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Putting Parents Front and Center

The impact of parents and parenting on children’s development is critical and especially important during the first few years of life. The science is clear: new babies are born hardwired to develop a strong connection with someone who will support and nurture them. Walter Gilliam of Yale University explained it this way:

In other words, babies crave human attachment, and those who develop a secure attachment—and have other positive early childhood experiences—develop a healthy foundation and see positive lifelong impacts across social and emotional development and school achievement.

As the emphasis placed on the importance of parents and parenting increases, access to supports, resources, and parent engagement opportunities should as well. While physicians, providers, researchers, and policymakers may be eager to tell parents what they need to know and do, it is critical that they work with parents from the outset to learn their individual needs and parenting goals. How do parents see their role in influencing their child’s development, and are programs and providers supporting them to effectively do so? What do parents need to not only support their children, but to ensure they are viewed as a respected and knowledgeable partner? What do parents want from providers and educators—and, better yet, have we even asked them?

Parents as Partners

The benefits of engaging parents as partners and leveraging their expertise are endless. Parents must be seen as partners and experts in their child’s development and well-being. Parental knowledge comes from their individual lived experiences—as parents of their own children and from being parented—and this knowledge guides their attitudes and behaviors toward their own children. As partners, parents should be comfortable sharing their knowledge with providers as well as their goals, motivations, and strategies for promoting their child’s development.

The Head Start Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) Framework is a tool that programs and providers can use to promote parent engagement. This research-based approach helps programs facilitate family engagement and is founded on strong leadership, continuous feedback from parents, and frequent professional development opportunities for staff. PFCE also enables families to form connections and networks with other parents and families to build a support system. As programs implement the framework and engage families in effective parent engagement strategies, parents and families may feel empowered to build up and share their parenting knowledge and behaviors that lead to stronger parent-child relationships and lifelong benefits.

A recent report also highlighted the importance of programs and providers partnering with young parents, specifically in strengthening their own educational outcomes, employment opportunities, and financial stability—in addition to knowledge of healthy child development. There are over 2.8 million young parents between the ages 18 through 24 in the United States and nearly 70 percent of them live in poverty. Opportunities exist for partnering with these parents to improve child and family outcomes through integrating Early Head Start and Head Start with community-based educational and workforce programs. One example is the Chicago Young Parents Program, which provides education, mentorship, and home-visiting services for young parents.

Moreover, as programs partner with parents, the partnerships must be authentic. Parents should feel encouraged to be active and equal partners in laying the early foundation for their child’s lifelong well-being.

Parents as Consumers

While parents are partners in the development and care of their children, they are also consumers of early learning and care services. Through this lens, parents can share what they value in early learning programs as well as what their greatest needs are; the providers can then aim to meet this demand.

A recent study exploring parents as consumers found that social-emotional development is the highest priority among parents and families and is seen as providing the foundation for lifelong success. Teacher quality and safety are the two most important factors parents assess when selecting an early learning program for their child. Similar findings were reported in a 2018 study analyzing Yelp reviews of early learning programs, showing that most parents valued child-teacher interactions, safety, and quality of the learning environment. Reviews from parents in underserved areas, however, showed stronger interest in safety, convenience, and cost, whereas higher-income program reviews valued curriculum and teacher training.

Furthermore, most parents rate the quality of their child’s early learning programs highly. While this may be an overestimation given disputing research on program quality, parents’ perspective on quality is crucial to their assurance that their children, across all early learning settings, are engaged in safe, healthy, and positive environments.

Moving Forward

Parents support the foundation of their child’s development. Child care providers, educators, and communities need to ask, listen to, and actively engage parents—as knowledgeable partners and consumers of early care and learning—to learn how to support them best. Evidence-based tools and resources are available to providers to effectively engage parents and families, and it is the responsibility of the providers to ask questions of parents and families, engage them thoughtfully, and actively listen to and apply the information provided.

Being a parent is hard enough—we must engage parents to lessen their load and give children the strongest foundation possible.

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