Early Childhood Today: Why is it so important for teachers to get to know families?

Maurice Sykes: We cannot know and understand each child unless we know and understand each child's family. I believe in focusing on the strengths of each family. As teachers, we have to be aware of our own preconceived ideas about families. As individuals, we need to ask ourselves: "What is my relationship to each family?" Sometimes we have to resist the feeling that we, as teachers, are better for some children than their natural families are. We all make judgments about people. We have to check those judgments and think seriously about them. We need to continue to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the values and mores of cultural, language, and racial groups. Teachers, in my opinion, are ethnographers, seeking to understand the cultural groups and families they work with, inclusive of race, language, and ethnicity.

ECT: What is the main benefit for children?

Sykes: The connection between early schooling and families is critical because it sends a message to children about the importance of education. Because learning is a lifelong process, the fact that the family is engaged from the beginning really signals to each child that this is a joint effort.

ECT: What are some common obstacles educators face when working with families?

Sykes: We do get into difficulties when we don't fully understand the child rearing practices of the family - their hopes, dreams, and expectations for their children. We need to be willing to hear what it is parents really want, to figure out a way of engaging them in conversations that are respectful of where they are, as we seek to understand how they feel about their children. The connection between the child and the family unit is very important and I don't think we should minimize that. We can never replace a child's family - even when children come from difficult situations. We want to keep families in communication with us so that we can support them and their children.

ECT: In an ideal world, how do you see families participating in school?

Sykes: We certainly have been inspired by the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The Reggio people see parents as co-constructors - equal partners in the teaching and learning process. We need to ask: Why do we want parents involved? What are the benefits to the child? To the parents? To programs? People know when they are needed, valued, and respected. This doesn't always happen when parents are involved on a superficial level or just because it's a program requirement.

ECT: If we want to involve parents as co-constructors in their children's education, what can we do?

Sykes: We can begin by engaging parents in an initial conversation. In my program we say: "I am going to be working with your child this year but you know far more about your child than I do. What can you tell me about your child?"

It's also important to listen to parents when they describe their children, and then ask: "What are your hopes and dreams for your child this year? What do you want to see happen?" You'll want to explain as their child's teacher: "I also want to share my hopes and dreams with you." (Now you are beginning to form the alliance.)

Next, talk about how (together) you are going to realize these hopes and dreams. And you have to keep families posted all year long-letting parents know what children are working on and inviting parents to the classroom throughout the year.

Finally, teachers need to support parents by talking about issues related to their children. This includes forming groups where parents come and deal with issues that are of importance to them, and adapting these meetings to meet the cultural needs of the community.

ECT: Can you tell us where we can find good materials to help direct our work with families?

Sykes: We need to look carefully for quality resources. Not all materials offer respectful information and many promote stereotypes. I recommend The Anti-Bias Curriculum by Louise Derman-Sparks (NAEYC, 1989) and the training video/guide Start Seeing Diversity by Ellen Wolpert (Redleaf Press, 1999).

This interview originally appeared in the November, 2001 issue of Early Childhood Today.