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Listening to Family Voices in Early Childhood Programs

mother and child talking with teacher

On this podcast we are joined by Dr. Christine Spence to talk about listening to family’s voices in early childhood programs.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Christine Spence is an assistant professor of early childhood special education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on high-quality supports for families and providers participating in early intervention and early childhood special education systems. 



Dr. Swartz: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast we share information about how young children grow and learn, as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project’s staff members.

Today we are joined by Dr. Christine Spence. Dr. Spence is an assistant professor of early childhood special education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on high-quality supports for families and providers participating in early intervention and early childhood special education systems. She joins us to talk about listening to family’s voices in early childhood programs.

Thanks for joining us Dr. Spence! We’re so happy to have you talk to us about listening to families and helping make their voice be heard as we support their child in the early childhood years. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in this topic?

Dr. Spence: Thanks for having me on today! I was an early interventionist working with families of young children, birth to 3, who had developmental delays and disabilities. And through that process of being in families’ homes, really hearing what their priorities were for their children, seeing how, as providers, we help support families, or maybe didn’t support families in the way we needed to, I really got interested in what is the best way to help make sure we have high-quality services for young children and their families.

Dr. Swartz: So, a big part of that, making sure that the services are right, is understanding what families need. Because, as we know in early intervention, families are developing with their team an Individualized Family Service Plan. It’s not a child-focused plan, but a family-focused plan. So, when you say, “family voice,” what do you mean?

Dr. Spence: So, what I’m talking about is really hearing, what is the family saying, and what do they mean by that? And through their interpretation, not our professional ears, and not our professional interpretation of what we think the family means, or what we think the family’s priorities are. And so, really digging a bit more deeply into what do they want for their child. Of course, all families want their child to grow and learn and develop, but specifically, what does that look like and what does that mean for each particular family?

Dr. Swartz: Wonderful! So, could you tell me a little bit about your research on this topic?

Dr. Spence: Because of working in early intervention, I really became interested in how do we have high-quality supports for everyone who participates in this system? So, what do we do to support the providers through professional development. What do we do to support students who are learning about this profession, and what do we do to support families as they experience the Part C system?

And so with that last area, I did some interviews with families as they participated, or immediately after they finished participating in early intervention, to find out what was their thought about their experiences in early intervention, their outcomes as a result of participating in early intervention. So, I asked them questions around how did they help their child develop and learn? What support systems did they have? How did they access their community? How did they learn about their rights, how did they advocate for their child? And what does this really look like for them? What worked, and what didn’t work?

Dr. Swartz: Great! So, it sounds like you were really focused on helping families make their voices be heard, and, so could you tell me a little bit more about what/why the family voice is so important in these early childhood years?

Dr. Spence: Parents know their child best. We say that all of the time, but we really need to believe it. As professionals, we may have the professional expertise in the specific area, but we don’t have the expertise on a particular child or the family’s hopes and dreams for that child. And so, I think that really, truly hearing what each family wants for their child is vital to make sure that we’re truly individualizing our support and making it make the most sense for that particular child and family. Honoring the family and their priorities, even if it is not the professional’s priorities for that child, is so important, and I think that’s something that we just don’t do often enough. Even if we maybe say we do.

Dr. Swartz: Yeah, so most teachers and providers would say, “I talk to families all the time, what do you mean I don’t hear their voice?”

Dr. Spence: So, yes, we talk to families all of the time, and those everyday quick conversations are so important. That’s how we help establish trust, build relationships. We need to do the quick check-in: “How was the day? How did it go?” If you are in a child care environment or preschool environment, then “Did the child get good sleep the night before? Are they hungry? Are they sick? How is the day going to go?” At the end of the day, “What happened in school today?”

Those are vital questions. Those are times we talk to families all the time. What we don’t do as much of is have the long, extended, deep conversations of, “How is it really going? Are we meeting your needs? What could look different for you? How could we better support you? And how can you contribute within our program as well?” And so, make parents truly an advocate and make them an expert within the program. Whether it’s home-visiting or classroom.

Dr. Swartz: So, asking questions that are more open-ended and really giving families a chance to share what they need, and what they want. So, being more, listening it’s not so much “I talk to families all the time,” but “I listen to families all the time.” It’s a shift.

Dr. Spence: Absolutely! That is vital. And it’s the listening, and listening to hear, rather than listening to respond immediately. What is the person truly saying and, then, how does that shift my own perspective of how I’m supporting this child, or this family? Or how I provide intervention or instruction.

Dr. Swartz: So, we know that families are always growing and changing, and family needs change as children change. How do providers and teachers keep that conversation going with families over time, that real conversation you’re talking about?

Dr. Spence: Of course, the regular check-ins. But, then also, setting aside time for those longer discussions. We do this every six months in early intervention in preparation for the new IFSP meeting and a review, or maybe at parent–teacher conferences. But, when are we doing it in between those times? How do we make sure that we’re setting aside time that is thoughtful, individualized, protected—time that a true, engaged conversation can occur? And maybe a space where there’s a closed door, and that there aren’t other families hearing what’s happening with their child, and that individual time really to talk to a family. If it’s planned in advance, and it could be that once every month, there’s a 20-minute time period for each family just to do a check-in. And asking, “What are we doing well? What do you wish was happening that currently isn’t.” So, having parents have a chance to reflect on what’s going well, and what’s not going well. 

Dr. Swartz: Sure, and you mentioned that idea of a closed door. There are certainly sometimes when families want to keep their situations private. So what are some circumstances we really need to think about giving families that privacy to share their voice and perspective? 

Dr. Spence: All families have changes, and as early interventionists, as early childhood special educators, as early childhood teachers, we don’t need to know all of the nitty gritty details of every family, but we also do need to be able to support the children as their families are going through transitions. So, having a trust relationship, having an ability to really have a conversation where the parents don’t feel judged, they may share information that then impacts what’s happening with you in the classroom, what’s happening with their child in the classroom.

So, it could be that one of the family members has lost their job or is changing jobs, so their income situation is different. Maybe they have some temporary food insecurity. Maybe they are in between homes, and so they are bouncing from relative to relative to friend, or are spending some time in a homeless shelter. What does that do for a child and their participation in a classroom? Or what does that do in a home visit? Where does the home become, and then how are we really identifying with what the family’s priorities are at that point in their life? We might be shifting from the plan that we developed three or four months ago, but that’s the important piece. So, trying to check in with the families to see “are the priorities that we set previously still the priorities of the family?”

Dr. Swartz: Sure! So, yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me, that families experience these transitions that may be unplanned, and they have to feel safe and a sense of trust with their providers, so that they can share those situations that may be impacting their child. And we know those situations impact their child because children really are nestled in their families. So, what could providers and teachers do practically to increase their ability to listen to families?

Dr. Spence: I think it starts with the relationship, right? So, those quick conversations, the ongoing, “I hear what you have to say, and I value what you have to say,” even if it’s not what we had previously talked about, even if it’s not my professional priority, that’s really important. Also giving parents time to reflect. One of the things I heard so often from families during the interview was, “I’ve never really had a chance to think about that before, or talk with anybody about my experience. We just talked about, what are my communication goals for my child? But not, what do I really want for my child as he grows over the next two or three months?” What does that look like? And then as providers, as teachers, how do we recognize that shift in families’ priorities, and how do we make sure that a family feels that they can tell us, “I don’t like what’s happening right now, and I need to change.”

Dr. Swartz: So, let’s talk more in-depth about times when family voice is really critical to hear. You mentioned families in transition. Can you give us some examples of what listening to family voice would look like?

Dr. Spence: Sure. So, I think we need to honor multiple caregivers. All children come with at least one caregiver, but many come with multiple caregivers, but often in early intervention and early childhood, we have one parent, or caregiver, that we have the primary relationship with. While their voice is really important, how are we making sure that we’re hearing the priorities of all of the other caregivers of that child? So, if a child spends some time with a grandparent, some time in a child care classroom, and some time at home with mom or dad, are we hearing from all of those caregivers? With proper consents signed, of course, but are we making sure that we know what’s happening in each of those environments? What’s going really well and what are the times of struggle? And we can help during those times of struggle.

As we talked about before, if a family has a change in their living environment, in that they are now maybe homeless, or that their income situation has changed, what becomes the new priority? We may need to have discussions around, what does the sleeping routine look like now? What does the feeding routine look like now? It’s not the same as it was before. Maybe that wasn’t a priority before, things were working well. With this change, that may now be a higher priority than working on motor development.

And so, making sure we’re really hearing and responding to the family’s immediate situation. Also, we need to think about what happens if a parent is deployed because they’re in the military, and all of a sudden there’s one fewer caregiver that’s frequently there. What does that look like for the social-emotional development for that child? Attachment? And so, making sure that we’re responding, and that may mean changing team members—adding new ones or changing who’s the primary support.

And so, thinking about what questions do we ask of families so that they can truly tell us what their priority is and not feel guilty that their priority isn’t the same as what we had formally set in their IFSP or their IEP, several months prior.

Dr. Swartz: It’s so interesting because really what you’re asking early childhood professionals to do is spend more time listening then they do talking, right?

Dr. Spence: Absolutely!

Dr. Swartz: So, they’re really, the idea that the family’s going to give us the most important and the most current information about what that child needs, and what that family needs to thrive. So, I love that, and that’s a real shift in perspective.

Dr. Swartz: So, we know that early childhood and early intervention professionals really work in teams, and you just mentioned many providers, such as social workers, teachers, and therapists, but families may communicate with one of those providers, like those teachers or developmental therapists who they see most frequently, more often than the others on a team. Also, the conversations that you’re describing, when it’s important to really hear family voice, may not be during the planned meetings when everybody is there. What could teams do to share information and keep the whole team on the same page?

Dr. Spence: That is such an important point. I think that one person should not hold all of the information, but because much of this information is really sensitive, we also have to ask the family, who is it okay to share and what level of detail? Making sure that the information we share is relevant to the educational priorities, relevant to the intervention and not gossip, is really important. But also, recognizing what families are going through can truly impact how a child responds to the other adults in their environment.

So, first, checking in with a family. “Thank you so much for sharing with us! This is really important. I hear what you’re saying. I also think that it would be important for other people on the team to hear. Can I share?” And get that explicit permission to share particularly sensitive information. And then as a team, deciding what is the mechanism in which information is shared.

Is there a weekly team meeting check-in that’s, you know, Monday morning or Friday afternoon, or even Tuesday at 3 o’clock where everybody shares any changes and updates with families? Or, is there a secure digital way, in terms of e-mail or a written communication, where updates are provided. I think that is individual to each team. Also, depending on how frequently people see each other in person, versus talking over the phone, or e-mailing or texting. But making sure we’re respecting the family’s confidentiality, sharing the information that’s important, but then also honoring when they say, “I prefer to keep this private.”

Dr. Swartz: Sure. So really, early childhood professionals, or any professionals who are working in this system of early childhood education and early intervention, need to really develop an awareness about their own communication and a reflective practice about their own communication with families. So that’s one way they can make family voice heard, is by thinking about how they’re acting and how they’re communicating in a critical way. Very interesting. 

Dr. Spence: Absolutely. I also think giving parents and families the space to share their own story, share their own journey, share their own priorities. And so, it may be at a formal meeting, but it also may be during those informal times. How also are we developing families as leaders within the entity, the agency, the school, the program that you are working with? And can they share their own story? One wonderful way to honor family voice and listen to families is by having families listen to other families and building a community where this is the culture and priority that we always hear what families have to say, and we respond accordingly.

Dr. Swartz: Great! So, I know we’ve talked about challenging times, but how can we bring this idea, family voice, into our practice with all of our families?

Dr. Spence: All families have something to say. All families have hopes and dreams for their children. And all families are going through that time of growth and development and change with their child. So, talking with families frequently. “What are your priorities? What’s new? What’s exciting? What are you most thrilled about with your child’s development with a new set of skills over the past few months? What are you worried about? What are things that are now your priorities, and what are things that you want to focus on?”

As families enter your program, checking in with them as you get to know them is important, but also that ongoing checking in is really important. As families prepare to leave your program, whether it’s transitioning from early intervention into early childhood special education, from preschool into kindergarten, or just changing from one center to another, what are the strengths that have happened prior and how do we make sure that families can share that information with the new team, with that new set of people?

And us listening to families as providers, as professionals, and giving them the space to share their story and honoring their family voice, should be empowering for the family, so that then they feel comfortable sharing their voice in the next setting when we’re not with them.

Dr. Swartz: I’m sure our listeners are thinking about all the new ways they want to engage the families they’re working with in their program. You gave us so many great things to think about. So, thank you so much for joining us today on our podcast, and we hope that we’ll have you back again soon!

Dr. Spence: Thanks for having me here. It’s been great.

Dr. Swartz: The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.illinoisearlylearning.org is a source of evidence-based reliable information on early caring education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning. 

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program
  • Kindergarten
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2019