Family Engagement Is More than Just Engaging Families

Two recent articles from the Business Day section of the New York Times attracted my attention. The first…

The first, “The Baby Food Battle,” described the efforts of the baby food industry to adapt to parents making their own foods, as market research suggests that homemade purees account for about one-third of consumed baby food. To maintain and boost sales and profits, baby food companies are revamping their product lines, redesigning their packaging, and expanding their marketing efforts.

A second article, “Health Care Apps Offer Patients an Active Role,” discussed the use of such products as The Cellscope Oto. This app-plus-iPhone attachment enables parents to examine and photograph their children’s ear canals and rashes and send the photos to doctors for diagnoses.

The relationship between these articles and Help Me Grow is not obvious. However, both stories reflect the growing interest in putting select functions that traditionally reside in certain sectors (e.g., food industry, health providers) in the hands of parents as consumers.

At our 2014 Help Me Grow National Forum, we collectively emphasized the importance of embracing family engagement in our system-building activities, especially as we contemplate the dissemination of new innovations to address system gaps. 

The issue of family engagement is increasingly recognized as a critical priority in early childhood system building. For example, the Maternal and Child Health Bureau’s Home Visiting Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network (HV CoIIN), designed to facilitate the delivery and accelerate the improvement of home visiting and other early childhood services, requires that all participants take part in activities to strengthen family engagement. In contrast, participants may choose among HV CoIINs other offerings (developmental surveillance and screening, maternal depression, and breastfeeding).

At the Forum, we acknowledged our commitment to focus on family engagement and promised to address this issue during the current year. We agreed that services, programs, and systems must be acceptable to parents and families, respect their cultural beliefs and practices, and address families’ needs and priorities.

Yet we also agreed that we must expand our definition of family engagement. It is not enough for parents to be informed consumers of services. Instead, parents need to be leaders in the design and evaluation of services.

Engaging families in the planning and design process is challenging. These are some of the questions we face:

  • How do we best ensure parents’ comfort in participating in deliberations convened and typically dominated by presumed experts?
  • How do we meaningfully reward parents for their time and effort? 
  • How do we logistically accommodate the busy schedules of parents and respect their child care responsibilities and demands?
  • How do we best ensure that consumer involvement is representative of the diverse constituencies served by our childhood systems? 
  • How do we best capitalize on the voice of the family to enable our evaluation strategies to be meaningful and valid?

We are inspired by the recent announcement from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) of the recipients of a $13.7 million investment to empower parents as leaders and key decision makers in early childhood education. Recipient organizations represent 18 states and the District of Columbia, including a number of HMG affiliates. We will follow their progress with great interest and share the lessons learned across our affiliate network.

We must continue to recognize that family engagement is more than engaging families, and that the voice of the family should inform all that we do.  Please share your thoughts and suggestions with us.