Newsletter: Extended Families at the Borders & In the Classrooms

Each month, I send a newsletter sharing what I am reading, thinking, and learning to help catalyze an American society that embraces the extended family in children’s lives. You can subscribe here. Want to join the conversation? Reach out by email or follow me on Twitter.

It was a marathon of a month for our family, with a three-night work trip as my job hosted #pfs4ec, our largest event of the year. There was lots to do in the lead up, including session planning and logistics, but the biggest challenge for me was being away from Baby (okay, Toddler) K for three nights – the longest we’ve been apart.

So it was a trying few days for everyone, logistically and emotionally. Like 1 in 4 American families with a young child, we count on grandparents for child care. It is a joy to see my mother and mother-in-law develop a deep bond with K (and, of course, the financial benefit as child care in NJ costs $9,000 on the low end for a toddler).

But suddenly the grandmas were logging longer days with K, as my husband tried to juggle his own start and end time to relieve them. There were minor medical concerns, of the kind you seem to always experience with a toddler. There were travel delays, the kind that leave you schlepping back from LaGuardia at rush hour when you were supposed to land in Newark.

All to say: the “para-parents” in K’s life, and in ours, continue to make the difference between a life of chaos and a life of positivity. I am tremendously lucky to have our extended family and friends play this role, and this month was a lightning bolt reminder to work towards a broader society that fully embraces the power of extended family.

Beyond the nuclear family in immigration

While three days apart from my child was emotionally draining, it pales in comparison to the abrupt, indefinite separations facing families at our borders. If you already follow me on other social media channels, you know this issue has been my top priority since May. I was proud this weekend to attend the #FamiliesBelongTogether rally in Newark with K in tow, along with  mom friends who brought their littles. Holding up a sign, of course, isn’t enough – we all need to be making calls, donating when we can, and raising awareness of the situation still facing families – but I will note that the psychological benefit of being out in the pounding heat with hundreds of others in support of families was huge. I got chills when an 18 wheeler drove by and leaned on his horn the whole block in support of the rally. Toddler K enjoyed that one too.

Less discussed in this complex topic is the specific ways that extended families matter in our immigration policies. This was brought into light in the story of Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, the six-year-old girl held in detention who was recorded asking repeatedly to call her aunt and providing the phone number. While knowing her aunt’s phone number helped staff make contact, it doesn’t provide an easy path forward for the family, according to Pro Publica:

“The aunt said what made the call even more painful was that there was nothing she could do. She and her 9-year-old daughter are seeking asylum in the United States after immigrating here two years ago for the exact same reasons and on the exact same route as her sister and her niece …The aunt said she worried that any attempt to intervene in her niece’s situation would put hers and her daughter’s asylum case at risk…”

Extended family members have been playing a role in the situation for unaccompanied minors since before this administration’s broad policy changes. Previously, unaccompanied minors in the immigration system were teens (and tweens) crossing the border on their own. It was reported earlier this spring that about 1,400 children were “lost” by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (though “lost” may be more of a methodological issue than we’ll get into here), but that many of these minors had been released into the custody of a family sponsor,often a grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle already in the U.S.

And yet, extended families are not generally considered families as they cross the border together – a brief from three major immigration advocacy groups explores the implications of family separation on different family types, providing real-life examples. Because Customs & Border Patrol defines a family unit only as parents/legal guardians and their children, “families composed of spouses or partners, adult children, siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents traveling together not only do not receive the designation of a ‘family unit,’ but they would receive no special consideration for the preservation of their family.”

It is difficult to imagine, right now, a proactive vision of family preservation for migrants which takes into account unique structures of families. But as Americans across the county voice our opposition to our current system,  we need to push for a system which respects the humanity of all seeking a new life within the U.S. borders, and this means thinking about what families truly look like on the ground.

Filling a Research Gap

I mentioned last month that I’m presenting in September at the Families Learning Conference in Fort Lauderdale (tough assignment, I know!) on extended family engagement in education. When I submitted the proposal, I didn’t already have a slide deck ready to go – in many ways, this is the push I need to get the material researched and together. As I’ve dug in deep on the topic, I wanted to share some early findings with you:
There isn’t a lot out there.
I’m not deterred. An undergrad professor trained me for this very moment, that the lacuna – the hole in the research – is often as important as what the research already tells us. This is an opportunity to figure out what we can learn from existing research to apply to other family members, and push for a new lens through which to consider family engagement.

Reading something I should know about on the topic? Doing something in your own practice that works for families? Drop me a line!

“Extraordinary and Terrifying” – Motherhood and the need for a new village

“I do a lot of this professionally. I read about parenting, I read about education, I read about child development, and its still really hard…We’ve moved away from this village society that supports each other to, you know, maybe you partner can take off a couple weeks to help with the baby or you mom lives nearby. I was very lucky to have both.

The biggest challenge is just learning that our society puts the burden on individual families to handle this on their own and I would love to see us moving way from that more.”

Last year, I had the opportunity speak to Rose Wood on her podcast – since renamed The Smart Parent – about the world of early childhood policy and my experience in early motherhood. I did this interview when baby K was 10 weeks old (you can hear him cry in the background at one point!). Listening to it a year later is a bit like opening up a time capsule to a really stressful time – I actually wasn’t even back to work yet when this was recorded.

A year later, my remarks still seem pretty spot on. Motherhood continues to be “extraordinary and terrifying,” and we make it through parenting every day thanks to an amazing network of loved ones who contribute as “para-parents” in K’s life. I still struggle to ask for help – but I think I’ve gotten better! – and now we’re in the position to start “paying forward” the help that we got.

And I have never been more fired up about the need to re-conceptualize extended family engagement in our policies and every day life to ensure families take advantage of every resource available as they dive into this wonderful adventure of raising the next generation.

You can listen to the podcast here. A happy mother’s day to all honoring the amazing women and para-parents in your lives, regardless of their official title!


“Beyond the Classroom” at Young Child Expo

I had the privilege this week to present at the Young Child Expo in NYC on “Beyond the Classroom: Using Community-Based Interventions to Improve Early Literacy and Math.” This is one of my favorite presentations to give! I started this presentation based on learnings from a project with Reach Out and Read Carolinas based on seeing the real, measurable impacts of a light-touch intervention to empower families.

The presentation has evolved each time, thanks to great audience participation, and I’veyoung child expo icon expanded from just talking about literacy to also highlighting math and STEM programs. I myself have changed with the presentation – when I first presented at Smart Start 2016, I wasn’t even pregnant; now, with a 15 month old, I have my own lived experiences on how to reach parents “where they are.”

You can access my slides via the Institute for Child Success. Here’s the conference write-up:

Parents are children’s first teachers, but often our efforts to improve academic and social-emotional outcome are focused solely on classrooms. Parents, extended family, and adults in the community can play a critical role in fostering early math and literacy in young learners if they have access to resources and knowledge that fit their daily lives. This workshop will introduce research on building early math and pre-literacy skills, including long-term outcomes, and highlight promising, innovative literacy and math programs outside of the classroom, including two-generation and light-touch approaches which use existing structures of everyday family life.

Where are programs in your community meeting families where they are? Can this resource help work in your community? How can we further empower all adults in a community as partners for learning? Drop me a line and let me know!

Head Start a lifeline for families in rural communities

Head Start has fascinated me for some time, starting with my time working as a literacy volunteer in a Head Start classroom in Connecticut as part of my Work-Study job during undergrad. It was, by and large, the perfect position for me – for a few hours a week, I got to leave campus, read to kids, and play around with them.

As I stumbled into the field of early childhood in graduate school – again thanks to a Work-Study position, this time with the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers – Head Start came up again and again. During my years at NIEER, we saw updates to the Head Start Impact study which were used by some who oppose the program as evidence that it does not work. The truth seems much stickier – Head Start has some academic impacts, which may fade over time; it develops social-emotional skills which resurface throughout a child’s lifetime and contribute to long-term outcomes; and, it provides crucial connections to programs and services for low-income families. Community connections are not an accident of the program, but by design; Head Start is run through Health and Human Services, not Education, which is the first hint of its broader goals.

And so many in the field – but especially those families who have been served by Head Start – were not surprised by the recent Center for American Progress report on the essential role of Head Start in rural areas. It is a crucial report for putting the spotlight on areas often left behind in our policy debates, as I explore at the Institute for Child Success’s blog:

“It is easy, sometimes, for cities to dominate the conversation on education policy in America, especially in the world of early childhood. In recent years, we have seen major preschool initiatives as central policy issues from New York to Seattle and in between. Cities, with their high student populations and larger pools of potential teachers, are an easy poster child for early childhood innovation. But a new report from the Center for American Progress makes clear what residents outside cities have known for years – the unique needs of families in rural communities are a tough fit for early childhood services.”

I’ve had the opportunity to explore data sets on Head Start in the South for a paper at ICS as well as to contribute to the Rural Trust’s report on the state of rural education. But this report from CAP fills a huge hole in the literature with this deep dive. Combining information from Head Start’s Program Information Report database with USDA data on rural geographic areas is a tough methodological lift – we had considered it for the Head Start in the South paper but ultimately decided it was too heavy a lift for the scope of that project. The CAP researchers do a huge service for the field and ensure that the voices of rural families are centered in our early childhood policies.

What Kid Readers Want

Scholastic published a new report this month focusing on the reading habits of children and their families. This is the fifth edition of the report, which included over 2,500 children and their parents. It’s one of the more fascinating things I’ve read lately, both for the points it raises that were surprising, and the fond memories I have of childhood reading.

Lisa Guernsey at the New America Foundation has a great rundown of the survey itself and of some of the more interesting findings:

The results are packed with interesting nuggets for parents and educators alike. They show a decline in “reading for fun” at home among some age groups…while they also show the importance of school to low-income children as a place for reading. A new section of the report provides insight into reading habits among parents of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. And many of the children’s responses throughout the report point to the power of allowing children to choose what to read.

Scholastic has published a few great graphics on the findings of the report, including what kids are looking for in books (52%…say the person who does the best job of picking out books to read for fun is ‘Me.'”) and how tastes change by age. The report includes finding on the frequency of parents reading to children, a measure that has become increasingly discussed with the recent American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for children to be read to from birth. While parents recognized the importance of reading aloud to children who were learning to read (though they often were not able to do this as much as they would like), a particularly fascinating finding was about reading to children after they are able to read on their own. From the NIEER online newsletter, which I co-write:

The study found that while more than half of children ages 0 to 5 were read to between 5-7 days each week, about one-third of children age 6-8 were read to, and only 17 percent of children ages 9 to 11 had this experience. Eighty-three percent of children ages 6-17 reported they “enjoy(ed) being read aloud to at home,” saying it was a special and fun experience with parents. Additionally, according to a piece in The New York Times, “…literacy experts say the real value of reading to children is helping to develop background knowledge in all kinds of topics as well as exposure to sophisticated language.”

Kids want to be read to. Even kids who may claim to be “too old” or “too cool” for Mom or Dad to sit down with a book may occasionally like the experience! And here’s why:


I have such wonderful memories of being read to. I agree with that 78% who say it creates a special time with parents, but as a kid myself, I go to be on the flipside. My “little brother” (read: now in his second year of teaching high school) wasn’t the strongest reader as a kid, and it kept him from being the kind of voracious reader I was. As I was tearing through the Harry Potter books, he wasn’t sure he wanted to dive into them. So I read them to him, out loud. From across the bedroom we shared. In the backseat of the car in 20 minute chunks as my mom drove out to my older brother’s high school with us in tow. For 15 minutes sitting out adult swim at the pool. When the fourth book came out, I read it for the first time while reading it to him. When the fifth book came out, he felt up to taking it on by himself, and while that was great (except for fighting over our one copy!), there was a piece of the experience now gone for me. Whether it was just the pride of being the helpful big sister or really getting to share something I loved, I treasured those moments. I’m thinking of so many parent friends who post Facebook updates of their excitement to start reading Lord of the Rings to their kids – kids who wouldn’t be ready to take on those tomes yet, but get to experience this wonderful stories complete with a reader who will do different voices, share that experience, and hopefully remember it fondly when they pick them up again on their own years later.

You might not have time to read the whole report, but do try to find the time to grab your favorite childhood book – or help a young reader find a new favorite! – and settle in with the child in your life for some quality time.