Because parents are so vital to their children’s education, City Connects Coordinators work hard to engage them – work that helps build a stronger sense of community and that can help parents who are coping with a crisis.
“Just about every month of the school year, there is something we do here at the early childhood center for family engagement,” Stephanie Sanabria, the City Connects Coordinator at Springfield’s Early Childhood Education Center says.
“Because the children are so young, they are closely tied to their parents, so we need parents’ participation and support. You can’t separate that out. That’s why the positive relationship that we form is so important.”
And since Sanabria is in a preschool setting, her family engagement efforts are fun and varied.
There’s Pumpkin Night in October and an evening of building gingerbread houses in December. In August, Sanabria will sometimes accompany teachers on home visits to provide Spanish language support.
“What I always love in the evening events is that when a family shows up and they come with their other children, I get a better sense of the whole family. And I’m always like ‘wow, this is your brother.’ And children get really excited. They say, this is my mom, this is my little brother, this is my big sister. The result is a stronger positive connection happens.”
Some family engagement events happen during the day. Others involve sending home projects for children and parents to work on together.
One event, called Rebuilding Mason Square (the center’s neighborhood) connects families to the curriculum, which has children study the community and community helpers. Teachers “rebuild” Mason Square in the gym, setting up stations that represent the library, a fire station, a school, a grocery store, a barbershop, and a restaurant.
When Sanabria meets parents at these events, she will “always tell parents who I am and that I can be a resource for them and that if they ever had any questions or concerns, they should feel free to talk to me. You can say that, but it’s different when parents feel that you mean it,” Sanabria says.
“And when I have a nice relationship with families, oftentimes they are more willing to open up about the struggles that they might have or the needs that they might have for additional resources.”
These struggles can include domestic violence or helping a child who engages in hitting because of experiences that they have had or witnessed.
Sanabria also helps foster parents who have to both care for their foster children and be prepared for the emotionally demanding work of letting a child go if it’s possible for the child to be reunified with their biological family.
Engagement can also mean helping parents who are involved with the Department of Children and Families by providing emotional support and information as well as insight into the strengths that even a vulnerable family has and can build upon.
On a daily basis, however, engaging families is a matter of joy. Sanabria makes a point of calling every child by name when she talks to them. She talks to parents about all the great activities she sees their children do.
“Then the parent gets to see me and the teachers and how we care for this child and how we know this child.”
Or she might ask, “How are you feeling about the progress your child has made this year?”
“That is a great topic of conversation because parents usually notice a great deal of progress in their child’s speech, in their behavior, in their oral communication about their imagination.” It’s a chance for parents to reflect on their children’s progress and abilities.
Tapping into parents’ strengths, Sanabria asks them to volunteer to help out at the book fair or on field trips. One parent, for example, who is studying early education volunteers in the program. And another parent who loves crafts designed a raffle basket and also made goody bags for all the police officers who attended the center’s police officer appreciation lunch.
And sometimes family engagement starts early, when Sanabria spots a parent with a younger sibling.
“It’s me recruiting, going over and saying ‘Hey when does your child turn three? I’d love to have your child in our program once they turn three.’ ”
Building family connections is essential for promoting children’s success, and doing so early, as Sanabria does, promises to help keep children and their parents on the road of academic and lifelong success.