Central role of families

Family matters: Diversity and partnerships in early childhood Jewish education

In Short

Young children are active participants in their environment and development. With curiosity and critical thinking, they navigate the varied messages that contribute to their identity and relationship development.

The essential role of family in early childhood education is well-researched and advocated. Terms such as “family involvement” and “family partnerships” are prominent within early childhood educational discourse. Each of these constructs refers to different interpretations and goals for working with families; the latter places an emphasis on sharing power and building responsive and caring relationships. Today, many programs implement a strengths-based perspective with trauma-informed practices to gain a more nuanced understanding of each child and family’s culture, context and expertise.

Early childhood Jewish education is similarly grounded in guiding principles, such as b’tzelem elokim (in the image of God), kehila (community) and kavod (honor/respect) that aim to support each child and family. Within early childhood Jewish education, researchers continue to investigate the topic of family to learn what is needed and wanted. Much of the research focuses on engaging young families to support their Jewish communal and home life, leading to questions about our goals within the Jewish educational community.

Both early childhood education and early childhood Jewish education promote the central role of families in learning and development. But we need to ask: How do we genuinely respect and honor the diversity of families within our programs and broader community?

Sentiments about uplifting family partnerships are inspiring, but it is unfeasible, no matter how much fanfare surrounds this idea, to live up to our aspirations until ongoing reflection is prioritized. Our identities, assumptions, biases and expectations infiltrate our interactions, behaviors, relationships, language and classroom materials that may inhibit us from creating truly welcoming places for all families. We cannot partner with families until we reconsider how we educate young children about family diversity and the value each family brings to the program.

Young children are active participants in their environment and development. With curiosity and critical thinking, they navigate the varied messages that contribute to their identity and relationship development. As young children bring their own temperaments, capacities and experiences to their interactions, they rely on information around them to further expand their thinking and inform their sense of self. Unfortunately, young children are inundated with misconceptions and stereotypes. Without presenting young children with the beauty that exists in the diversity of families, they will rely on misinformation and bias as they develop their understanding of themselves and others. 

Diversity of families exists in ALL Jewish-affiliated programs across denominational influences in myriad ways, which may include religious, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, body type, socioeconomic, disability and linguistic differences. Families may consist of various adults across generations who play a major role in young children’s lives. Contextual factors and experiences may create change within a family system (such as a divorce, a new marriage/partnership, adoption, birth or death in the family); family, like culture and development, is dynamic. As we increase our self-awareness about our identities and biases, we become better equipped to determine how they impact our professional work and practices. The following are some helpful questions for early childhood educators and leaders to consider:

  1. What are my beliefs and judgements about family? Where do they come from? 
  2. What images of families circulate in my classroom or program? Who is present and who is left out?
  3. Are children engaging with images and books that represent diverse family structures, members and roles? How do I use these resources to engage in dialogue with the children?
  4. What assumptions do I make about the roles of each family member? Why?
  5. How do I challenge children’s play and interactions as it relates to family structures and function? Why is this important? 
  6. What language do I use to describe or talk about children’s families? Have I considered replacing the words “mom,” “dad”, and “parents” with “children’s grownups” to allow for the inclusion of the central adults in the children’s lives?
  7. How do I learn about families’ traditions and unique routines? How do I value their expertise and experiences within the classroom practices?
  8. What language/words are used in my intake forms? What assumptions do these words represent?
  9. Do we have programming that is geared exclusively towards “mothers” or “fathers”? If so, what are the implications and potential issues with these programs? What about gendered roles within the classroom community, either for the children or adults (such as ‘Room Mom”)?
  10. What “All about Me” or “All about My Family” activities do you include? Do they place constraints or expectations about who is included in a child’s family?
  11. Overall, how do we respect, welcome and support families?

Each day, I am inspired by the early childhood educators and leaders around me who bravely evaluate their practices even when it feels uncomfortable or difficult. The path toward enhanced self-awareness is complicated and challenging. It requires support (including compensation and set time), reflection, dialogue and training. Early childhood educators have shared with me their fear of making mistakes. As humans, this is inevitable; however, through self-reflection and action, we continue to learn and grow. I know I have made many mistakes and continue to do so on a daily basis. But, the risk of excluding members of our community cannot continue as an option. We must commit to raising children with the skills and tools to create a more inclusive and just world, and that starts with us and the message that each family matters. 

Ilana Dvorin Friedman, Ph.D. is a child development consultant, instructor and researcher in Chicago.