Sometimes in difficult conversation with families, it can be difficult to empathize and maintain what feels like a productive conversation. Using the acronym THINK, here are some tips from Megan K. Lerner, LCSW and Anthony T. Vesco, PhD for maintaining and building a productive relationship.

THINK Handout


Doing this simple task helps build meaningful and respectful relationships with families. It’s the first interaction the family may have each day and will go a long way in helping families feel welcome. Calling the parent by their name (unless otherwise specified by the parent) and their child by their own name, makes it personal. We want parents to know we are happy to see them and their child and greeting them by their first name is much nicer and more personal than just saying “hello”. If you are unsure how to pronounce their name, it’s best to politely mention you are unsure and ask them how to say it and repeat it back.  

Each day talk to the family and share something their child did that was positive. Either a new skill learned, or an interaction with another child you observed that was especially nice are examples. Try to be engaging, smile and actively listen.  Daily conversations build trust and allows for other conversations to evolve over time, allowing you to learn about the family and their child. When trust is built, families are more comfortable sharing information that may be helpful in meeting the child’s needs and in some cases the family’s needs as well.

Displays around the classroom should represent all children. They should depict varying abilities, languages, and cultures. This need to be done in a non-stereotypical way. The environment should include a combination of pictures, books, dolls, music, and household items that are familiar to children and things they would find in their own home and community. Ask families to bring in family photos of all family members, doing activities they enjoy as a family. Display and make classroom books with them.  Displays should be at both child height and parents’ height. Offering seating for adults to sit shows families that they are welcome to stay awhile, and you care about their comfort.  

When families can participate one way or another in the childcare program, they feel invested and included. Childcare programs have many different task to manage throughout the year, why not get the help of the families. Parents usually are very happy to lend a hand or offer skills or services they may have. It’s also fun to get the whole family involved. Some ways parents can volunteer might be,  a spring or fall clean up on the playground, repairing equipment, sewing things for the classroom, reading a book to the children, or doing a cooking activity with a small group of children. Remember that not all families will be able nor want to volunteer in the classroom  and we want to be respectful of this. Providing a list of things, parents can work on at home will allow these families to also feel valued and connected too. Remember part of feeling welcome is knowing you are valued no matter how or if you choose to participate. 

Create a specific area in the childcare program where parents can go to get resources pertinent to child development, parenting, health and safety, product recall information and child nutrition as well as social service supports and free events available in your area.  Providing resources that pertain to parenting and child development will let parents know that you care about their family outside the walls of the childcare. The location should stay consistent so parents will know where to find these resources and can visit without the help of staff. Providing a small lending library if you’re able, may be useful too. Keep this area uncluttered and organized so parents will want to visit and can find what they are looking for. Remove outdated information in a timely manner. 

As an early care and education provider, you play a critical role in the health and wellbeing of children. You are also very well positioned to help identify children who might need extra help in their development. This FREE, online training course, Watch Me! Celebrating Milestones and Sharing Concerns, helps you fulfill this role by providing tools and best practices for monitoring the development of children in your care and talking about it with their parents.

This 1-hour, 4-module course focuses on:

Click the link to start the class: Watch Me! Celebrating Milestones and Sharing Concerns | CDC

What do you do when you first meet a family that is looking for care? Know who you are and what you value in your program. When you are clear about who you are and what you offer, families can and will self-select out if their values strongly differ from yours. It can be difficult to do tours and not end up with families enrolled, but it will save a lot of stress down the line in the form of fewer unmet expectations and less conflict.

Start by showing off your worth and your values. Your QRIS rating and an explanation of what you had to do to accomplish it will show families that you are dedicated to the profession. Show families how safe your environment is and what children do there throughout the day–or what they will do, if you don’t have children enrolled yet!. Talk about your schedule, show photos if you have them of children engaged day to day, and talk about anything you provide– snacks and meals, special activities, field trips, newsletters or an update app, or anything else. Share your mission and vision with them, so they understand how you see your role in the care and education of their children. Have a handout or follow-up email to leave them with that has some information about your program they might want to review later, such as hours of operation and calendar of closures, meals provided, your mission/vision statement, philosophy, anything else that will make your program stand out, along with enrollment information including deposit and materials fees, tuition amount and frequency, and any required application paperwork. Some providers also include a small “about your provider” section, where they outline their qualifications and write a very short autobiography.

Now how can you assess whether a family would be a good fit for your program? Keep in mind that you should have and follow a nondiscrimination policy; consult with your licensor and/or child care resource and referral agency or see your CACFP Civil Rights Training for more information. Also keep in mind ADA requirements for enrolling children with disabilities. More information on that can be found here: Know the Law about the Americans With Disabilities Act — Child Care Law Center.

Now, provided you are not turning a family away because of their demographic or perceived abilities, what are you looking for? What creates “goodness of fit” between provider and family? One phenomenon to be aware of is “ingroup bias,” where people are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people who they believe are more like them, whether that is cultural background, religious beliefs, or even something as minor as sports team affiliation. When you need to choose one family to offer care to, consider whether ingroup bias may be impacting who you are and aren’t offering spaces to.

Ask families about themselves.  Why are they looking for care now– are they leaving another program?  What do they need and want from a child care program? Have they had experiences previously of their needs being met or not met at another program? Be honest with them and yourself about whether your program is designed to meet their needs.

Being able to turn down families if you see that this would not be a good fit is difficult, but necessary. This is one reason to interview families even when you don’t have an immediate opening– it can be much easier to end interviews with “I’ll be in touch if there’s a space for you” rather than determining on the spot if you think the family would or would not be a good fit.

One of the best ways to find families that will be a good fit for your program is word of mouth. When a current family recommends another, you start off with a good impression on the new family and is a good indication that your values are likely to align as well. You can let families know in your newsletter or other updates if you know you’ll have spaces coming up or ask current families to “share” social media posts or post reviews on Google or Facebook.

Taking the time to plan out your interviews and tours will pay off in the form of long-term clients and positive relationships with families. This is a process that will take some refining, so don’t be afraid to experiment and play with your approach until you find something you’re comfortable with.

Relationships with families are at the heart of an early childhood professional’s work. Building and sustaining these relationships benefits the children in your care as well as your business. Family engagement can look different for different programs– some programs plan events during the day or after hours for families to drop in, others integrate a more casual approach where families can spend time in the program as they’re available. Family engagement can also look more formal, with structured conferences or requesting volunteers for field trips. Welcoming families into your program is the first step to building strong relationships.

Nonviolent communication is “a language of compassion.” While we don’t often think of our words, or anyone else’s, as violent, the emotional harm that we do to others and have done to us is real.  Once we can accept that all behavior from children is communication, we are ready to take on a bigger challenge: learning and internalizing that behavior in the form of spoken, written, and body language from adults is communication too.

Because of the close personal nature of our work, it’s almost inevitable that at some point we will have a disagreement with a family member. But these disagreements don’t have to cause long-term damage to relationships. When we are skilled in nonviolent communication, we can strengthen our relationships with families through compassionate and thoughtful conversations, even when the conversations themselves are uncomfortable.

Consider a common source of tension between families and providers: when a child is too ill to attend child care, or becomes ill during the day.

From the provider’s perspective, one ill child will lead to more ill children, and when the care is provided in your home, it can impact your whole family. That might mean your children are sick, or you have to spend even more time cleaning and sanitizing than usual. It makes group care difficult: a sick child won’t want to play, won’t be in a cooperative mood, and may throw off the group routine with heightened need for sleep.

From the family’s perspective, a sick child may mean missing work when they are out of paid leave or in a probationary period. It can be harder to see that a child is ill when they are at home; it’s easier to meet the child’s needs individually rather than in a group setting, and the child is more comfortable at home and may just be happier with their family then they were at child care. Families who are stressed financially might be upset that they are paying for time they can’t use.

Making the call can be anxiety-inducing. Some providers might prefer to avoid the conflict altogether, and not say anything, or passively suggest that the family “keep an eye on” the child for symptoms. Other providers might start on the attack “Why did you send your child here when they’re clearly sick?!” Using non-violent communication urges a different path: First, try to anticipate the other person’s needs. While you can’t make a difference in how the person’s employer will respond to them needing to leave early to pick up a sick child, you can start with empathy. Then state your own need clearly.

“Hi Johanna; I’m sorry to interrupt you at work, I know you just started your new job. I’m calling to let you know that Jamari is running a fever and will need to be picked up before nap time. After he’s been fever-free for 24 hours, we’ll be excited to welcome him back!”

When you begin by acknowledging the other party’s needs, it tells them that you’re aware of what you’re asking. Following by phrasing your own needs clearly and in a positive way (i.e. with a direction, not just “don’t bring him back until he’s better) allows the other person to understand what is expected of them and plan accordingly. Finishing with a personal message also helps to convey that this isn’t a decision you made because you don’t want the child there, but because he’s uncomfortable and you have the responsibility of reducing the risk of contagious illness for all children in your care.

Using the framework of nonviolent communication reduces the room for misunderstandings and for professional boundaries to become personal. You can even use these practices when writing policies– another way to proactively anticipate conflict with families and clarify each party’s responsibilities in the child care setting.

Keeping the children in your care safe is a constant concern. The Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center has created a tip sheet for families about safety and injury prevention for young children that offers helpful guidelines for at home, outside, in water and in vehicles. This resource can be a helpful checklist to share with families.

Safety and Injury Prevention Tip Sheet


Mother helping daughter (2yrs) put on coat

The Office of Head Start National Center on Health, Behavioral Health, and Safety (NCHBHS) supports the social and emotional well-being of children in a variety of ways, including by collaborating with Sesame Workshop to share research-based resources and engaging content designed for the whole family. NCHBHS’s approach to addressing social and emotional well-being includes strategies to support all families — celebrating joyful everyday moments, teaching children the essential skills they need to understand and manage their feelings, and helping parents and community providers recognize the signs of more serious mental health challenges. Join this conversation to learn about Sesame Workshop videos, articles, storybooks, and games that programs can share to keep everyone healthy and happy.

This webinar is offered with simultaneous interpretation in Spanish.

Wednesday, Nov. 29, 20232–3 p.m. ET

Register Online Now!

When providers encounter children engaging in play with troubling themes, it’s important to understand how to interact with the children in their play, when and how to interrupt, and how to talk to families about our observations. This one-page downloadable/printable document from mental health professionals Megan Lerner, LCSW and Anthony T. Vesco, PhD, can help prepare you for these difficult situations.

TS Managing Play Re-Enactment

Theo the Bear began as a way to welcome new children into the program. I introduced him as a friendly companion they could cuddle and rely on throughout the day. If they wished to take Theo home, they were welcome to do so, but they had to bring him back the next day for more fun. Theo helped children feel more comfortable and secure in the classroom, making the transition smoother.

After a while, we stopped using Theo because there were no new children enrolling. However, he remained a beloved member of the classroom and became the sharing bear. As a sharing bear, he is available for everyone to take home. I explain to the children how much Theo loves going on adventures and visiting their homes. To enhance his travels, I added some accessories to Theo’s small bag, such as clothes, a brush, and a book. During their birthday week, each child takes Theo home for a week-long trip. Families are then asked to help children record their adventures in the Theo book by adding pictures or drawings. At the end of the week, they share their adventures with the class.