A Laboratory for Engaging Families in Early Childhood Systems

Parents and families are essential to cultivating a child’s curiosity and creating early learning opportunities that lead to healthy development and success in life. But many families often lack information, resources and supports to provide nurturing environments where children can thrive. Backed by research about the critical role of parents, early childhood advocates across the country are calling for more authentic family engagement as a core value of education and health systems serving children. Recently the White House hosted a symposium that endorsed “a more equitable approach to family engagement based on family strengths as well as shared responsibility assumed by families, schools, and communities… across time and in the many settings where children learn.”

With 800,000 children under the age of 5 years, Los Angeles County is home to an extremely diverse population with different beliefs about parenting and experiences with formal early childhood systems. In addition, because of the County’s size, services for families are fragmented and can be difficult to navigate. This makes LA County an important laboratory for understanding the opportunities and challenges of family engagement.

Earlier this year, Harder+Company collaborated with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment, and consultant Deborah Stark to convene a diverse group of early childhood leaders in Los Angeles to explore ways to strengthen family engagement. We explored effective family engagement strategies in early care and health settings, and innovative ways to reach parents and caregivers in home- and community-based settings. Together, we identified barriers and specific opportunities to connect existing programs, places, initiatives, and funding streams.

We’ve gathered the wisdom of these leaders in a new report on family engagement called Family at the Center. The insights and recommendations in the report serve as a call for program leaders and funders to embed collaborative, strengths-based, and culturally affirming approaches in programs and organizations that serve young children and their families. The report shares guiding principles for putting children and families at the center of programs. It also recognizes local communities as laboratories for identifying innovative solutions and strengthening social connections. We invite you to read and share the report, which includes recommendations at three levels:

  • Support families to be their child’s first teacher by strengthening connections to resources and social support in community-based settings. This includes building on the strengths of parents and informal care providers through peer support models, social connections, and strategies to enrich community settings with skill-building programs.
  • Strengthen family engagement practices in early education and health settings. Health and early education settings are critical touchpoints for families and formal institutions. These settings present important opportunities to institutionalize family engagement practices that are culturally responsive and help parents navigate formal systems and advocate for the services they need. To do this, organizations should commit to training staff to effectively engage families, seek and respond to parent questions and concerns, and co-create plans for supporting their children’s development.
  • Promote collaboration and coordination of family engagement efforts through policy, joint funding, and replication of effective practice. Authentic family engagement requires a shift to a much more integrated approach that promotes seamless connections across programs, services, and systems. Creating a more streamlined system of care will make it easier for parents to access appropriate supports. Promising approaches include identifying opportunities to leverage existing funding streams, promote favorable policies, and support informed decision making with robust data, research, and evaluation.

Research shows that early childhood experiences are critical to a child’s success in success in school and later in life. Another recent report by the Pritzker Family Foundation and the Bridgespan Group suggests a swell of national attention and funding for early childhood initiatives. Family at the Center provides valuable insights for other leaders and advocates to make authentic family engagement a core part of early childhood programs and services.