Promote Family Engagement

Recommendation: Promote family engagement and partnerships between families with infants and toddlers and their child care providers and caregivers.

“The most important thing children need to thrive is to live in an environment of relationships that begins in their family, but also extends out to include adults who aren’t family members in child care centers and other programs. What children need is for that entire environment of relationships to be invested in their healthy development.” — Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.[1] 


What is family engagement?

SECTION 1: What does the research say about the importance of and effective strategies for engaging and partnering with families in caring for their babies and toddlers?

SECTION 2: How can state child care licensing, subsidy and quality enhancement policies support and strengthen family engagement in child care settings for infants and toddlers?

Family engagement is a critical component of quality infant/toddler child care. It encompasses a number of practices, policies, and activities that promote families as partners in child care and early education, and that support families in parenting their children to help them reach their full potential. Creating culturally appropriate opportunities is critical to engaging families.

According to the National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement:

Family engagement means building relationships with families that support family well-being, strong parent-child relationships, and ongoing learning and development of parents and children alike. It refers to the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and activities of families that support their children’s positive development from early childhood through young adulthood. Family engagement happens in the home, early childhood program, school, and community. It is a shared responsibility with all those who support children’s learning.[2]

Note that this definition includes the following specific elements:

  • Family well-being, which can include connecting parents to other economic, nutrition, health, and social supports and opportunities;
  • Parent-child relationships, for example providing parenting education to build on family strengths and prevent child abuse and neglect, and offering parents supports that help them be effective in their parenting role; and
  • Ongoing learning and development of parents and children, which can include providing opportunities for families to inform program design and participate as educational partners involved in key decisions impacting their children.

In this document, we discuss the full range of interactions between child care programs and providers and the families they serve, broadly examining best practices that engage families and help children thrive. Best practice in family engagement goes well beyond newsletters, volunteer opportunities, and communication with parents; it requires strong relationships among the adults in children’s lives to ensure the child and their family are engaged in meeting their physical, social-emotional, and economic needs. These relationships transcend the early childhood setting, extending to the family’s home and  supporting partnerships in the community. When we use the term “family,” we include parents, grandparents, extended family, and foster parents or other adults who are raising and caring for a child. The role and importance of nuclear and extended biological relatives and friends in a family can vary depending on the family’s history and culture, so providers and caregivers must be sensitive to cultural definitions of family and be flexible and inclusive in family engagement strategies. In some cultures, extended family and close family friends play an important role in children’s education and development.[3]

What does the research say about the importance of and effective strategies for engaging and partnering with families in caring for their babies and toddlers?

Babies do better when family members and child care providers and caregivers have consistent, communicative relationships and families feel engaged in and supported in their child care arrangements. Mutual respect for the caring roles that the parent and the child care provider or caregiver play in a baby’s life, and ongoing communication about the child’s development and needs, are fundamental aspects of quality child care for infants and toddlers.[4] Providing high-quality infant/toddler care requires providers or caregivers to form strong relationships with young children, while they also partner with the family to reinforce its role as the primary teacher in the child’s life.[5]

In practical terms, these positive relationships are built through consistent communication, an understanding of and respect for cultural differences, and shared decision-making between families and providers or caregivers.[6] Unfortunately, parents in low-income families who live in less stable neighborhoods are less likely to participate in parent engagement efforts at the child care program level. According to research, this lack of participation may be due to conflicting work and school schedules, the demands of caring for younger siblings, or a greater comfort level with being engaged with their children’s education at home rather than at the program level.[7]

Many families with infants and toddlers could benefit from family engagement through child care. Families with young children, especially those in poverty and experiencing other risk factors, can benefit from family engagement strategies that provide them with support, services, and opportunities to engage in learning and development activities. Children in families experiencing multiple risk factors-such as poverty, unemployed parents, or a home with no English speakers-are the most likely to struggle in school and face other negative outcomes. Nationally, almost half of children under six live in low-income families and about 11 percent of children live in extreme poverty. One in five children under the age of six lives in a household experiencing three or more risk factors.[8] Families in poverty participating in Head Start benefit from the family engagement strategies offered by the program. More than three-quarters of Head Start families receive at least one family service from the program; the most commonly accessed are parenting education (52 percent), health education (48 percent), and emergency or crisis intervention (21 percent).[9]

Family support and parenting education in child care can improve outcomes for infants and toddlers and their families. Infants and toddlers develop in the context of relationships, with family relationships of primary importance.[10] Providers and caregivers may engage and support families both formally (including home visits and encouraging parental involvement in decisions) and informally (creating a welcoming environment, greeting families warmly, and sharing information about the child’s day). Both methods strengthen families and help build protective factors like parent resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting strategies and child development, concrete support in times of need, and children’s social and emotional development.[11] Some research shows that programs are most effective at supporting positive parenting when they engage with the family in both center-based settings and the family’s home. Activities that are center-based may have a more positive influence on child outcomes related to language development, while activities that are primarily home-based may have a more measurable impact on outcomes related to behavior and nurturing.[12]

Programs that incorporate parent engagement in program design and leadership are higher quality and lead to better child outcomes. When parents have positive experiences with a child care provider, it can increase their confidence and ability to navigate their children’s future learning environments.  Research on parent engagement in older children’s schooling has found positive connections between child behavior, achievement, and motivation in school when parents are rated as more engaged in promoting learning at home and reinforcing school activities and lessons.[13]

Family engagement and support strategies should consider the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of families. The country’s infant/toddler population is increasingly diverse in race, ethnicity, and linguistic background.  There are more than 12 million babies and toddlers in the United States. Nationwide, 11 percent of households have a child under age 3.[14]  These households are racially and culturally diverse. Approximately 16 percent of Hispanic families, 13 percent of Asian families, 12 percent of black families, and 9 percent of white non-Hispanic families include a child under age 3.[15] In recent years, immigration has accelerated diversity among the infant/toddler population.[16] One in four children under age three lives in an immigrant family (i.e., one comprised of one or more foreign-born parents).[17] Approximately 62 percent of immigrant families with children under 3 have origins in Latin America and the Caribbean, representing many countries and languages.[18] Approximately one in seven infants and toddlers in the U.S. has a parent who speaks limited English, indicating that a language other than English is likely spoken in the home.[19] The extent to which infants and toddlers in these households are also exposed to English-for example, through sibling interactions or in child care or other settings-varies considerably.

To be effective, child care programs should use family engagement strategies that are inclusive and respectful of diverse families and their cultural beliefs. Effectively engaging families in this complex environment requires programs to make extra efforts.  This may involve translating outreach materials into new languages, engaging mentors or resource parents from the cultural communities that participating families come from, bringing in books, and decorating in a way that recognizes a family’s home culture.  More importantly, it takes an awareness and willingness on the part of staff to engage with families in order to learn about their culture and how it impacts their parenting and expectations of their children. 

A review of research on parent engagement conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends that programs incorporate families’ cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds into their practice through role models who reflect the families served, cultural celebrations, translation of program materials into native languages of families, and making interpreters available for communication. It also recommends that staff interact with families’ communities outside the programs.[20] NAEYC accreditation standards require that programs establish effective and regular means of two-way communication between programs and families, and that they gather information about children’s families, including race, religion, home language, culture, and family structure. 

Models of best practices in family support and engagement offer guidance to child care providers and caregivers.  The federal Head Start program provides comprehensive early education and family support services to low-income children. Head Start Performance Standards require that programs provide ample opportunities for both formal and informal communication between families and staff, and that those opportunities are culturally and linguistically appropriate. Head Start’s Parent and Family Engagement Framework provides seven related outcomes Head Start programs are expected to work toward, including:

  • Family well-being;
  • Positive parent-child relationships;
  • Families as lifelong educators;
  • Families as learners;
  • Family engagement in transitions;
  • Family connections to peers and community; and
  • Families as advocates and leaders[21]

Parents and families participate in leadership development, decision-making, program policy development, or community and state organizing activities to improve children’s development and learning experiences.

How can state child care licensing, subsidy and quality enhancement policies support and strengthen family engagement in child care settings for infants and toddlers? 

States can promote the incorporation of best practices around culturally competent communication into its child care system serving infants and toddlers. To help child care programs serving infants and toddlers build relationships with the families they serve, states can use regulation, incentives, and technical assistance to encourage programs to put effective communication systems in place. States can create incentives for programs to incorporate these practices by integrating them into quality policies such as quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS).   For example, in the communities of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, Florida, programs seeking the highest Level 5 QRIS rating must have resources available to communicate with all families in their primary language. In 2010, at least 24 states had included some sort of family engagement requirements in their QRIS standards. Only eight states at that time included specific standards related to cultural and linguistic diversity.[22] By incorporating practices ranging from daily communication systems to training and professional development in cultural competency into standards and regulation, states can help programs build their capacity to build stronger relationships with parents in ways that respect and reflect their cultural and linguistic needs, as well as the developmental needs of the children.

States can promote effective family support and parenting education models in child care settings through partnerships between families, providers, and the community. Building on existing approaches and models can help states create a stronger linkage between the child, provider, and home that benefits both the child and the family. For example, Early Head Start standards require that each family receive home visits to offer parenting support at least twice a year and that programs also offer opportunities for parenting support at the program site. The Strengthening Families Approach, developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, suggests that child care providers and caregivers can play an important role in building parental protective factors. These protective factors are both an important pathway to supporting parents in their nurturing role and an important platform for engaging parents in the program itself.  Strengthening Families identifies key family engagement strategies, including valuing family members and providing opportunities for them to build social relationships, offering specific parenting and child development learning opportunities, referring families to needed services, and intervening in cases where there are signs of abuse or neglect. The Strengthening Families Approach is being implemented statewide by more than 40 states using a variety of public and private funding.[23] The strategies for implementation vary dramatically-from exploring ways to incorporate practices for building protective factors into individual programs, to building statewide early childhood systems based on the Strengthening Families framework.

In Tennessee, the state child care agency has partnered with other state agencies and the state’s Children’s Trust Fund to incorporate parent engagement and support into its policies at multiple levels using the Strengthening Families approach. Tennessee’s Strengthening Families initiative has provided professional development and training on the protective factors to child care providers and parents through the state’s child care resource and referral agency and professional development networks. The use of the Strengthening Families program self assessment and other aspects of the initiative also have been incorporated into quality improvement efforts, including Tennessee’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS).

In Georgia, Bright from the Start, the state licensing and child care administrative entity, has identified a network of programs that model exemplary family partnership strategies. As part of the state’s Strengthening Families work, Bright from the Start has established these programs as models and mentors to other child care providers. Through this network, the state provides training that supports child care providers in building child protective factors through more effective parent partnerships.[24]

For the many infants and toddlers who receive subsidized child care in license-exempt family, friend, and neighbor care (FFN), partnerships with home visiting programs have been effective in strengthening both the quality of care rendered by the provider, and the relationship between the caregiver and the family. One potential benefit is that home visiting programs reaching both the caregiver and the parent can increase consistency in parenting strategies and adult-child interactions between the child care and home settings.[25]

Some state policies can support partnerships between home visiting programs and home-based child care providers, including both FFN and licensed family child care. States can include quality improvement incentives in their subsidy policies, which may take the form of rate differentials, bonuses, or other types of recognition for providers who partner with a home visiting program and receive its curriculum.  

States can help programs serving infants and toddlers incorporate practices that provide families with opportunities to engage in their children’s learning in a variety of ways at home, in the program, and in leadership roles. Through training, technical assistance, standards, and regulations, states can help programs develop and implement effective policies and practices that give families multiple opportunities to contribute to child care programs by sharing their skills and expertise, supporting the learning of children in the program and at home, and participating in leadership roles in the program. For example, Head Start Performance Standards require programs to offer families opportunities to participate in developing the program’s curriculum and approach to child development and education. They also require that programs include parents in a leadership role in the program, either through a Parent Committee, the program’s Policy Council and/or Committees, or other governance roles. In Pennsylvania, the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) is partnering with Head Start, mental health agencies, school districts, and other initiatives to incorporate the Strengthening Families framework across state policies and agencies, quality standards, and professional development efforts.[26]

Department of Defense policies for child development programs state that parents will be encouraged to participate in the planning and evaluation of the child development program. Opportunities for families to engage in program leadership, curriculum, and their children’s learning must be offered in ways that respect, reflect, and incorporate cultural and linguistic diversity. This may include providing translations of written materials about curriculum and children’s progress, offering translation services at advisory and governance meetings or meetings to discuss children’s development and progress, and incorporating cultural practices into the child’s daily care and activities. Parents of all cultural backgrounds should be encouraged to participate at equal levels. For example, if English-speaking parents are involved in literacy activities in the classroom, immigrant parents who speak other languages should also be encouraged to read or tell stories in their native language-an activity from which all children can benefit. Such strategies have been included in some states’ licensing or QRIS standards, as have requirements around regular communication about activities, learning, and development goals for children. Some states also include quality standards that encourage programs to provide resources that assist families in extending their children’s child care learning experiences into the home.

Over recent years, as states have developed their QRIS, they have incorporated some traditional family engagement strategies into their standards.  These include:

  • Organizing a parent advisory board;
  • Providing a bulletin board or newsletter;
  • Holding conferences and meetings;
  • Developing and distributing a parent handbook/written program policies;
  • Developing a parent resource center;
  • Developing and distributing a parent satisfaction survey;
  • Welcoming families at all times;
  • Developing and implementing a written system for sharing daily events; and
  • Providing parents with consultation prior to children’s enrollment.[27]

While these strategies create a family-centered atmosphere that promotes a trusting relationship, states can expand these strategies to incorporate the broader definition of family engagement that includes providing and connecting families to economic, health, and parenting supports. These and other approaches for involving diverse families in their children’s learning can be supported by states with coordinated professional development and training.

[1] Frontiers of Innovation, “Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A Theory of Change,” Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University video, 5:19, September 30, 2013,

[2] The National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement, Using the Head Start Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework in Your Program: Markers of Progress, Office of Head Start National Centers, 2012,

[3] As cited in Linda C. Halgunseth, Amy Peterson, Deborah R. Stark and Shannon Moodie, Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood Education Programs: An Integrated Review of the Literature, National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2009; Anne T. Henderson and Karen L. Mapp, A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Annual Synthesis, National Center for Family & Community Connections with Schools, 2002.

[4] J. R. Lally, Yolanda L. Torres and Pamela C. Phelps, Caring for Infants and Toddlers in Groups: Developmentally Appropriate Practice, Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families 2008, 48-49.

[5] Helen H. Raikes and Carolyn P. Edwards, “Supporting Relationships with Families,” Young Children 64, no. 5 (2009): 50-55.

[6] J. R. Lally, Yolanda L. Torres and Pamela C. Phelps, Caring for Infants, 48-49; Chris Ferguson, Manica Ramos, , Zeno Rudo, & Lacy Wood, The school family connection: Looking at the larger picture a review of current literature, National Center for Family and Community Connections with School, 2008,; Mavis Sanders, 2008 “How parent liaisons can help the home-school gap,” Journal of Educational Research, 101, no 5 (2008): 287-297,;  Paul Flaugher, “Two dimensions of parent participation in an inner school district,” Education and Urban Society, 38, no. 2 (2006) 248-261.

[7] Christine Waanders, Julia L. Mendez and Jason T. Downer, “Parent characteristics, economic stress and neighborhood context as predictors of parent involvement in preschool children’s education,” Journal of School Psychology 45, (2007) 619-636; Maribeth Gettinger, and Kristen W. Guetschow. “Parental involvement in schools: Parent and teacher perceptions of roles, efficacy, and opportunities.” Journal of Research & Development in Education 32, no 1 (1998): 38-52.

[8] Taylor Robbins, Shannon Stagman and Sheila Smith, Young Children at Risk: National and State Prevalence of Risk Factors, National Center for Children in Poverty, 2012,

[9] CLASP analysis of 2012 Head Start PIR data.

[10] Ross A. Thompson, “Early Attachment and Later Development,” in Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications, 1999, 348-365.

[11] Center for Study of Social Policy web site,

[12] Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Lisa B. Markman, “The Contribution of Parenting to Ethnic and Racial Gaps in School Readiness,” Future of Children, 15, no. 1 (2005): 139-68.

[13] Christine McWayne and Marissa Owsianik, “Parent Involvement and the Social and Academic Competencies of Urban Kindergarten Children,” Family Involvement Research Digests, Harvard Family Research Project, October 2004,

[14] U.S. Census Bureau, America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012Family Households, by Type, Age of Own Children, Age of Family Members, and Age, Race and Hispanic Origin of Householder: 2012,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Randy Capps, Michael Fix, Jason Ost, Jane Reardon-Anderson, and Jeffrey S. Passel, The Health and Well-Being of Young Children of Immigrants, Urban Institute, 2005,

[17] U.S. Census Bureau, America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012Nativity Status of Children Under 18 Years and Presence of Parents by Race, and Hispanic Origin for Selected Characteristics: 2012,

[18] Donald J. Hernandez, Nancy A. Denton, and Suzanne E. Macartney, Census 2000 5pct microdata (IPUMS), Center for Social and Demographic Analysis, University at Albany, State University of New York,

[19] Ibid.

[20] Halgunseth, Linda C., Amy Peterson, Deborah R. Stark, and Shannon Moodie, Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood Education Programs: An Integrated Review of the Literature, National Association for the Education of Young Children, The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009,

[21] Head Start, Administration for Children and Families, The Head Start Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework: Promoting Family Engagement and School Readiness, from Prenatal to Age 8, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Head Start, 2011

[22] Compendium of Quality Rating Systems and Evaluations, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE), Administration for Children and Families. 2010.

[23] Nilofer Ahsan, “History,” Strengthening Families, The Center for the Study of Social Policy, September 29, 2013,

[24] Georgia: Fostering Meaningful Partnerships, Center for the Study of Social Policy, 2009,

[25] Christine Johnston-Staub and Stephanie Schmit, Home Away from Home: A Toolkit for Planning Home Visiting Partnerships with Family, Friend and Neighbor Caregivers, Center for Law and Social Policy, , 2012,


[27] Common Categories of QRIS Quality Standards, National Child Care Information Center, 2010,

[28] Marlene Zepeda, Frances Varela, Alex Morales, Promoting Positive Parenting Practices Through Parenting Building State Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems Series No. 13, ed.Halfon N, Rice T, and Inkelas M, National Center for Infant and Early Childhood Health Policy; 2004.

What policies can states use to move toward this recommendation?

To move toward this recommendation, states may use multiple policy levers, starting from different points. Potential state policies include:


  • Require in state licensing that center-based and family child care providers adopt family partnership and parental involvement strategies tailored to parents of infants and toddlers.


Quality Enhancement

  • Provide information and technical assistance to infant and toddler center-based and family child care providers regarding parent involvement strategies, such as culturally appropriate strategies for including parents in program development, giving parents opportunities to share concerns about their children’s development with providers, and helping parents link to and continue the curriculum their children are experiencing at home.
  • Provide funding for providers to have on-site capacity to share referrals or offer on-site opportunities for parents to enhance their parenting skills, knowledge, and understanding of the educational and developmental needs and activities of their children, and to improve family literacy.
  • Build family partnership and parental involvement activities tailored to parents of infants and toddlers into the state quality rating and improvement system (QRIS).


Related Project Recommendations

The following resources may help your state get started in creating a plan to promote partnerships and engagement of families of infants and toddlers with their child care providers and caregivers.