“Family, Friend and Neighbor care is a new name for the most ancient and widely practiced form of child care.”
— Betty Emarita, Development and Training Resources, Minnesota
You could hear a pin drop in the hotel conference room. No one was glancing at her phone or shuffling his papers. All eyes were on the two Early Learning Connectors, in their first ever(!) public presentation, telling stories about caregivers and children.
Although the Washington Education Research Association conference attendees were restless and tired at the end of a long day of sessions, they were captivated by the stories that Tam Nguyen and Maria Quiroga had to tell about the play-and-learn groups that they lead in White Center.
It was all part of a session we called “Family, Friend and Neighbor Myth Busters: Engaging Families in Early Learning.”
Get the session PowerPoint
Tam and Maria shared the stage with Lisa Conley and Paula Steinke of Child Care Resources to tell conference attendees about the practices and guiding principles that have been successfully tried and tested in communities. This type of engagement leads to powerful outcomes for parents, caregivers and children – and presents a wealth of opportunities for schools and districts, which was of particular interest to this audience.
Top 4 myths about family, friend and neighbor (FFN) caregivers
Myth 1: Family, friend and neighbor caregivers see themselves as “child care providers.”
We kicked off the session by asking conference attendees to share who took care of them before they started kindergarten. We heard: Mom, Dad, grandparents, older siblings, neighbors. As Lisa pointed out, these very familiar people are our family, friend and neighbor caregivers.
FFN caregivers might not respond to terms like “child care provider” or “professional development.” They might like support in a format that works for them, but it could be tough to sell them on a training.
Watch out for assumptions, though. Family, friends and neighbors provide care in the context of family and community. Not all families are alike, and not all FFN caregivers are alike. It’s important to keep in mind that families have reasons that they choose FFN care, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Myth 2: Family, friend and neighbor care is none of our business.
If “we,” as part of a cradle-to-career educational system, want to address the opportunity gap, we need to support ALL children in ALL settings – and that means ALL families, no matter their choices for child care and preschool.
Working in partnership to support FFN caregivers is an amazing opportunity for preschool-to-third-grade alignment. It supports existing initiatives such as the early learning collaboration component of the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills.
Myth 3: Parents and family, friend and neighbor caregivers don’t want to be engaged in children’s education.
Tam and Maria are two of the parents hired by White Center Community Development Association to plan and facilitate Kaleidoscope Play & Learn groups with parents from different language, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. (Full disclosure: this program was funded last year through racial equity grants from Thrive Washington.) Each week, the Early Learning Connectors offer a safe and fun learning space for caregivers and young children.
They see parents and caregivers return week after week, asking for more information and getting even more involved in the activities. Once, Maria handed her group some handouts at the end of a session because they ran out of time for that topic. Every week after that, the parents asked for more handouts so that they can continue the activities at home. Maria helps the parents make the connection between the activities the children do at her sessions and the kindergarten readiness skills that are expected when those children reach school age. They work on social-emotional, motor, numeracy, literacy and other skills.
This is key: Caregivers are the best leverage point for changing outcomes for kids. A baby or toddler who is not in licensed or formalized child care might spend half her time asleep, and the other half with family, friend and neighbor caregivers. A weekly, two-hour play-and-learn session is not on its own going to ensure that a child is ready for kindergarten, but that session might be game-changing for her caregiver.
Myth 4: There aren’t effective programs, models or approaches to reach family, friend and neighbor caregivers.
As an example of the power of these partnerships with families, Tam had an impactful conversation with one of the mothers who attends her group. A little girl was running around the playspace, pushing other little ones as she went. The mother tried calling out to her daughter to get to her stop, but it had no impact. Tam stayed late to talk to the mother, who was baffled; her daughter had never done this before. But, it turns out, the little girl had also not spent so much time with other kids her size, and the excitement was simply too much. Tam offered suggestions for following up at home, then took extra care to direct the child’s energy during the weekly sessions (“Be my leader and show the other children how to sit for story time!”). Redirecting that energy created a space where both mother and daughter could enjoy the play-and-learn time together.
Make no mistake – it takes training and coaching to do this well. And these parent leaders are experts in the ways that they gently and effectively model the behaviors that build parents’ confidence and skills as their children’s first and most important teachers.
But we know how to get started: Have the conversations to understand more about family, friend and neighbor caregivers. Focus on the strengths and capabilities of families. And increase equitable access to information, resources and supports for ALL families.