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Six early childhood education experts—Sandy Baba, Joni Close, Jerri Helmreich, Frederick Ferrer, Roberta Weisman Malavenda, and Deborah Strahorn—share their insights:¹

We believe there are different levels at which to consider advocacy. First is participation. Families advocate simply by being present and able to begin a relationship with the staff. The second is entering into a dialogue with the staff. Participation starts the relationship and dialogue really deepens it. That's where parents begin to articulate their needs, desires, and dreams for their child. The third level is to advocate in the more formal sense. If there is something a child needs that she is not getting or something happening that needs to change, then parents use their first two strategies and take action. As a parent those three levels go back and forth depending on the situation and how welcoming the setting is.


Provide a Welcoming Environment
It is up to the early childhood setting to provide a welcoming environment, and it is up to the parent and the early childhood staff to a develop a relationship. This is a missing piece in a lot of early childhood settings. Early childhood professionals are often so focused on the child that they forget the parent. And we know that there are many ways to make the environment more welcoming and engaging for families.

Consider Family Contexts
We need to take a holistic approach to working with parents. For example, one of us who worked among homeless families found many parents were disoriented because of their current situations and didn't know where to find support. Parents can't advocate adequately for their children until they are self-sustaining. They need to be able to take care of themselves first before they can take care of their own children.

In our experience with low-income ethnic communities advocacy translates in terms of protection. Parents' first and foremost role is to make sure their children are safe. Community issues around violence and safety are the primary concerns when parents first bring their children into an early childhood setting. Who will be taking care of my child? If something happens, how you will get a hold of me? Second, the family looks at advocacy in terms of “who is it that is actually taking care of my child?” Here language capacity and cultural competency of the staff comes in. Parents have to be able to develop trust with a provider and feel like their needs, desires, and wishes can be heard. The initial discussions about safety help build the beginnings of trust and a caring relationship.


Be Proactive About Sharing Information
Information is key. This is the starting point of dialogue. Parents can't begin to advocate if they don't have information about what is happening in their child's development. A lot of times parents don't know what to do or what to ask. When the caregiver talks with parents about how their child is progressing, the family feels more competent in knowing how to advocate for their child. If parents know where a child will be at a particular level and activities they can do with their child, then they feel better about their parenting roles and are able to ask more questions. Parents are hungry for information on brain research, reading, and getting their children ready for kindergarten. This is a real interest of families across income levels.

Encourage Questioning
We need to open the doors and encourage parents to ask questions about their child's learning and care. If we do this on an ongoing basis, parents will become open and ask the questions that need to be asked. This practice is critical, because just because parents don't say anything doesn't mean they don't have an opinion or aren't thinking about it. But that is a mistaken notion. It's just that parents are not comfortable or don't believe they should be questioning these relationships. The practice of asking over and over again is critical. It's only when you make the practice articulated and evident to the families that they begin to learn the messages you communicate. This is the modeling that is so important to take place because when children enter school parents are then comfortable and familiar with that model and see it is a tool they can use in the school system.

Don't Discount Informal Opportunities
Casual contacts offer a way to foster dialogue with a parent who seldom speaks out. Parent advocacy happens in more informal settings, for example, at a dinner meeting or at corner conversations with a director or a teacher. This is as effective as a sit-down face-to-face conference, which can be intimidating for some parents.

Recruit a Diverse Staff
Having a team of staff in the early childhood setting that is reflective of the population has a great deal to do with building trust with the families. They feel more comfortable and engaged in situations if staff members are representative of their culture.

In terms of male involvement, one of the best strategies we have seen is the actual presence of males in programs. A male needs to walk into an activity and see other males. Gender becomes a critically important point. The absence of it sends the unintended but understood message that men are not welcome.

Formal Advocacy

Turn a Problem Into an Opportunity
Unfortunately, not all children are in provider homes and programs where the teachers and directors are knowledgeable and sensitive. If parents are in a situation where changing centers isn't an option, they can throw a fundraiser or create an event to get the attention of the director and teachers about a problem. Parents can make themselves part of the solution. They can be positive and powerful advocates to change the tone and practices of an early childhood setting.

¹ The six featured experts participated in a dialogue on family advocacy in early education with FINE on February 26, 2004.

Sandy Baba
Research Associate
WestEd Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development
1550 The Alameda, Suite 100
San Jose, CA 95126-2323

Roberta Weisman Malavenda
Project Manager, SPARK Georgia
155 Ridge Way
Roswell, GA 30076
Jerri Helmreich
Learning Advocate Coordinator
SPARK Ohio Initiative
Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton
310 Unizan Plaza
220 Market Avenue South
Canton, OH 44702-2182

Frederick Ferrer
Executive Director
Estrella Family Services
1155 Meridian Avenues, Suite 110
San Jose, CA 95125
Joni Close
Project Director
Quality Child Care Initiative
Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton
310 Unizan Plaza
220 Market Avenue South
Canton, OH 44702-2182
Deborah Strahorn
Nicky Night Family Childcare
1085 Decker Avenue, SW
Atlanta, GA 30310

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project