When you truly belong, you experience it in your core and it shapes the way you learn and behave. Our five senses are not responsible for, or capable of recognizing belonging, this feeling is much deeper and involves more than just a sight or a sound.
People and relationships are the key factors in building these experiences. It is my hope, not to create a sense of belonging for youngsters but rather to provide the undeniable experience of belonging. I believe the formula for this involves a cohesive triad between a learner’s home, school, and community and that it must begin very early in our educational journey.
When a commitment has been shown to create feelings and experiences we better prepare all learners to cope with adversity and who understand that no matter which direction they turn, there are people invested in them and willing to play a role in their learning lives.
Community members and early learning stakeholders are often left out of the equation but have the power to fully surround our youngest learners with a supportive start. The more community involvement that can be established early will allow for easy transitions from home, school, and community.
In my effort to support early childhood education professionals, I have crafted a two hour training and bank of resources to help providers and ECE programs build robust structures for including and welcoming families and communities in early learning programming. We start each session off with the following “how might we” statement:
How might we create meaningful opportunities for families and communities to be involved with their child's earliest learning environments in an effort to build a deep experience of belonging?
While there are certainly ECE programs that have figured out how to support families and community members to surround children and create feelings of belonging, the professionals I have supported and talked with have repeatedly shared their frustration with finding meaningful ways to involve children’s first and best teachers in their early education.
The current realities of family/community engagement as I have found them:
- Families/community members are unaware of the role that they can/should have in their child's early childhood education
- Families/community members are increasingly busy and need new options for being engaged with their child's early childhood education
- Families/community members are increasingly online and using social media to consume content and make connections
- Early childhood professionals are in a position where they may make false judgments about a child's home life based on the ways the family/community interacts with the school or center
- Early childhood professionals are uncertain how to engage with family/community members
- Early childhood professionals aren't confident enough in their own skills or professionalism to engage with family/community members
- Habits/patterns that are established in the early childhood years tend to continue in subsequent years of education
- Digital resources and tools that are available are underutilized or misused
When considering what matters most in an early learning environment that puts children at the heart of our work, we must presume good intentions and create an inclusive environment that values each connection and the impact that such connections may have on future learning and success.
The fundamental principles that should guide our thinking in this area are:
- All members of the child's early learning experiences must be connected and feel as if they have a place at the table
- Good habits (ie. communication and attendance) and relationships must be formed in order to have the strongest impact on future learning and engagement opportunities
- Families/community members need to have access to information in ways that are timely and accessible regardless of education level
- A multitude of opportunities for engagement need to be present and celebrated in order to support families/community members of all socioeconomic backgrounds and to support even the busiest of schedules
- Early childhood professionals need to feel as if their work is valuable and worthy of being shared
- Early childhood professionals need to understand their role in shaping future relationships with families/community members and education whether it be in the public or private setting
- Children need to be in a position to share their work and learning with families/communities and the world via safe technological tools and resources
Prior to thinking about specific actionable next steps we take a few moments to consider an ideal scenario for transformative family/community engagement and involvement.
The following features are shared as a part of dream family/community involvement scenarios:
- Families/community members feel safe and eager to participate in a multitude of ways
- Families/community members have a menu of choices for ways to become involved in early learning experiences
- Families/community members feel safe to suggest new ways and opportunities for becoming involved
- Families/community members see the value in early learning opportunities
- Teachers have access to robust tools to help share the work being done in early learning environments (Facebook, twitter, websites, Remind)
- Teachers realize their responsibility to educate families/community members in best practice (ReadyRosie)
- Positive relationships with all parties being active and feeling valued and respected starts early
- Children see that the adults in their lives share a common goal of creating the best learning lives possible
- Children see the role that they play at the center of this group in being a key member of the parent/teacher/community member cycle of engagement (digital portfolios, iPads, tablets)
- Professional development is readily available to early learning professionals and perhaps even families/community members.
- Social media is celebrated as a way to support and nurture and share the work being done in early learning environments
- Digital citizenship, which in fact should simply be called citizenship, is taught and modeled from an early age thus preventing a steep learning curve in the middle years when executive functioning is still developing and risk-taking behaviors are high.
What you can do now to ensure that the children and families in your early childhood learning environments experience deep feelings of belonging:
1. Replace the paper newsletter with digital forms of communication such as: Facebook, Twitter or emails and text messages.
3. Have a brainstorming session with all stakeholders around creative ways to become involved in early learning environments. We need to think beyond chaperoning school trips and bringing in cupcakes.
4. Educate the community and families about the learning that is happening in playful/ joyful ways and the impact that this play will have on future learning experiences.
5. Empower children to use digital tools to document their learning and experiences while modeling and teaching responsible use of technology.
6. Consider inviting families/community members to participate in professional development opportunities provided to early childhood teachers.
7. Have a plan for addressing learners or families/community members who feel disconnected emotionally, physically, and technologically. Find creative ways to support their becoming more connected to the early learning environment.
8. Consider home visits as a method for becoming more empathetic to a family’s unique gifts or challenges.
What if many of the obstacles we face in public and private education exist due to disconnects between home, school, and community? Think of the blame that swirls around when children start school, children move through the grades and then these same learners enter the workforce. You may have heard or even said things like “if only this child’s family behaved this way…” or “if my child’s teacher behaved in this way” or “clearly school isn’t teaching this skill” or “if this new employee had been taught this skill or raised in a certain way.” Perhaps the answer isn’t in fixing one group but in connecting all three in an effort to create empathy and understanding of the intricacies involved in each.
If a youngster’s family is welcome and encouraged to participate, really participate, in their early learning experiences they may be more likely to support the goals of the program. If early learning professionals feel as if their knowledge and experiences are valuable and worthy of sharing with the family and the world, they will be more likely to seek opportunities for continued learning and growth. If community members get involved and stay involved in the education process, they will be more likely to support initiatives to build an innovative workforce that has meaningful skills. Kicking the can gets us nowhere.
By creating the conditions for belonging in its truest form to exist, together, we can lead learners to the highest heights. When we take seemingly simple steps to involve each group of this triad we create a village that is circled tightly around the very members of our society who need to understand that they truly belong to a family, truly belong to their school, and truly belong to their community.
Please find my collection of resources here.