This may seem daunting at times due to the demands of the current American family lifestyle, which not only include significant job and school responsibilities, but also involve jam-packed extracurricular schedules for all household members. Understanding that families are busy and frequently overwhelmed can help us think about how we can build stronger connections with families when they pick up or drop off a child at your program. Here are five quick techniques that help to build strong relationships in a fast-paced culture.
Be genuine when strengthening family connections.
Train front line staff how to build meaningful connections and be aware of their body language. It is easy for parents to pick up on attitudes, whether positive or negative. The simplest strategies promote healthy relationships: making eye contact, always having something courteous to say, and saying something positive about the child's experience at the program. Acknowledge the family's interest in keeping their child in afterschool and show that you understand how busy life can get. Frequently, the direct service workers at an afterschool program may be older teenagers or college students. It is imperative to give these young adults training on how to make meaningful connections with the families in the program.
Encourage participation from parents.
Remind parents that you have an open door policy and that they are welcome. Invite them to visit and share an interesting hobby, skill or activity with the students and other parents.
When inviting parents to an outing, fair or training, make it worth their while. Be respectful of their time. Start on time, end on time. Knowing that they have busy lives and schedules, make the event engaging and meaningful for them. Ensure your presenters are upbeat, are able to relate, and are dynamic and energetic. Know your audience. If you know that the parents you work with are from a specific community, hire a presenter with a similar background who can genuinely connect with those parents.
Understand family structures.
Even though our society is more progressive than it used to be, there are still many biases toward families who don't fit the traditional model. We know as human service professionals that families come in many forms and styles. Some adults have a difficult time accepting non-traditional families based on their personal experiences, and many families perceive this bias. The less emphasis you put on how different a family seems to you, the more you will get to know and connect with the family and build the relationship.
Break the breakdown.
As a program facilitator, I have often heard what I call "breakdown comments" toward families. I once heard a school staff member say, "Families only come because we are feeding them." My response always was, "I am happy they are coming because I really want to sit and eat with them." Macroaggressions are a real issue that needs to be dealt with and are unacceptable toward the children and families that are served through extended learning programs. Some people are completely unaware they are breaking someone down. Have open and truthful conversations with staff about macroaggressions. Train your staff to identify macro-aggressions when they hear them and on methods for eliminating them.
Building positive relationships with the families of the children in our care is incredibly rewarding. Below are some resources to help you learn more about building these meaningful connections, increasing parental engagement in afterschool and improving awareness of macroaggressions.
Written by Dr. Kenneth Anthony, Connecticut Afterschool Network – NAA State Affiliate.