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Family-centered practice is defined as services that are provided in the child's natural environment, are individualized, and flexible. Further, service providers collaborate and partner with families, demonstrate effective communication skills, and respect family values, beliefs, and decisions. Family involvement can bridge the separate spheres of families and schools, with the result that teachers become more holistic in their understanding of children, while families become partners in their education, a development that brings dramatic growth for all, and an improving school climate (Caspe, 2007). Reciprocal relationships and two-way communication with their children's teachers increase families' understanding of their children as well as provide additional information about how to support healthy growth and development. In return, families can contribute critical information and resources that allow teachers to teach their children more meaningfully, appropriately and effectively. Families, as a result of this involvement with the school, can become more engaged and effective educators of their children (Epstein, 2002), experiencing a sense of increased efficacy.
Literature on family centered practices anchors understanding of this process of developing meaningful and empowering relationships with families that move beyond involvement into true partnerships. The process of family centered practice includes both support for developing relationships and for individualized practice that meets family needs and actively involves families in decision making and goal setting. Leveraging the multiple and interrelated contexts surrounding a child and family, a family support approach attempts to foster and increase positive connections to support optimal growth, not only for children but also for their families (Ingoldsby, 2004). Family support works to include and connect families with a goal of empowerment; it builds from a careful consideration of families' perceived needs, through their strengths toward decision making, advocacy and empowerment on terms determined by each family (Hyson, 2003).
Ecological theory and its correlates, family systems theory, symbolic interaction theory, and transaction theory, suggest key principles of a family centered approach: a recognition and appreciation that the family, not the center or school, is the constant and most important presence in a child's life; attention to careful development of respectful, honest, reciprocal relationships; complete exchange of information in order to support the ability of families to make the best decisions possible; identification of individual priorities, goals and needs of individual families; connections to resources that can help meet those needs; and appreciation of family culture, beliefs and values (Hyson, 2003). In addition, a family support approach attempts to link families to a wider network of relationships, supports and resources at many levels in the ecosystem: individual and family relationships, school interactions, community resources and informal social networks.
Teachers, as a result, are well positioned to become facilitators of family support. By welcoming and involving families, teachers can help connect them to learning opportunities within the center or school, to other families, to concrete resources and services in the classroom or school, as well as in the community (Ingoldsby, 2004). Teachers and families can collaborate to develop shared goals, strategies, and expectations for children, reducing distance and incongruence between home and school, the two primary contexts for young children. By using a variety of welcoming and inclusive communication strategies, teachers can build bridges that make curriculum more meaningful to children and their families, increasing their involvement in and understanding of school practices (Swick, 2003). Promising approaches include: listening carefully to family stories, incorporating knowledge of the diverse family and cultural backgrounds of children, connecting curriculum to children's experiences in family and in community, selection of learning materials that reflect children's backgrounds and experiences, including families and community members in multiple ways in the work of the classroom, and encouraging families to develop initiatives of their own to support their own growth as well as that of their children, the school and the community beyond (Berk, 2003).
Teachers who function in a family support role are positioned to mitigate some of the risks faced by many families living with the multiple stressors of poverty by listening, by sharing perspectives, by connecting families to resources and a wider network. Supporting the family may provide the most effective and the most enduring way to support healthy child development, particularly when family systems are stressed (Caspe, 2007). Hyson (2003), noted that one of the most valuable services that teachers can offer is the positive impact on parenting through social support, communication to relieve stress, and modeling child centered interactions.
Because children from their identity from their relationships with and experiences in families, a family centered approach values, welcomes and includes families, working collaboratively with them to develop true partnerships to set goals, make decisions, and develop and evaluate programs, without preconceived ideas determined by school staff. A review of literature on interventions using home-school collaboration found that interventions were most effective when schools treated families as valued resources, establishing co-equal relationships and flexible, individualized modes of two-way communication (Hyson, 2003). Families are children's first teachers, and they profoundly affect a child's values, beliefs, attitudes and aspirations; positive relationships and some degree of congruence, support and respect for both home and school values, therefore, should encourage optimal developmental growth and school success in children (Caspe, 2007).
Many families, however, feel disenfranchised by the school system and other mainstream institutions. Others remember a sense of failure in their own school experiences. Still others believe that families have a role that is separate from that of the school (). In order to support the movement of these disengaged families from a passive to an active role, teachers and schools must actively invite participation and family involvement; they must be persistent in their attempts to open communication, establish trust, and foster an ongoing dialogue (Ingoldsby, 2004). Educators have a unique position from which to affirm the importance of the essential role of families in the education of their children; in addition, they can engage families as active participants through dialogue, problem-solving and program improvement. Teachers can welcome families and encourage them to develop the skills, confidence and initiative to help their own children be consistent and engaged learners, while working with others to transform the school and community.
This process can lead to a sense of efficacy and empowerment for families and educators alike who, working together, share power in order to address the social and political inequality that frustrates the potential of too many children and families (Caspe, 2007). In a culture dedicated to continuous learning, improvement and co-construction of quality improvement, it is natural for families to move beyond being mere consumers of service to becoming collaborative developers of services in partnership with children and staff (Hyson, 2003). Beginning with partnering with the teacher to plan strategies for achieving goals for children, families can gradually become more responsive and effective parents and teachers; children with families who are involved are more engaged across all domains and more ready to actively participate as members of a classroom community. An ongoing pattern of mutual involvement and reciprocal response can lead to strong outcomes for families, children, teachers, schools and communities. As families experience this personal growth because of their experience with involvement, they are likely to feel more competent. Often, they become models for other parents, and can often provide needed emotional, social and educational support for other families (Swick, 2003). Their first experience of leadership, consequently, is often in the classroom. This may be informally interacting with children, or it may be a more formal volunteer experience assisting the teacher, sharing a skill, leading an activity with the children or hosting a special event for other families (Swick, 2003).
As family members become more confident, they may feel ready to take on more leadership roles: becoming a mentor to other families, planning celebrations, organizing enrichment events, inviting other families to form support groups to meet particular interests and needs, planning workshops and eventually facilitating them. Families at this point can be engaged in opportunities to shape the process of developing the center or school (Berk, 2003). The focus, as families move toward empowerment, shifts from a consideration of what families need to what they can do, propelling them into action. Engaging families in collaborative learning, planning and action can be a catalyst for empowerment, advocacy and community partnerships as family members begin to organize for social and institutional change (Maxwell, 2006). The path to empowerment often leads from action within the childcare center or school, proceeds to advocacy for quality educational resources and opportunities in the public school system, and results in community based partnerships with a diverse range of people working to create programs and policies of lasting value (Berk, 2003). Families, in this sense, create their own services and supports by sharing their earned wisdom, skills and energy as they move outward to work with others for real and meaningful change in their communities.
Family involvement appears to have a profound impact on the success of children living with the complex risk factors associated with poverty. Partnerships between the child's family and teacher can serve as a source of protective factors for children, functioning as a safety net to support emotional well-being and learning in spite of threats, particularly from the multiple stressors associated with poverty. Preschool children living in poverty with families who are involved, not only exhibit higher school readiness, but they have easier transitions to school, more consistent attendance, better behavior at home and at school and higher scores on standardized tests (Maxwell, 2006); long term outcomes include higher high school graduation rates, higher college attendance rates, higher rates of home ownership and lower crime rates than the control groups (Caspe, 2007). Elementary age children with involved families show better skills, particularly in reading, greater retention of learning gains over the summer and significantly more positive attitudes about school, a characteristic likely to lead to school success and lower dropout rates (Patrikakou,, 2005). This emotional, social and cognitive development for children is much more likely to continue over time, having a profound impact on the life course of the child, with ongoing and engaged support and encouragement from involved family members (Berk, 2003).
Academic achievement is not the result of family involvement alone, however. Other important factors within schools contribute to academic success: high expectations for all students, meaningful curriculum, appropriate standards, responsible assessment, effective leadership and strong professional development for teachers (Epstein, 2002). In order to achieve, children must be motivated and put forth effort (Berk, 2003). Family involvement has the potential to powerfully impact all of these crucial factors, because involved families may evolve into advocates and decision makers who help to create and then support these educational components in their families, schools and communities. Family involvement in the school development process is likely to make all of the elements of a school more meaningful to individual children, and therefore more supportive of their development; consequently, the school is likely to be more effective at its primary task: the successful education of children.
Family involvement does not impact only children, however; research shows a profound and positive impact on families as well. Experience with the Parents as Teachers program in Missouri suggests that increasing knowledge of child development among families can lead to more positive and satisfying interactions within the family (Maxwell, 2006). Epstein (2002) reports a similar finding, that an increase in family knowledge, coupled with more sensitive interactions, supports stronger relationships within the family. Patrikakou, (2005) note that family involvement creates a wider social network for families with better access to resources, a development that is likely to increase emotional and social well-being within the family system.
Centers and schools can function as well-placed family support systems, offering access to expanding networks, training opportunities, resources, needed services and powerful models of effective teaching and interaction (Patrikakou, 2005). Family involvement offers families a growing social network, as well as multiple opportunities to use their unique talents and interests, to increase their skills, to solve problems and to work with others to bring about new events, practices and programs (Berk, 2003). These reciprocal relationships between teachers and families as they work in partnership to support children's growth and development can become empowering for all involved: children, families teachers and administrators (Maxwell, 2006). Many families take on a proactive leadership role, not only for the center or school, but also for advocacy efforts and community development beyond the center or school (Swick, 2003). Families more involved, particularly in advocacy efforts, show greater levels of efficacy and empowerment; their success supports their continued involvement, not only in the center or school, but also in the larger community.
Teachers in schools with more family involvement feel more positive about teaching and more connected to their schools (Epstein, 2002; Caspe, 2007). Moreover, they appear more connected to the families of their children, more appreciative of their efforts and less likely to employ stereotypes. Teachers who successfully promote higher levels of family involvement report a greater respect for families, their strengths and their children (Epstein, 2002).
Family involvement can have a catalytic effect: as teachers invite family involvement and work more authentically with families, they learn more about their children and therefore become teachers that are more effective. Families, as a result, may view teachers more positively, and their teaching becomes more responsive and more effective. Principals and administrators may also begin to view teachers more positively, and the cycle continues. Teachers who encourage greater family involvement are viewed as better teachers by families, more appreciated by them and report higher teaching efficacy. As teachers' invitations to involvement are accepted and they work more authentically with families, not only do they become more effective teachers with access to a deeper understanding of the context of each child, but also their sense of efficacy continues to grow. Their growing relationships with families and the resulting multiplication of teaching strategies, problem-solving approaches and application of family strengths seems to fuel a synergistic increase in efficacy among all involved: children, families and teachers: (Maxwell, 2006). Collaborative relationships appear to be mutually empowering.
Family involvement can be an integral part of a school improvement plan, and schools that encourage and support family involvement benefit from family perspectives, ideas and energy. As more stakeholders become engaged, get to know each other and share perspectives, tensions between different constituencies often abate because families and schools discover similar goals and create a sense of shared responsibility for center or school climate, improvement, initiatives and learning (Epstein, 2002). This process of school improvement, which reaches out to include all stakeholders, can have a huge impact on the emotional security felt by children, their families, teachers and ultimately, the larger community. The school can become an integral part of a caring community, linking families, teachers and the larger community through authentic, dynamic and collaborative relationships that focus on concern for and involvement with children and the contexts that impact their growth and development (Patrikakou, 2005). Many schools become effective community resources because of this process, sharing resources and opening the school for community meetings, events, and advocacy efforts that benefit the surrounding community (Caspe, 2007).
As families become more involved, their increasing efficacy supports increased connections with other members of the community: interested individuals and neighborhood leaders, but also churches, businesses, arts organizations, libraries, recreation programs, health care and mental health services, job training, adult literacy programs and a wide range of social service organizations. These community resources can greatly expand the assets available to the school and its children, their families and teachers, and they allow access to additional ideas, energy and programs. Schools and centers frequently serve as an additional resource for the neighborhood as well, granting community access to space, programs and resources that benefit the larger community, students and their families. As families develop their network and skills because of their involvement with the center or school, they utilize them throughout the community, enriching the quality of life around the school and engaging the larger community. Involving families in a quality child care center or school in collaborative learning, planning and action can be a catalyst for empowerment, advocacy and community partnerships as family members begin to organize for social and institutional change. The path to empowerment often leads from action within the childcare center or school, proceeds to advocacy for quality educational resources and opportunities in the public school system, and results in community based partnerships with a diverse range of people working to create programs and policies of lasting value. Family involvement can have a synergistic and catalytic impact that benefits children, their families, teachers and the larger community.