A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Early Childhood Reform in Seven Communities - October 1996

V. Cross-Site Analysis

Strategies to Serve and Involve Families

The early childhood programs in the study support and encourage parent participation in child development and learning. This family focus reflects the renewed interest in ecological approaches to child development that situate learning in the context of home, school, and community. It is backed by federal and state policies that require working with families as a condition of early childhood program funding. Equally important, early childhood professionals believe greater continuity and mutual understanding between the home and preschool reinforces and sustains the benefits of their work with children. They also recognize the stresses felt by families -- from work or its absence, poverty, single parenthood, or social isolation -- and the need to address these problems if parents are to adequately nurture their children. This ecological approach finds expression in the wide range of activities these programs use to support parents in their roles as caregivers, breadwinners and community members.

Context: Family Needs and Program Characteristics

The seven programs serve low-income families who are struggling to provide children with basic necessities and a warm, caring home. The majority of families are living at or close to the poverty level and a substantial proportion are on some kind of public assistance. Some programs serve families with low levels of literacy while others work with parents who are either attending school or are employed in low-wage-rate jobs. Many of the children grow up in single-parent homes; children in Covington tend to be part of extended families where grandparents play an important role in raising their grandchildren. Both the Jersey City school district and the Parent Services Project work with immigrant families. The overall picture that emerges in one of programs serving multi-stressed, multi-problem families with challenges including poverty and unemployment, domestic violence, illiteracy, social isolation, and substance abuse.

Many of the children grow up in stressful home environments, and staff link the behaviors of the children with their family situations.

"What do parents need? For some the needs are astronomical. Just getting kids to medical services is a problem. Usually, families have only one vehicle and the father takes it to work. Kids without clothes don't come to school either. Other kids are living with grandparents due to marital problems at home. We find some substance abuse, some sexual and physical abuse, emotional issues, marital problems and poor self- esteem in moms who feel trapped at home."
"Their problems include substandard or crowded housing; dead-end, low-paying jobs; inadequate medical care; lack of English language skills and cultural dislocation. Some don't have enough food to feed their children. They feel guilty about leaving their children to go to work; they worry about their parenting competence; and are exhausted by the endless rounds of work and child care. Their self-esteem tends to be low; they often feel that their problems are beyond their control. Compounding all these problems is a feeling of isolation from other people, especially other parents."

One program, the Sheltering Arms agency, also addresses the specific concerns of middle income families. While these families have few of the economic and social service needs of lower income families, they nonetheless need help with parenting issues and managing stress associated with balancing work and family commitments. A Family Service Coordinator observes,

"We do a lot of talking with parents about reducing stress in their children's lives. Many of these parents work 10, 12, 14 hours a day plus do a lengthy commute. People are on this board and running to activities, and it leaves very few hours to spend with their children. Often we try to say gently, 'your child needs your attention -- you need to set aside some time to spend with him.' We try to help parents understand how important their interactions with their child can be, because they're in group care a long time everyday. We also have many divorce situations where children are reacting to stress and parents may be placing us in the middle of conflicts. And we have quite a few single parents who need a lot of support."

In order to be responsive to families, each of the seven programs has developed services to meet the needs of families in their particular communities.

- Inn Circle in Cedar Rapids works with homeless and abused mothers who live in a transitional housing facility. It offers a secure and supportive environment where mothers can gain the skills necessary for self-sufficiency, build informal networks, and become prepared to participate in community associations, such as Scouting and sports programs, religious institutions, and block clubs.
- Sheltering Arms in Atlanta responds to the high priority working families place on finding quality, affordable child care. It provides an important support to families by serving children as young as six weeks of age through five years, fifty-two weeks a year and up to eleven hours per day. This schedule meets the needs of parents juggling the logistical and economic demands of parenting, employment, and maintaining a home.
- FACE in New Mexico operates in isolated, rural Native American communities with problems of poverty and unemployment, alcoholism, and a lack of basic services. Its weekly home visits for families with very young children provide support for parents and grandparents who otherwise would have no access to broad and diverse child development information. Through a family literacy component, parents develop the educational skills they need while their children are in preschool.

As shown in the attached chart, programs differ in their capacities and relative emphases on specific services. However, every agency exhibits strategies which address share four core goals and outcomes of family support:

  1. Programs enhance parents' skills, knowledge, and motivation to be involved in their children's education.
  2. Programs support parents in their journey toward education and self-sufficiency.
  3. Programs help families gain access to services which address their needs through partnerships with community agencies.
  4. Programs create "caring communities" for parents by providing social support and catalyzing participation in community institutions.

The next section describes strategies programs use to meet each of these goals.



  Home Visits Parenting
in classroom &
other activities
social, legal,
health services
Covington x x x x - x x
CDI x x x - x x x
FACE x x x - x x x
Inn Circle x x x - - x x
PSP - x x x - - x
Jersey City,
x x x - x - x
x x x - - x x

Family Support and Involvement Strategies

1. Programs seek to enhance parents' skills, knowledge, and motivation to be involved with their children's education.

"Basically, my discipline was spanking, and the staff said, 'Spanking is not helping. Find other ways to discipline. Take away the toys, or put him in the chair, try things like that.' When I whipped Christopher, he was getting worse. But if I tell him he has to sit in that chair and look at books, he'll say, 'Momma, I promise I will be good. I won't open your mail tomorrow and I won't give you any more problems.' He hates to be restricted because he's a VERY active child, and sitting still for two minutes seems like 20 years to him."

A core strategy in all seven agencies are parent education services, offered in a variety of forms and settings. Parenting sessions help parents learn about child development, cope with challenges such as discipline and nurturing self-esteem, and engage in developmental activities with their children. Parent education is fostered directly through home visits and group meetings, and indirectly through a variety of exchanges between families and program staff members.

Home visits are special learning occasions where a parent and child receive individualized attention. Home visitors engage the child in stimulating activities to develop motor, cognitive, language, and social skills. Parents and home visitor share information about the child's behaviors, milestones are noted, and parents learn about the value of talking to and playing with their child. The sessions also include child screening for early detection of developmental delays. In two program sites, home visits include other children or the extended family, thus enlarging the network of positive influences on the child. Programs used the Missouri-based Parents as Teachers or the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) as models, or developed their own curriculums.

The regularity of face-to-face contact, at least weekly in two programs, and the friendly, supportive tone of the home visitors set the stage for a positive exchange of child development information. The home visitors create a special relationship with the family, and parents feel that they have someone who genuinely cares about their child. Parents give top marks to home visits:

"I like the home visits because I have my older teenagers, with my grandson being three. The teens learn how to play with him and teach him things, too, with the games that the teachers bring."
"To meet the cost of living, usually both father and mother are working. The parenting time gives me ideas how we can cope with the stress of working and childrearing and what we can do at home. It's not just sticking your child in front of the TV."

Home visitors are flexible in their engagement with parent and child, adapting their practices to fit both the childrearing patterns of diverse groups and the particular situations of families:

"I don't have a lot of success with certain parents in home visits, in terms of getting them involved in the activities. I just do the activity with the child and talk to the parent at the same time. Then often the next week when I go back, the parent tells me, 'We did this and I noticed she was using her thumb and her finger.' So I know that the parent did the activity later, after I left, which is okay."

While our research provided only limited observations of home visiting, we were struck by the variation of approaches to staffing and service delivery:

- Some programs required home visitors to go out in pairs, while others sent out only one visitor per family.
- Staff credentials varied from specially trained paraprofessionals to certified teachers.
- Home visitors varied in their focus of attention. Some concentrate on interacting with the child, some with the parent, and some on the interaction of parent and child. Some home visitors try to actively involve parents in child development activities; others are satisfied to have the parent play the role of observer.
- While all home visitors developed a lesson plan, some are more open to allowing the child or parent to guide part of the session.

Preschool classroom teachers also carry out home visits, to learn more about families and to promote communication with parents. The Jersey City program schedules teacher home visits for parents who have difficulty coming to school to discuss their children's progress. Covington teachers make four home visits during the school year that function as an extension of classroom activities in a home setting.

Parent education also takes place in group meetings which include a blend of presentations, questions-and-answers, open discussion, and activities. Most agencies carried out a series of meetings tied to a specific curriculum and a trained facilitator. Programs used curriculums such as Nurturing Program, Effective Parenting Information for Children (EPIC), Winning Program, and Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP), as well as developing their own materials on topics of interest to parents in their program. Parents give these accounts of positive experiences:

"I took the STEP course and enjoyed listening to problems and suggestions from other parents...I've been in the child care field myself, but that background means nothing when you get your own kids and they're doing things that you don't know how to deal with and you're afraid you're getting overly negative."
"A few weeks ago, we had a meeting on reading readiness and we learned about making books. Both my parents died before I got out of high school. I wanted to let my child know that she was named for her grandparents. So I made a book with mom and dad's pictures in it."

Parent education also occurs as a by-product of other exchanges between programs and parents. In the words of a parent:

"I watched how they took care of the kids. I volunteered for nine months everyday while waiting for my next child to be born. You see the way the teachers sit and talk to the kids and how they give them time out instead of spanking them."

Efforts to explain classroom practices offer the added benefit of exposing parents to ideas and strategies which they can use at home with their children. For example, in order to demonstrate to parents that children learn through active engagement with materials, preschool teachers in Jersey City divided parents who attended a workshop into two groups with different methods of accomplishing an art activity. A teacher explains, "One of us acted like the traditional teacher who gave a lecture, passed out ditto paper and asked parents to color in the apple and the orange. Another one of us asked parents to cut up different types of apples and oranges, taste them, talk about their differences and go through a range of other experiences. When we brought them back we asked, 'well, who has something to show?' and of course, it was the ditto group; but when we asked 'who learned more?', of course, it was the hands-on group. Now we hear, parents talking to each other and saying, 'It's okay if the kids are not bringing papers home,' but the first year we were being pressured like crazy with comments like, 'How come you're not teaching them their A, B, C's? How come they don't know how to spell their names?'."

2. Programs support parents in their journey towards education and self-sufficiency.

The seven programs offer parents the opportunity to improve literacy skills, continue their education, obtain employment training, and move toward self-sufficiency. Programs offer direct services, usually through Even Start or similar family literacy initiatives, and they refer parents to community colleges, school district vocational programs, or other services available in the community. Through these early childhood programs, family coordinators help parents prioritize goals and gain access to educational opportunities within the program or in the community. Parents also benefit from the presence of other parents who provide support and encouragement. One advantage of linking adult education services with early childhood programs lies in the friendly, non-threatening, and nurturing settings of such programs. This is especially important for parents who dropped out of school and might have negative attitudes about learning and schooling.

Parents praise the programs for progress they have made in career and personal goals and the repercussions on their children:

"My son says to me, 'Mom, are you going to school today?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' We sit down together and do our homework together, and if he sees me involved and waiting to learn, then that's going to make him want to learn even more, too."
"Staying at home was real important to me. I didn't want to leave the security of the house with me and my kids. I was terrified of going anywhere. If I hadn't been in the program, I wouldn't have my GED, I wouldn't have volunteered in elementary school, and I wouldn't be registered at Arkansas Tech."

Linking adult education and job training with incentives such as job opportunities, transportation, and child care helps attract parent participation. Two programs in particular have developed successful agency partnerships that connect training and job placement:

- Child Development Inc.'s Parent Child Center (PCC) in Clarksville is a child care and job placement site for high school dropouts funded by the Job Training Partnership Act. The program offers adult basic education and GED preparation, and training on life skills, parenting, and the use of computer-assisted instructional materials. Community experts speak to the parents on issues such as rape prevention, hygiene, and dental care. The parents spend at least two hours a week volunteering in the child care center.
- The Covington, KY program trains parents to become classroom volunteers. About 100 parents annually attend this twelve-hour training course. They are paid a $10/half- day stipend during training and classroom service. Some parents continue to receive intensive training in special education and are hired as school aides; the agency also offers monthly training opportunities to individuals interested in becoming child care providers.

The seven programs also supplement adult education and job training services with life skills training and decision making responsibilities; together these form a coherent set of experiences that enable individuals to increase their employment potential.

- Formerly homeless mothers at Inn Circle must be in education and training programs or be employed at least 20 hours per week. Parents also serve on committees and make decisions about the management of Inn Circle. One program administrator remarks, "There's shared leadership in those groups. The parents are learning the kinds of skills that employers are impressed with -- somebody who knows how to take responsibility for something and to handle it well." Through the committees as well as by forming support groups around issues of domestic violence, addiction, and self- esteem, parents gain valuable experience in communication, management, and leadership.

Helping families move toward self-sufficiency is not without challenges, some of them quite formidable. The FACE programs in New Mexico offer a family literacy component requiring parents to attend adult education classes. This is difficult to implement when parents are working, looking for work, or find seasonal employment that interferes with class attendance. To meet policy guidelines while keeping attuned to community conditions, the programs have scheduled evening sessions to accommodate working parents. In other communities it is very difficult to motivate parents because of limited employment benefits:

"If you're making $260 per month on AFDC plus WIC, health care and food stamps, how attractive is a job at $4.25 per hour when it means you will lose Medicaid and other supports?"

3. Programs help parents gain access to services which address their needs through partnerships with community agencies.

Programs develop partnerships because they are mandated in legislation, and because they recognize that families have many tangible needs that cut across different service agencies. To program directors it became apparent that families were becoming lost and frustrated with the fragmented and bureaucratic system. At the same time, forming partnerships to improve the accessibility of services involves an investment of time, energy, and patience to overcome turf concerns. Linkages with community agencies take various forms and vary in complexity. There are formal collaborations that involve joint management and operation of a program, or cost sharing of staff positions. There are also instances of directors and staff using informal networks to refer families to services offered by other agencies. Four common strategies and the issues that arise in their implementation are described below.

Referrals are the most common mechanism for extending services beyond what a program can provide on its own. Their success depends to a great deal on the presence of a family coordinator who provides parents with basic information on where they can find assistance, mediates contacts between parents and agency providers, and follows up on initial contacts.

"When we find out about a need, we try to connect families with the right agency. One person came and threw her income tax form in my face and said, 'You call them; I haven't received my refund yet.' It turned out that she was afraid her English wasn't good enough to be confident in talking with the IRS. So I made a bargain, saying I'll make the call and stay on the line, if you do the talking."

"Last year we were able to help ten inner city families obtain homes with Habitat for Humanity. Habitat representatives have presented at parent groups and family service staff have helped interested parents with the paperwork and other requirements for participation."

Shared services involve linkages with other community agencies to trade services and resources for a common base of families. There are two patterns of shared services: fees for services, such as contracts with health providers to perform examinations and preventive services, and coordination strategies. Six programs actively coordinate their services with other agencies. Partner agencies may arrange a division of labor in terms of recruiting participants, providing transportation and child care, and offering space. Cost-sharing can also become part of the agreement.

- A Head Start program and an area education agency in Cedar Rapids share the cost of an education specialist to work with children who have developmental delays.
- Child Development, Inc. (CDI) works with Project Success, Arkansas' welfare program. CDI provides child care and transportation for the child of whom do not own automobiles.

- The Northern Kentucky University Reentry Center provides an instructor and materials for a carpentry workshop for unemployed mothers in Covington. The early childhood program recruits the mothers, offers classroom space, and provides child care and transportation.

Only one program, Inn Circle, has developed a case management system for its participants. Inn Circle meets regularly with a team of health, mental health, education, and social service providers to coordinate the services being received by its families.

Five programs are participating in more comprehensive, community-wide systems change efforts to simplify different public programs and funding streams and to provide better coordination of services that involve a common set of families. Over the short-term, programs report ease of making referrals, ability to recognize gaps in services and to remedy them, and progress towards addressing more complex cross-agency issues.

- Child Development, Inc. is part of a county collaborative that developed a centralized referral network with a directory and phone number; the collaborative is now drafting a one-page document that will serve as a single universal application for service eligibility.
- Sheltering Arms participates in a community planning and service project that reviews the needs for early childhood and health services at the neighborhood level. Its neighborhood cluster served as an umbrella group in coordinating proposals for the state prekindergarten funding and is now working to create a new health clinic in the neighborhood.
- Through the Jersey City Interagency Collaborative Council, one elementary school has been assigned a service broker whose main responsibility is to connect the families of the students to services provided by the county.

Partnership relationships also involve difficulties. For example, the assumption behind making referrals is that services are available, whereas in many communities programs encounter demand that is greater than their capacity to respond:

"Fifteen years ago, we had regional mental health centers, with child and family therapists all over the county and now they're gone. Principals and teachers become the de facto counselors for the kids. And so I wonder, how can this family get support? We can hook them up sometimes to an agency, but services are short-lived and, and the journey to get services is lengthy and cumbersome."
"There's a long waiting list for health services. Parents may go to the hospital at 8:00 a.m. and not come out until 9:00 at night. The health department is also backed up -- it may take 30 days for parents who need physical exams for their children."

The logistics and management of collaborative strategies can also be daunting:

"I would not want to underplay the difficulties of our first year -- there were questions of liability, legal problems, and even the logistics of moving people from the center to our clinic. Financially, nobody was making money on this thing. If there was no commitment it would have been easy to say within six months, 'This isn't worth it,' and then just let things slide."

Coordination is also difficult when agencies do not share the same philosophy of working with families. While early childhood program staffers try to model respectfulness, they are wary of agencies that are more punitive than empowering in their relationships with families. Staff members sometimes find that there is no point in referring families to agencies where "they won't be treated right." Program directors also work hard to influence social service agencies to take a preventative approach instead of waiting for a crisis to spur intervention. Additionally, family coordinators feel stymied by the fast turnover of personnel in other, larger bureaucracies. It becomes frustrating to keep informing new staff of their program's existence and to develop a relationship that facilitates access to services.

4. Programs create "caring communities" for parents by providing social support and catalyzing participation in community institutions.

The process of helping families become self-sufficient involves a careful blending and sequencing of provided needed services, reducing family isolation, expanding social support networks, and giving families a chance to contribute and be valued by their community. Programs have learned to begin with building trust, addressing tangible needs and providing social support. Over time, staff members introduce more challenging forms of involvement, such as confronting literacy, occupational, substance abuse, or marital issues. Ultimately, programs help parents to function as contributing members, decision makers, and sources of support to other parents.

Very often the relationships between parents and staff have the most impact on parents' involvement with the program. When program directors, teachers, and family support staff make an effort to welcome parents, help them, and build trusting relationships, parents respond by making the effort to work closely with them and to live up to their expectations. Parents feel they belong to a community that respects them, takes their needs seriously, and gives them the opportunity to change their lives. Time and again satisfied parents refer to the program staff as "family," reflecting the comfort, security and support of an intimate group:

"They (family workers) give you a chance to build your own self-esteem. The program's not just dealing with your kids but they also teach you to take time out for yourself. When we are at home things get so stressed that we can't stand nobody, and we can't stand ourselves. But you can come here and talk to anybody -- a parent, a staff member -- and nobody's going to look down on you. They respect you for who you are and not what you are."

When staff members listen to parents and act on their suggestions, parents feel empowered and begin to take a more active role in the program. For some parents, this engagement catalyzes broader involvement in community affairs and advocacy for children.

Parents appreciate the personal commitment of staff members who combine roles of teacher, adviser, advocate, and liaison to other resources in the community. Parents also find in the centers a supportive setting that helps relieve family and work-related stress. In one program where staff members join parents in social activities, they, too, benefit from stress reduction:

"Some parents did a workshop on hand-painting silk and wool material. The staff benefits from these sessions as much as parents. Sometimes you get so busy, it can be a real downer on your soul. For me, sewing and embroidery help me cope. And as we worked we talked together. One parent who had been laid off shared that she felt she had been thrown away. After listening to her, we were able to refer her to a mental health center. "

Parent-to-parent relationships are another important source of support and an opportunity for parents to extend themselves as contributors in a program setting. A Covington parent says,

"When some of the girls went to the vocational school to have their make-over, they needed a baby-sitter, so I volunteered my house. That's something that I could do to help somebody else out.."

Another parent who had been isolated for many years developed friendships at the preschool center and formed a group session called "Can We Talk?" after the television show of the same name.

While support group sessions tend to draw mothers, the Parent Services Project in Fairfax (CA) also makes a special effort to draw fathers:

"We have a Fathers' Breakfast regularly where we cook and eat breakfast with the kids for the first hour, then have child care so that the men can talk. We have a good time, complaining and sharing concerns about kids, wives, bosses, government. Men are often hesitant to get involved with groups like this because it implies that you need some help, some companionship that you can't get anywhere else. Of course, that's true for a lot of us, but it's hard to draw men in."

Through support groups and workshops, the parents feel that their self-esteem is nurtured; that there are others who listen to them and encourage them; that they are not alone in facing the pressures of being poor, of losing a job, or of handling domestic conflict. Being a part of these groups requires limited commitment but parents reap immeasurable benefits: they feel a sense of "belonging" and a sense of worth.

The Inn Circle initiative in Cedar Rapids has developed a conceptual framework to convey the importance of community-building for families. At the core of this framework is the belief that "families need to be part of supportive relationships with other families, individuals and groups." (Carman, et al., n.d.). Instead of passive clients, they need to become part of community structures that recognize their skills and value their contributions. Some specific activities that flow from this framework include social activities to develop bonds among families, creating a skills/resource exchange that identifies the expertise of participants and enables families to turn to one another for support, and forming parent coops to offer practical group solutions to the needs of working families. Parents have the opportunity to demonstrate their "gifts," a potential that is often overlooked when their children get into the programs because they are "at-risk."

- The Jersey City school district sponsors a SHARE program that allows parents to save money on food in return for community service. In exchange for a few hours of volunteer work in the community every month and a yearly fee of $13, participants receive a coupon entitling them to $35 worth of groceries that they pick up from local churches.
- Sheltering Arms programs link parents with community offerings such as story hour at the library, Little League, a blood drive, voter registration, and elderly care support.
- The Inn Circle program encourages homeless families to develop new friendship networks and join grassroots organizations that match their interests. Through these forms of participation families create a web of supports that will continue after they leave Inn Circle.

These activities widen the network of reciprocity and sense of belonging from the program to the community. Based on the idea of community as "the basic context for enabling people to contribute their gifts" (McKnight, 1987), this approach seeks to "recommunalize" participants, enriching their lives and their communities.

A final strategy which equips parents to contribute to their communities is experience in decision making. The majority of agencies invite parents to participate in various forms of policy committees, with responsibilities for giving input to program decisions in areas such as budget and service priorities, evaluation, fundraising and staffing. These committees give parents experience in many skills which they can use as they participate in other community agencies and associations. For example, Parent Services Project sites empower parents by having them manage a small discretionary budget. As a staff member explains:

"So often when families don't have financial resources, the suspicion is that when you give them an opportunity to determine how money is spent, they'll go out and spend it on frivolous things. That was not the case. One center set up a $2000 revolving loan fund which parents could apply to, for needs such as care repairs, fixing plumbing, or buying school clothes, and after ten years, we still have $1800." Parents have continued to pay back their obligations even if their children had left the center years before.

Programs report positive carryover from these experiences as parents move out from their agencies. FACE parent meetings attract more participants than regular PTA meetings in some communities. In one BIA school, 14 of 16 parents participating in a training session for middle school parents were alumni of the FACE project. Or, as a former parent in the Jersey City, New Jersey program said:

"We got involved in the parent committee at our school and the Parent Council President began to say,'Those prekindergarten parents are something else. They just get in there and take charge you know?'"


[Cross-Site Analysis - Strategies to Support Child Development]  [Table of Contents]  [Cross-Site Analysis - Management Strategies: Fundraising and Building High Quality Services]