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Perspective | What stands out to you from what these parents of young children had to say?

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A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to read a report drafted by my colleagues that summarized what we heard from families about their experiences with North Carolina’s social-emotional health ecosystem for babies and young children — including early intervention, home visiting, early care and education, medical providers, and other services — and what they thought should be done to improve it. The report is based on qualitative data collected from interviews and surveys with more than 200 parents and caregivers conducted by four community-based organizations.

The full version of the report is long and intentionally includes a lot of quotes from parents. The purpose of this work was to help center and learn from the wisdom and lived experiences of families, along with other family leadership opportunities, in state-level early childhood systems planning. I dedicated time to read it with a cup of tea and made sure to read every quote, even if meant skipping over other parts.

Parents were invited to share their perspectives on many topics, including what’s missing from social-emotional health services in North Carolina, how they would like to access services, and their experiences with racism within the social-emotional health ecosystem.

One of the questions parents were asked was about what they value most in social-emotional health services and providers. A lot stood out to me in their responses, but one parent’s quote made me pause a little longer:

“When you have a child with special needs, all you can think of is your child. You don’t have time to think about yourself. So I would have to say it was a nice gesture when his nutritionist asked how I was doing, how was I feeling? She made me feel good. She always cheers for me. She tells me I’m doing a good job, that I’m a good mom. No one ever asks me, not even my family.”

What mattered most to this mom was how the person she was working with (in this case, her child’s nutritionist) made her feel. How they took the time to ask her how she was doing, when no one else was, and to cheer her on. A simple, meaningful gesture. I imagined them sitting there together. 

It shouldn’t surprise any of us that many parents of young children feel depleted, or that compassionate care is important to families. It was one of eight themes that stood out in the data, with variations by race/ethnicity, income, and gender in families’ experiences.

But, how does this mom’s experience, and the voices of other parents and caregivers, lead North Carolina’s work to strengthen early childhood systems? How can they help develop the solutions and illuminate our own blind spots? How do they stay at the forefront of our minds when we’re discussing how much evidence an intervention has, who should be on the planning committee, or who gets the money to lead the work?

Surveys, interviews, and quotes in a report are not the answer to centering family voices. They are a start.

What’s more important are the presence and leadership of parents and caregivers in the rooms where decisions are being made, from the beginning. And, if appropriate, being invited into parents’ rooms, spaces, and communities to listen and learn, particularly from families of color whose voices have historically not been heard or valued. (Read how two NC Campaign for Grade-Level Reading communities and Village of Wisdom are leading in these areas.) As a state-level nonprofit, we have so much to learn from family-led groups and community-rooted organizations about how to do this well.

Would you take some time to read the report, with a beverage of your choice, and let us know what stands out to you? It’s called Lean In and Listen Up: How can we strengthen North Carolina’s early intervention, early childhood, and mental health services? By listening to families. It was released by the NC Early Childhood Foundation, NC Child, and our community-based partner organizations — Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, Families Moving Forward, Family Support Network, Passage Home — with support from Empowered Parents in Community as a part of the EarlyWell Initiative.

You can learn more about it and access three versions of the report (short, medium, and long) here.

Mary Mathew

Mary Mathew is the Collaboration and Policy Leader at the NC Early Childhood Foundation. She co-leads various efforts aimed at improving child and family wellbeing and early childhood systems in North Carolina such as the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative, EarlyWell Initiative, NC Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and NC Early Childhood Data Advisory Council.