We all would like to think that we are culturally inclusive teachers, especially when it comes to welcoming and engaging families in the early childhood classroom. Sometimes, however, we fail despite our best efforts at cultural competence.
Creating a culturally competent environment means building a community that everyone has access to and can participate in. This type of setting will be an environment where every family feels welcomed, every voice is heard, every person has a clear idea of what is happening within the program and classroom, and everyone’s input is valued.
You may be making efforts to create such an environment, or you may think you have one already. In either case, use these strategies to support family engagement:
- Conduct home visits.
- Create avenues for shared decision making.
- Create environments that welcome families.
- Cultivate families as resources.
Making sure your program and classroom truly engage families requires working from the outside in, starting with understanding families in their homes. Home visits are a wonderful way to get to know the social identities of families and establish relationships that can grow into effective partnerships. Spending focused time with families away from busy classroom environments can be invaluable. These are times when you and families can get to know each other. You can share a bit about who you are and learn who family members are. You can learn what they are like in their homes and begin to learn what they value and perhaps what their dreams are for their children and themselves.
Avenues for Shared Decision Making
What strategies might you use to support access and participation? Access begins by giving families a voice. Think about your early childhood curriculum within your classroom: Where would family input be valuable? There are many aspects of every classroom where family input increases family and child engagement and supports positive child outcomes. Create environments that seek to empower all families, communicate in ways that are understandable to everyone (for example, using simple language rather than jargon), and provide transportation and child care to overcome obstacles to family involvement.
Environments That Welcome Families
The environments we encounter send different messages. A cold, stark environment might communicate that this is not a place to spend a great deal of time. A warm, inviting environment might communicate a welcoming feeling with the message “Stay a while. You belong here.” Environments communicate a sense of belonging and respect through reciprocity and responsiveness. This requires far more than establishing an open-door policy and hoping that families will come to you with their ideas, hopes, and dreams. Rather, pay attention to how environments are designed. Consider the space created for families as well as the message that the environment conveys.
Families as Resources
Families are essential sources of knowledge about each child’s development, learning styles, strengths and challenges, and educational past. Families are also the caretakers of each child's developmental and educational future. Your professional role requires making sure that communication about children's development and learning occurs in an ongoing, reciprocal fashion. You can do this by regularly seeking family input and by contributing your own perspective. Working together, you and each family will create a shared, growing, deep understanding of their child.
These are only brief introductions to the necessary strategies for creating a culturally competent classroom. For more information and approaches for each technique, check out The Welcoming Classroom: Building Strong Home-to-School Connections for Early Learning by Johnna Darragh Ernst, PhD.