  • Make home visits available for conducting parent conferences.
  • Ensure that staff, particularly family advocates or family services staff, develop close relationships with families so that the families view attendance at meetings or events as an opportunity to meet with staff they know.
  • Be flexible and non-judgmental when working with families. For example, just telling a parent that a child needs to go to the dentist may not be enough. Staff may need to tell a parent several times or even make the appointment and accompany the parent and child to the appointment.
Involve families
  • Hold meetings at times and locations that accommodate the schedules of families experiencing homelessness. For example, in the evenings and at the shelters where they live.
  • Structure meetings as social occasions and offer food and child care as part of the gathering.
  • Use parent meetings as opportunities for parents to talk about what is going on in their lives rather than as instructional events.
  • Develop ways for parents to be involved without being in the classroom. For example, riding the bus with their child, assisting on the bus as a monitor, creating a parent handbook for the bus, or recording books and songs on tape to be played in the classroom.
  • Establish a mutually determined contract with families for them to contribute a specific number of hours each month if they are working or in training, or each week if they are not.
Support families
  • Coordinate with social services departments or shelters so that families can obtain work or volunteer credits for the hours they work in the classroom.
  • Hire a parent who is experiencing homelessness to serve as a program advocate responsible for increasing parent involvement.
  • Provide services related to developing self-sufficiency such as workshops on job readiness, career planning, and time and financial management.
  • Work with families to develop individualized goals and help them become motivated to meet those goals.
  • Establish relationships with local businesses willing to hire the parents.
  • Assist families experiencing homeless with obtaining housing.
  • For information for parents about stress, refer to Taking Care of Ourselves, in English
    [PDF, 812.05KB] or Spanish [PDF, 744.14KB], by The Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation.
Train staff
  • Provide ongoing specialized training for meeting the needs of families experiencing homelessness.
  • Provide informal training through staff meetings, in-service training, and contacts with specialists in areas such as mental health, child development, and working with children with special needs.
  • For information about teaching effective strategies to reduce stress in families and staff, refer to A Dozen Posters to Combat Stress, in English [PDF, 2.75MB] or Spanish [PDF, 2.81MB], by The Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation.
Practice self-care
  • Practice self-care as a preventive measure.
  • Encourage staff to regularly monitor their stress level and its impact.
  • Recognize warning signs of stress such as increased occurrence of the following: feeling guilty for taking time off or never taking time off; having difficulty thinking positively; having strong reactions to minor stresses; not looking forward to your work; not performing well at work; not sleeping well; having more arguments or conflicts; and/or decreasing your social life.
  • Incorporate self-care activities in everyday life.

    Self-care activities

    Some self-care activities include:

    • Take one thing at a time;
    • Solve little problems;
    • Be realistic;
    • Be flexible;
    • Adopt a positive attitude;
    • Avoid over-scheduling;
    • Learn to relax;
    • Eat healthy food;
    • Exercise;
    • Get enough sleep;
    • Take time off when you are sick;
    • Share your feelings;
    • Learn to ask for help;
    • Be aware of your limitations; and
    • Laugh.

    Adapted from What About You? A Workbook for Those Who Work with Others by The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2008

  • Encourage staff to remember why they do the work they do and what motivates them.
  • For more information on self-care, refer to What About You? A Workbook for Those Who Work with Others [PDF, 1.25MB] by The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2008.

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Family Partnership Agreements

The family partnership agreement process recognizes that there is no one approach that can be applied when working with families. Staff initiate a process and provide partnership opportunities for families by asking, in effect, "How can Head Start support you?" The family partnering process, oftentimes, is facilitated by a document that is most commonly known as a family partnership agreement. While each family determines the direction of the family partnership agreement, the process allows relationship building between families and staff. So, when a crisis such as an experience with homelessness occurs, staff can provide supportive interventions. This may allow the family to discover it can master and overcome the crisis and amass new coping strategies which will allow them to move beyond the crisis.

Review the sample Family Partnership Agreements below. Reflect on the following questions:

  • What elements in the sample family partnership agreements make it easy to identify families experiencing homelessness?
  • What elements would you add to the sample family partnership agreements to make it easy to identify families experiencing homelessness?

Sample 1 from a Head Start program in Texas (English) [RTF, 118KB]

Sample 2 from a Head Start program in Texas (Spanish) [RTF, 141KB]

Sample 3 from an Early Head Start program [RTF, 29KB]

Sample 4 from a Head Start program in California [RTF, 165KB]

Sample 5 from a Head Start program in Missouri [RTF, 152KB]


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Voices from the Field

Read about what some Head Start programs are doing to partner with families:

  • An urban program in Indiana uses a holistic approach in working with families.

    An urban program in Indiana uses a holistic approach

    Indianapolis, Indiana tries to assist families to the fullest that they can. They refer many families to their community partners. They prepare the family and explain what to expect when their child transitions from Head Start to kindergarten. They let families know whom to contact at the school district if they should experience homelessness again or if they are not currently out of that situation. They work closely with families to assign them housing and refer them to other agencies for employment assistance and education. They want the family to transition from the program well-equipped to prevent this situation from occurring again.

  • A rural program in Alabama uses a family advocate.

    A rural program in Alabama uses a family advocate

    Cheaha wants to immediately link people to emergency services. They use a comprehensive approach to help make the family stable and self-sufficient by using a family advocate who tries to address the unique needs of each family that is experiencing homelessness. For example, if a family needs food, then the family advocate contacts the food bank or other community resource that will help them.

  • A suburban program in Los Angeles works with families to develop a plan.

    A suburban program in Los Angeles works with families to develop a plan

    At the time of enrollment, the Norwalk/LaMirada family service worker conducts a family assessment and has a one-on-one communication with the family. If the family wants to develop a plan to get an apartment, perhaps in a different area where the rents may be lower, Norwalk/LaMirada works with the family to develop a family plan. Norwalk/LaMirada builds a relationship with the family and tailors services to the family's needs – for example, help in acquiring their own place.

  • An urban shelter-based program in Ohio uses volunteers and encourages resident parents to volunteer.

    An urban shelter-based program in Ohio uses volunteers and encourages resident parents to volunteer

    The Child Development Council of Franklin County (CDCFC) Head Start in Columbus, Ohio has a homeless shelter in the YWCA, which is a state-of-the-art building. They have lots of volunteers and support groups that come there and either work with the families or do activities with the children. The CDCFC also encourages parents to actively participate – in parent meetings, volunteering, reading to the children, and participating on Policy Council.

  • A rural program in Michigan helps make accommodations for families experiencing homelessness.

    A rural program in Michigan helps make accommodations for families experiencing homelessness

    The communities in northeastern Michigan are small, so people know each other. Often, staff are able to support families experiencing homelessness through the collaborations already established with other programs and businesses in the area, or by their personal reputations and connections. For example, staff may ask a landlord to reduce rent in exchange for the family doing lawn work, or staff may provide references or assurances that would aid the family in waiving a security deposit.

  • A rural program in Alabama provides training.

    A rural program in Alabama provides training

    Cheaha has established relationships with some of the local banks, which provide training for parents on how to save money, how to get their credit reports cleared, and how to apply for Habitat for Humanity or the Fannie Mae program. The training program includes topics such as saving, the importance of saving consistently, and budgeting. Cheaha also helps with other areas, such as nutrition and how to eat healthy but remain on a budget. They provide 24/7 dad training and work with fathers and significant others to help them have an interactive relationship with their children. Cheaha does not have a large number of families experiencing homelessness so these programs are open to everyone.

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Last Updated: January 6, 2017