Creating meaningful partnerships with families leads to better outcomes for children. This is why the BBF Families and Communities Committee, composed of parents, caregivers and early childhood stakeholders, worked together over the last two years to conduct a Family Engagement Assessment and recently published a report with the results of a survey, lessons learned about family engagement, and four policy recommendations.
The Family Engagement Assessment, at its heart, is about informing how service providers interact with families to support them in building resilience. The assessment and recommendations will inform the early childhood system on how to strengthen families as partners and decision makers, how to build more resilient families, and ultimately how to improve child outcomes. Parents and caregivers must play an important role, not just as participants, but as partners in their child’s early care and education through the decision making process. The Family Engagement Assessment project confirmed that parents and caregiver voice can be harnessed to inform the creation of a system that meets their needs, is accessible, more equitable, responsive, and accountable to families and communities.
Family engagement can look different depending on the circumstance: parents or caregivers could be involved in advocacy, programmatic advisory, and/or parent leadership in the community. Creating opportunities for authentic and collaborative parent and family engagement is not always easy. Throughout the process, family engagement principals were employed to ensure that family voice was at the center of every step. This included hiring Emily Merrill, a parent leader and founding chair of the Families and Communities committee, as the project manager and then recruiting 22 Parent Ambassadors from across the state to conduct the survey.
Originally Parent Ambassadors were going to conduct the survey with peers in person at playgroups, and around their community. However due to COVID, the survey was conducted electronically between March-July 2020. Parent Ambassadors influenced the development of meeting structures that met their needs during the busy pandemic months, allowing continued engagement while home caring for children by providing a safe, inclusive space for all parents to connect with each other as well as providers. Some successful strategies were — children attend meetings, meeting length was as flexible as possible, meetings were scheduled around naptime or after bedtime, and self-care comes first.
Parent Ambassadors collected 424 survey responses from Vermont families with a child age five or younger on family perspectives regarding the early childhood programs and resources they access; perspectives on the transition of children into Kindergarten; and what parent leadership programs exist across Vermont. Of the information collected, 76% of all respondents strongly agreed that they feel welcomed and are treated with kindness and 68% of families strongly agree they felt their family’s culture and values were understood and welcomed. Not all Vermont families responded with resounding enthusiasm about their experience in the early childhood system, indicating that there is opportunity for Vermont’s early childhood systems to grow and improve.
The following graphic illustrates words that families used to describe exceptional experiences when partnering with their child’s provider.
The Families and Communities Committee arrived at four policy recommendations based on the survey results and the process of conducting the Family Engagement Assessment.
- Use a common definition of family engagement and partnership
- Create meaningful partnerships
- Commit to ensuring that children and families are in all policies
- Increase understanding of families’ experiences and break down barriers created by systemic, institutional, and individual racism
The report is now available on the Building Bright Futures website including policy recommendations and a discussion guide to inform parent engagement and partnership in organizations and agencies across the spectrum of the early childhood system of services. – from early care and learning programs, Head Start programs, PreK and Elementary schools, mental health programs and Agency of Human services.
As we complete this project, I shared this reflection in an email to the Parent Ambassador team, “This project was so much more than the data that was collected — we built a committee of engaged and knowledgeable parents and caregivers from all corners of Vermont. Parent Ambassadors were integral to this project’s success and I am truly grateful for the way each of you brought your authentic selves to the role. You wrote the book on how to work and parent at the same time and I especially enjoyed meeting your little ones as they climbed on you, slept on your laps, and generally did their best to entertain during our meetings.”
Parent Ambassadors were provided with opportunities to learn about the early childhood system and take on leadership roles in committees that form the Vermont Early Childhood Action Plan. Two other parents stepped into leadership roles this year. Alexis Duquette now serves as the co-chair for the Southeast Vermont Regional Council where she shares her expertise as a parent, provides peer support for her region’s parents and caregivers, and participates in regional council work and the Families and Communities ECAP committee. Lexi says, “this work makes my heart sing!”
Jen Fortman was recruited first to be a Parent Ambassador and help with the survey and then stepped in as the co-chair of the Families and Communities Committee. She shared, “I believe being involved in the Families and Communities Committee has allowed me to gain relationships, get my voice heard, and gives me purpose outside of my home life. I am making connections by talking with friends and other parents in my community.”
Beyond recommendations for organizations to grow and develop their family partnership work, here are some additional opportunities for families to step into leadership opportunities:
- Advise on policy and early childhood system delivery while connecting with other families. Attend Families and Communities Committee meetings the first Friday of the month from 1:00-2:30 pm, or for quarterly evening meetings from 8-9 pm. Find more information here or email to get involved: Families@buildingbrightfutures.org.
- Families are invited to attend their BBF Regional Council meetings. Find your region and BBF staff contact here.
- Join local boards, councils, parent-teacher organizations, advocacy groups, etc and continue to pave pathways to elevate family voice in your community, in organizations that support regional councils, and on a state-wide level. The Families and Communities Committee can serve as a hub to connect you with organizations that are recruiting family leaders.
The project was funded by the PreSchool Development Grant Birth-Five awarded to the State of Vermont in 2018 and executed in 2020-2021.