Staff Can Best Support Children by Supporting Their Parents

Ultimately, the relationships that children have with their parents are the most important relationships in the children’s lives and the ones that have the greatest influence on children’s development. Children from families with low incomes are at an increased risk for disturbances in their early relationships because of the stress factors associated with poverty. Families in low-income situations experience higher rates of health problems, family and community violence, homelessness, and depression. Parents living in poverty are often consumed by their immediate needs for food, safe housing, health care, and other concerns that must be met before they can focus on other areas of their lives. Head Start infant-toddler programs can be instrumental in providing the supports and services that families need to improve their life circumstances and in developing environments where parents are empowered to be their children’s first and most important teachers.

Parents are role models for their children in many areas, including social and emotional skills. Their own ability to cope, express emotions, communicate, persist in tasks, cooperate, compromise, negotiate conflict, and so forth can promote or impede the development of healthy social and emotional functioning in their children. Parents who have safe, supportive relationships with staff can use those relationships as models for how to create a nurturing environment for their children. Just as children need support to cope, express emotions, communicate, persist in tasks, and negotiate conflict, so do adults. A father, for example, who is stressed in the morning when he is dropping off a toddler feels better when the teacher notices and asks him how he is feeling. The experience of being seen and cared for helps us care for others.

Family Partnership Process

A program must implement a family partnership process that includes a family partnership agreement, and the activities described in this section to support family well-being, including family safety, health, and economic stability, to support child learning and development; to provide, if applicable, services and supports for children with disabilities; and to foster parental confidence and skills that promote the early learning and development of their children. The process must be initiated as early in the program year as possible and continue for as long as the family participates in the program, based on parent interest and need.

Head Start Program Performance Standard 45 CFR §1302.52(a)

Partnerships with families have been described as the foundation for Head Start success. Relationships with families are characterized by mutual respect, trust, acceptance, objectivity, flexibility, personalized attention, and cultural awareness (NCPFCE, n.d.). The family partnership process begins at the time of enrollment, evolves as families’ needs and goals change, and continues through the children’s transition out of the program into other community settings.

One of the challenges that staff in Head Start infant-toddler programs face, especially in the home-based program option, is the delicate balance between supporting parent needs while maintaining a focus on the program’s child development goals.

Each home visit should focus on the parent as the child’s most important relationship and first teacher and, through the parent, focus on the needs of the child. Child development experiences, which focus on the relationship and interaction between the parent and child, should occur during each home visit [45 CFR §1302.35(c)(1)–(5); 1302.35(d)(1)(i)]. However, there are times when a parent is so distracted by personal needs that it is difficult to establish the focus on the child. It is important at these times to ensure that the parent gets the support he or she needs so that he or she can then be available to meet their child’s needs. A home visitor in this circumstance might guide the focus back to the child by first listening to the parent’s concerns, identifying resources, and then helping the parents understand how the family circumstances affect the child. The home visitor should ensure that the child development goals of the program are being addressed at the same time that the needs of the parents are supported.

Although the specific challenges and strategies for relationship building between parents and staff members are different in the various program models, all Head Start infant-toddler programs share the goal of strengthening the bond between parent and child to achieve the best child development outcomes.

Implications for Practice

Building partnerships with families is integral to fostering the skills that promote school readiness. Engaging parents as early and as fully as possible in their child’s education will empower them to remain their child’s best advocates throughout his or her years in school. Both home visits and group-care settings provide opportunities to observe and reflect on the relationship between parent and child.

Benefits of Being Bilingual

Bilingualism is an asset that should be developed and celebrated! Here are some reasons why:

  • Learning more than one language has cognitive benefits for infants and toddlers. When they listen to language sounds, they have higher activity in the part of the brain that is important for skills such as working memory, directing attention, and inhibiting impulses. Some studies show that bilingual children are better at thinking flexibly. These skills can lead to improved mental health and academic outcomes later in life.
  • Becoming bilingual helps children maintain strong ties with their entire family, culture, and community. These are key parts of children’s developing identity.
  • Bilingual children’s school readiness and success is tied directly to mastery of their home language. For example, children who learn to read in their home language have a strong foundation to build on when they learn a second language. They can easily transfer their knowledge about reading to their second language.

Help families understand the benefits of being bilingual and encourage them to keep their languages strong. Share resources such as Brilliant Bilingual Babies and The Importance of Home Language Series (The Benefits of Being Bilingual, The Gift of Language, and Language at Home and in the Community for Families).

See Head Start Program Performance Standards 45 CFR §1302.31(b)(2)(i) and (iii); 45 CFR §1302.35(b)(1) and (c)(4)(i).
  • Look for the strengths in the parent-infant relationship and point them out to parents. Parents often do not recognize how important and special they are to their child. For example, when a parent is reunited with their child, notice out loud, “Look how Mary smiles when you enter the room ... and she’s watching every move you make. She sure is happy to see you.”
  • Notice and appreciate how parents take care of their children. Simple statements affirm the effort that the parent is making to care for his or her child. For example, “What a colorful dress your mommy put on you today,” or “Your papi brought your nice warm coat today. You’ll be comfy when we go outside later.”
  • Help parents read their child’s cues by wondering aloud what the child’s gestures and vocalizations might mean. For example, “I noticed that Yuusuf always covers his eyes with his hand when he enters the room. What do you think that is about?” This kind of conversation opens the door to talk about how Yusuuf is managing his transition from home to the program, how to best work with his temperament, and what strategies the staff and parents can develop together to meet Yusuuf’s needs.
  • Use both informal moments and structured parent gatherings (such as group socializations for the home-based program option) to teach parents about the connection between social and emotional development and the mastery of cognitive and other developmental skills in infancy and toddlerhood. Help parents recognize that the process of learning is just as important as mastering specific skills such as identifying letters, shapes, or numbers. Children will naturally learn about these and other literacy and numeracy concepts as adults encourage and support them in exploring their environment.

For example, infants and toddlers do not need structured teaching lessons to learn the alphabet. Rather, they will learn about letters in their home language(s) and English (or word symbols such as those used in Chinese) in a setting where they have access to books; are read to regularly; see the adults in their lives enjoy reading; and experience a language-rich environment that includes talking, singing, and storytelling in their home language(s) as well as English. Help parents understand that, although promoting a 6-month-old’s literacy may look like the child is simply mouthing or banging a book, the infant is actually learning that manipulating books is a fun, rewarding, positive experience. These experiences are especially powerful when they occur in the context of the child’s relationship with the parent—being snuggled in the parent’s lap, enjoying each other’s company, and sharing joyful or tender moments together. Through these experiences, infants will naturally begin to appreciate the importance of letters and words (or word symbols) and will enter preschool—and, eventually, kindergarten—as eager learners who are ready for more sophisticated academic concepts.