The recent revision of Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs lists five fundamental principles related to children's learning and development. These guidelines were written to inform education decisions and practice. In previous issues we discussed the first four guidelines: Creating a Caring Community of Learners, Teaching to Enhance Development and Learning, Constructing Appropriate Curriculum, and Assessing Children's Learning and Development. This month we address the fifth guideline: Establishing Reciprocal Relationships With Families. Let's look at the meaning of reciprocal and how it can frame the processes we use to develop positive relationships with families.

What Does Reciprocal Mean?

Interdependent, complementary, correlative-these are synonyms for relationships that are connected, balanced, and interrelated. School/family relationships that mirror these characteristics help create environments where children feel relaxed and confident.

In the past, the typical early childhood approach to families has been one of "parent educators "teachers help families understand the developmental needs of their children. Today, research and observation suggest that this view is too simplistic. Oversimplification may also occur if programs focus only on meeting parental needs-doing whatever parents want, regardless of whether professionals agree that it is in the best interest of the child.

Creating a Respectful and Effective Balance

Programs should create a family-centered environment in which parents and professionals work together to achieve shared goals. The following guidelines characterize a mutual focus based on respect, cooperation, and shared responsibility:

  • Teachers work in collaborative partnerships with families to establish and maintain ongoing, two-way communication.
  • Parents are welcome in the program and participate in decisions about their children's care and education.
  • Teachers acknowledge parents' choices and goals for their children and respond with sensitivity and respect to preferences and concerns without abdicating their professional responsibility and expertise.
  • Teachers and parents share their knowledge of the child and his development and learning as part of day-to-day communication and planned conferences.
  • The program involves families in assessing and planning for individual children. The program links families with a range of services based on identified resources, priorities, and concerns.
  • Teachers, parents, and social service and health agencies share developmental information about children as they pass from one level or program to another.

Relationships that support children's optimal development require ongoing interaction that contributes to a deeper knowledge of individual children and the context of their lives. All children can benefit from the time and effort adults dedicate to creating these vital, reciprocal relationships. 

Strategies for Administrators

Here are strategies that can help build strong and positive reciprocal relationships:

  • Establish open communication the first time you meet a family. Share your program philosophy using the term "reciprocal relationships" to help define everyone's role.
  • Demonstrate that you value getting to know each family. Include a family history form in enrollment materials. Use a simple one-page questionnaire to give families a place to share their backgrounds, strengths, and talents. Ask family members directly to share ideas, resources, and community programs that could broaden children's experiences. Work together to use this information to enrich classrooms and involve families in special ways.
  • Keep each child the focus of your relationship. Discuss with families: "Is this the best decision we can make for your child's growth and development?"
  •  Ask families what they think about all of the aspects of your program. Giving families this opportunity doesn't mean that you are promising to do everything they suggest The fact that you are asking for their input will be appreciated; and families will understand why some suggestions can't be implemented. The more you ask, the more you will hear!
  • Know your role as administrator. Final decisions are your responsibility. Some families will challenge your authority. Carefully thought-out written policies and practices will support your position.
  • Strive to be as consistent and as firm as possible. You want to develop a reputation for fairness among staff and colleagues. Ask yourself: "Am I setting a precedent with this decision that will work for all families?"
  • Address family concerns immediately. Problems that stew for days may become larger than life and much more difficult to solve. Some administrators have regularly scheduled open-parent dialogues. There is no set agenda, and anyone can choose to come.
  • Encourage active and engaged family members to be project leaders. Ask those who tend to be on a more negative side of the fence to head up a beneficial event such as a book fair or other fund-raiser. You will be pleasantly surprised at their change of tune!
  • Encourage families to collaborate. Your thoughtful suggestions and comments can help families develop new friends and expand their reciprocal relationships.