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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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FINE Newsletter, Volume VI, Issue 5
Issue Topic: The Role of Organizations in Anywhere, Anytime Learning

Leading the Field

Head Start and Early Head Start have an amazing legacy of family engagement, and we continue to innovate and improve the quality of our partnerships with families in support of family well-being and children’s learning and development. Since 1965, Head Start programs have worked with parent leaders to help support families and communities’ access to quality early childhood programming. Even more, programs have supported parents as their child’s first teacher, involving them in the learning process at home and school. They have honored parents’ sacred interest in the care and nurturing of their children, and fueled their passion and hope for their children’s success in life.

Head Start and Early Head Start are federally funded early childhood programs. The programs serve low-income pregnant women, infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children and their families. In addition to education services, programs provide children and their families with health, nutrition, social, and other comprehensive services. One of the hallmarks of Head Start is its focus on parents as their child’s first and primary teacher and as partners in program governance, recognizing that the involvement of parents is crucial for fostering children’s school readiness.
The Head Start vision for family engagement has evolved alongside the changing interests and needs of families and communities and the new and emerging evidence from fields such as early childhood development, health, behavioral economics, and mental health. The vision includes expectations that programs support family well-being and the parent–child relationship; family literacy and adult education; family connections to peers and the community; parent leadership; and effective transitions across early childhood settings and into kindergarten.

In 2011, the Office of Head Start (OHS) launched the Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) Framework, a road map for integrating family engagement strategies across systems and services and for guiding programs in making progress toward family outcomes. Over the years, we have learned that two things really drive change and effective family engagement in programs. First, family engagement must be made a priority throughout the organization. Second, we know that relationships propel our ability to achieve effective family engagement, especially in partnership with families and within the cultural context of communities. Family partners bring many strengths, including their cultural beliefs and home languages, which are assets for both parenting and promoting children’s language and overall development. To this end, our National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement has developed trainings and resources to support the implementation of the framework and to help staff build positive, goal-oriented relationships with families and other staff members.

The goal of OHS is to continue to broaden the conversation around family engagement so that we can improve both family and child outcomes. We focus on prioritizing strategies that are systemic, integrated, and comprehensive rather than one-time efforts or activities. In other words, our goal is to move the field beyond seeing effective family engagement as simply getting enough parents to participate in an isolated event or training. Instead, we seek to help build staff–parent relationships that invite families to learn and grow as parents, teachers, or learners, based on their individual family goals.

Head Start and Early Head Start have been moving into a new phase of planning and implementation that is more data-driven and focused on continuous improvement. Essentially, we expect programs to track families’ progress in achieving their goals with a similar rigor and intent that is used to understand and promote children’s progress. The critical question we have begun to ask in these last few years is: How do we know how effective we are in our family engagement work? Through our program planning requirements and our training and technical assistance supports, we are broadening the questions related to continuous improvement practices. Table 1 illustrates ways in which our focus is shifting to include questions that yield data related to measures of both effort (how much programming is offered) and effect (the changes in knowledge or behavior, for example, that occur as a result of programming)

Table 1
How Head Start has begun to broaden programs’ data collection efforts related to family engagement practices

From a focus on effort (i.e., how much programming is offered)

To also include a focus on effect (i.e., positive changes related to families’ knowledge and skills)

How many home visits has a parent shown up for?

In what ways are families and their infants connecting with each other?

What are teachers talking about with families?

How are teaching staff partnering with families to help them become active supporters of their child’s learning?

How many parents came to a reading event?

To what degree are parents gaining the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to foster a love of reading?

How many parents participated in a kindergarten transition event?

How comfortable do parents feel about the prospect of communicating their child’s strengths and challenges with their kindergarten teacher?


To bring our vision to life, we are working to develop partnerships with parents, programs, agencies, and organizations that promote family engagement in different cultural communities, across different learning settings, over different periods of children’s development, and with children of differing abilities. Specifically, we are looking to:

  1. Increase the synergy across federal agencies that acknowledge family engagement as a critical aspect of improving children’s learning, development, and long-term school success. We are always looking to better coordinate the training and technical assistance we provide around family engagement to include a broader early childhood audience, beyond Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Our challenge is also to continue to build a research agenda across organizations and agencies that helps administrators, managers, teachers, and family engagement staff prioritize efforts that lead to meaningful change for children, families, and communities.
  2. Identify the common principles of the current family engagement frameworks across educational settings and over children’s development. A theory of change that targets key outcomes is only as good as the tools and resources that are available to help people put theory into action. Our challenge is to identify the common principles of the current family engagement frameworks across educational settings and to clarify how to do the work that makes the greatest difference for children and families starting at birth, into school age and beyond.
  3. Continue to focus on relationship-based practice. Finally, we need to be able to acknowledge that relationship-based practices contribute greatly to effective family engagement, and that they are skills that can be learned. Focusing on relationship-based practices allows us to both tackle the concrete barriers of family involvement, such as transportation, child care, and time/availability, and to begin to understand and address the psychological barriers associated with engagement—such as mistrust or misunderstandings, rigid ideas about gender roles, or different cultural beliefs about parent and teacher roles with regard to children’s education. Effective relationships between parents and educational/program staff will always be a critical part of children’s educational success, and OHS is committed to this work.


Kiersten Beigel, MSW, is the parent, family, and community engagement lead for the Office of Head Start, where her work focuses on national training and technical assistance (TTA) and on policy efforts related to families in Head Start/Early Head Start.  

This resource is part of the December FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit


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Published by Harvard Family Research Project