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Exploring Continuities Between Family Engagement and Well-Being in Aboriginal Head Start Programs in Canada

A Qualitative Inquiry

Gerlach, Alison J., PhD; Gignac, Joan

doi: 10.1097/IYC.0000000000000133
Original Research/Study

Children and families receive maximum benefits from early childhood programs when families are actively engaged. “Parental involvement” is an established feature of Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities (AHSUNC) in Canada, and there is interest in increasing the knowledge on how AHSUNC sites engage with parents and families. This qualitative study generated knowledge and insights into the nature of family engagement in AHSUNC programs. From May to November 2016, semistructured interviews were undertaken with 26 participants in AHSUNC programs across British Columbia. Participants included parents (n = 10); Elders (n = 6), and AHSUNC program coordinators and family workers (n = 10). Findings illustrate a nuanced, relational, and strengths-based approach to family engagement that included AHSUNC program staff being responsive to the influence of broader social and structural factors on families' everyday lives and program engagement. Findings highlight how family engagement practices in AHSUNC are interdependent and continuous with practices aimed at supporting family well-being. The implications of reframing family engagement from a relational perspective are discussed. These findings have relevancy beyond Indigenous contexts to all early childhood and child health programs that are questioning how to engage with families who experience multifaceted forms of social disadvantage and marginalization.

National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, University of Northern British Columbia, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada (Dr Gerlach); and Aboriginal Head Start Association of British Columbia, Duncan, British Columbia, Canada (Ms Gignac).

Correspondence: Alison J. Gerlach, PhD, School of Child & Youth Care, University of Victoria, 3800 Finnerty Road, PO Box STN CSC, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, V8W 2Y2 (

The primary author received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada to undertake this research. This project would not have been possible without the support and involvement of the parents, Elders, program coordinators, and family workers of AHSUNC programs in British Columbia who took time out of their busy schedules to share their insights and experiences. We are extremely grateful for their participation. We also thank Annie Jack, Communications Coordinator at AHSABC, for her helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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