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FINE Newsletter, Volume V, Issue 4
Issue Topic: Innovative Approaches to Preparing and Training Educators for Family Engagement

Tips & Tools

Brandi Black Thacker, director of Training and Technical Assistance for the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (NCPFCE), and Guylaine Richards, program manager for Training and Technical Assistance at NCPFCE, spoke to Harvard Family Research Project about the PFCE Simulation. The PFCE Simulation gives users an opportunity to practice relationship-building strategies in a virtual environment.


For our readers who may be hearing about the PFCE Simulation for the first time in this article, how would you describe the Simulation to them?

Brandi Black Thacker

The PFCE Simulation is an online, interactive training that takes place in a virtual Head Start program; it simulates a Head Start program staff member’s intake visit with a mother and her daughter. By conducting relationship-building conversations with fully animated and emotionally responsive avatars, users learn how to partner with families to support children’s school readiness. Users can practice effective communication tactics like open-ended questions, reflective listening, and other interviewing techniques to engage parents in children’s learning and development. For those of you for whom this language doesn’t resonate, I ask: Have you ever read a book from the Choose Your Own Adventure series in which the choices that you make as a reader determine what happens to the characters and the plot? The Simulation is similar in that the choices that you make during the virtual intake process affect the mother in a number of ways, including her thoughts as well as her body language and her responses to you.


Who should use the Simulation?

Brandi Black Thacker

Although the Simulation was created for Head Start and Early Head Start staff members and focuses on an intake visit, the Simulation can be used by anyone who works with families, and, really, anyone who wants to work on relationship-building strategies. During typical Head Start and Early Head Start intake visits, staff members elicit information from parents about their family situation, their family’s strengths and interests, and their hopes for their child who is enrolling in Head Start. What is great about our particular simulation, however, is that the skills that are needed to have a positive relationship with a family are the same for staff members in all programs, and the pitfalls that they can experience in such a relationship are also the same.

Guylaine Richard

The emphasis that the Simulation puts on building relationships can be applied universally, to all programs and individuals. All early childhood settings have to get parents through their doors, and the enrollment process always involves conversations with them. Having conversations like the ones that play out in the Simulation—ones that support parent competence, involve active listening, and encourage sharing—can support any early childhood agency in its efforts.


Why should individuals participate in the Simulation? What are they going to get out of the experience?

Brandi Black Thacker

As a national center, we offer in-person trainings, virtual trainings, and webinars on family engagement. However, because of the challenges that working professionals face with time commitments, travel, and cost, we can’t reach everyone with only our scheduled events. Because the Simulation doesn’t take much time to complete—about 25 minutes—and because it can be accessed online at any time, it’s a really accessible form of professional development.

In terms of what it offers, the Simulation is a safe place to practice an interaction with a family. You can go through it, you can tinker, you can undo and redo your responses to the avatars, and you can take multiple paths to see what happens when you say the right thing or when you accidentally stumble into a pitfall.

Guylaine Richard You can choose the wrong answer and have someone virtually respond to you without enduring the real-life consequences of doing so in your actual conversations with families. It’s a fun and safe way to practice a conversation.
Brandi Black Thacker There is some real value in purposefully taking the incorrect steps so that you can see what happens.

HFRP What are some of the most interesting ways in which the Simulation is being used?
Brandi Black Thacker We’ve learned that people use it in multiple formats and in a number of ways. I’ve been hearing about quite a few individual and group approaches to using the Simulation. And even those who take an individual approach often reflect on it with a larger group to tap into the collective experience of others who have done the Simulation.

Programs have been using it during individual reflective supervision opportunities, for example. Managers ask staff members to participate in the Simulation, print the transcript, and bring it to their reflective supervision meeting. Managers use the transcript during these meetings to ask staff members questions like, “Let’s talk about why you made this choice. Is this something that you currently do? Can you talk about a recent example in which this type of strategy worked for you?” And “Here was an opportunity to make a different choice. After having looked at what unfolded next, what do you now think you could modify in the future to bring about a different outcome?” Another program added the Simulation to its new-employee orientation checklist—every new employee goes through the Simulation within the first week on the job and has a follow-up conversation with the supervisor about the experience.
Guylaine Richard Another thing that I really love is that some programs are asking staff members from a range of different departments to individually do the Simulation, print the transcript, and bring the transcript to a whole-staff debriefing meeting. During this meeting, staff members have the opportunity to talk about the different paths they took during the exercise, their missteps, and their successes. They also have an opportunity to explore the Simulation together in real time. We’re really happy to hear about the amount of peer learning that is happening through the use of the Simulation.


What is next for simulations from NCPFCE—what are the plans for future simulations?

Brandi Black Thacker Because of users’ enthusiasm for the first simulation, we are working on a second one. The next simulation will focus on the family goal-setting process.


This resource is part of the December 2013 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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