Developing Democratic Family-Professional Partnerships

Happy Real World Wednesday!

This week we are pleased to introduce Margaret (Maggie) Beneke! Maggie is currently a doctoral student at the University of Kansas studying Early Childhood Special Education. Her research focuses on inclusive*, equitable practices that support young children and families from diverse backgrounds. Her current research centers on the ways adults and young children co-construct social identities and negotiate power through discourse. In collaboration with her doctoral advisor, Dr. Gregory Cheatham, she has been analyzing language interpretation during Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) meetings with families who do not speak English. Her most recent publications center on developing democratic family-professional partnerships and inclusive approaches to supporting families who speak non-standard English. Prior to beginning her PhD program, she taught in an inclusive, anti-bias early childhood program in the Boston area.

We asked Maggie to tell us about (1) what democratic family-professional partnerships are and (2) some tips for our own work with families.  Here’s what she said:

Thank you for this opportunity!

1. What are democratic family-professional partnerships?
John Dewey’s 20th-century ideals of family–professional partnership remain relevant to the 21st-century challenges of social inequity and educational discriminat
ion (Dzur, 2004; Fischer, 2004; Skrtic, 2013; Sullivan, 2005). In true democratic family–professional partnerships, Dewey explained that professionals and citizens share responsibility through mutually beneficial alliances (Dzur, 2004; Sullivan, 2005). Deference to professional expertise can be debilitating for citizens (i.e., families), particularly those from historically marginalized backgrounds (Dzur, 2004; Fischer, 2004). When teachers and families are positioned in expert–client relationships, families’ perspectives or wisdom may be overlooked. Instead, educators can deconstruct and reconstruct expectations for family–professional partnerships to be more democratic and equitable, transforming the role of educator from expert to facilitator (Dzur, 2004; Fischer, 2004; Skrtic, 2013; Sullivan, 2005).

A democratic approach to cross-cultural family–professional partnerships (e.g., engaging families in problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration) can empower families from historically marginalized backgrounds. Educators can help families to identify strengths, goals, and problems, setting the democratic agenda in the interest of the common good. Educators can then apply specialized knowledge to address these shared goals (Fischer, 2004). In these reciprocal relationships of positive interdependence, expertise is both shared and advanced (Skrtic, 2013). As families in early childhood programs become increasingly diverse and the population of practitioners remains relatively homogeneous, practitioners and families may be positioned on opposite sides of a widening sociocultural divide. A value for democracy in early childhood means calling attention to the implicit and explicit processes that create inequity for families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

2. What are some tips for our own work with families?
Developing democratic family-professional partnerships is not simple, and can take time. Self-reflection and dialogue can help educators can move toward conceptualizations of both culture and language that may support more democratic family-professional partnerships. This includes recognizing that: (a) there are many diverse, legitimate ways of speaking, thinking, behaving, and being; (b) mainstream cultural processes represent privileged ideologies that produce inequitable relationships; and (c) language enacts and produces relations of power in context.

To build awareness of families’ diverse, legitimate ways of speaking being, thinking, and behaving, educators can raise their awareness of and reflect on their own cultural participation. Using the ABC model (i.e., autobiography, biography, and cross-cultural comparison; He & Cooper, 2009; Schmidt, 1999) educators can write detailed autobiographies recounting aspects of their own family cultures and personal values, read the biography of a parent or caregiver with a different cultural background and differing values, and compare cultural and value differences between the two narratives. Exposure and analysis of cultural continua for social values and behavior may be beneficial in helping educators recognize the varied and valid ways culture is expressed (Cheatham & Santos, 2011; Lynch & Hanson, 2011).

Structured dialogue can be useful in supporting pre-service teachers to examine their own practice (Hollins, 2011). During professional development time, educators can use protocols such as those listed on The School Reform Initiative’s website ( to discuss issues about cultural inequity (e.g., inequitable parent participation expectations that may perpetuate mainstream views of family involvement; Hollins & Guzman, 2005) and grapple with what these issues might mean in their partnerships with families. Educators may also share documentation of families’ experiences to discuss deficit perspectives on family childrearing practices. Through discussions of these dilemmas, educators can engage in critical conversations as they contend with issues of inequity that may emerge in cross-cultural partnerships (Fults & Harry, 2012; Gay & Kirkland, 2003). When structured conversations about cultural bias are connected to self-reflection, educators can develop critical consciousness, recognizing the cultural values of families that may be privileged or marginalized. Practicing this critical stance can be beneficial for educators in advocating for democratic cross-cultural partnerships with families. Educators can also look at the oppressive ways in which language can function.

For instance, educators can analyze the discourses and dominant linguistic values that play out in educational arenas (Ayers, 2014). Acknowledging the dominant use of standard English and English as a first language in EC/EI/ECSE programs in contrast to language use at home and community can help teachers self-reflect on linguistic advantage and disadvantage that may influence their communication with linguistically diverse families (Delpit, 2006). Finally, pre-service teachers may also benefit from studying models and examples of successful dialogue with families from diverse backgrounds (Gay & Kirkland, 2003).

Maggie also provided the following tips for fostering self reflection for newer and more veteran professionals:

Reading vignettes about families who integrate traditional and mainstream cultures to create new parenting practices (Choi et al., 2013; Halgunseth et al., 2006) or video clips of those parents with differing cultural backgrounds who merge cultural practices in light of mutual goals for their children (Crippen, & Brew, 2013) to guide discussion with educators. Teacher educators or anti-bias leaders can then introduce and revisit a collaborative problem-solving process approach to working with families (Fults & Harry, 2012), urging educators to see the dynamic nature of culture by engaging the individual interests and needs of families.

• Given family consent, new or seasoned teachers can video or audio record and analyze conversations they have with families. Teacher educators or anti-bias leaders can then guide educators to attend to families’ subtle facial expressions, use interviewing techniques to clarify understanding, and provide wait time in conversation during their interactions with families; educators can identify linguistic processes, which contribute to pragmatic inferences about family attitudes and characteristics (Cheatham & Santos, 2011).

• Using case studies or vignettes that highlight the ways in which individual families have been marginalized based on differences in language use may help teachers to brainstorm ways to inclusively reach out to individual families.

Critically comparing conversation transcripts of educators and English-speaking families with the conversations of educators and families for whom English is a second language may help pre-service teachers identify missed opportunities for inclusive, democratic partnerships (Cheatham & Jimenez-Silva, 2012; Cheatham & Ostrosky, 2011).

Thanks for sharing all this knowledge, Maggie!

*My work draws upon Artiles and Kozleski’s (2007) expanded definition of “inclusion,” a term that typically and exclusively refers to inclusion of children with disabilities. Instead, I think inclusive education means cultivating an equitable learning community in which all children and families are regarded as valuable members. Conceptualized as a legitimizing space for multiple and diverse ways of being, Artiles and Kozleski assert that inclusive education consists of developing and advancing practices to be inclusive and equitable for those individuals from historically marginalized groups (i.e., groups who have experienced historical discrimination based on ethnicity, race, language, culture, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, etc.). Inclusive education, then, is a dynamic and flexible process that involves constant attention, reflection, and action toward understanding how historically marginalized populations of children and families can more equitably participate in educational processes and communities (Artiles, Kozleski, & Waitoller, 2011). I believe an inclusive education approach can be embraced to support positive and meaningful partnerships with families.


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