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I often hear early educators say: “I love working with children, it’s the adults I’m not so sure about.”
But when we work with young children, we work with their parents too. After all, parents are a childcare center’s first client. They choose the program and pay the fees. Parents are educators’ partners. But positive relationships between parents and educators aren't always a guarantee. There can be tension, because if parents don’t take educators’ expertise and knowledge seriously, they see early childhood education as little more than "babysitting."
But educators can be judgmental of parents’ child-rearing practices too: “If Justin’s or Emma’s parents were more consistent with bedtime routines, the children would be better behaved…”
To be sure, early childhood educators do collaborate with parents. Families are satisfied and grateful for the essential services they receive. I want to affirm your efforts. But if you are wondering what else you could do to involve families, I want to share some communication strategies that help you engage parents, and unite everyone around children's learning and development.
Parental involvement in early childhood education is as important as child psychology, pedagogy, and curriculum. And while we agree that parents and educators have the best interests of the children at heart, they do come at it from different perspectives.
So what do effective family engagement efforts look like? What are meaningful ways that we, as educators, can involve parents in our work, and work toward more mutual respect?
Let’s start by considering both the parent and the educator's perspective.
Parents entrust their most precious little person to early educators with a mixture of eagerness and apprehension. They want their child to have positive, growthful experiences in your care.
At the same time, they are worried about their child’s safety, both physical and emotional — and will be apprehensive about entrusting their child into someone else's care.
Many parents have hopes that their child’s experiences in the classroom will be easier than at home. Without background knowledge in child development, parents may not realize the complexities of toilet training or of teaching social skills. They may even have unrealistic expectations that their child will mainly have fun, without considering the bigger picture of child development and growth.
And if their child has some difficulty, they may react with intense emotion. Their point of view is individual, as they naturally focus on their own child, rather than your program as a whole. Their child’s happiness, safety, and learning are unique and primary.
As educators, we need to keep this in mind when engaging families. Parents can only ever see the focused picture of their own child — they need our help to understand how their own child's education fits into the bigger picture of an early learning program.
Educators also have each child’s safety and happiness in mind, plus that of many other children. As experts in early learning, they know about growth and development.
They understand that children's education is not always “fun,” and that children may struggle some days, whether it is sharing toys with their little friends, learning the intricacies of potty usage, or finishing a puzzle.
Educators think of the individuals as well as of the whole group, be it a classroom or an entire center. They also have to deal with organizational logistics and licensing regulations. They follow confidentiality rules. When toddlers are biting and learning to stop, teachers must protect the child’s privacy while providing developmentally appropriate skilled behavior guidance.
The practical and administrative aspects of educators’ responsibilities often go unseen by parents.
In their role as advocates for their child, parents may make requests that do not respect confidentiality, such as asking to remove the mean child who bothers theirs. Or they may demand special curriculum adaptations that go against a program’s own values, such as not letting their boy play dress-up in the dramatic play area.
The logistic and administrative aspect of early care is often invisible to parents, which can also be a source of miscommunication and frustration for educators.
What might seem like a simple parenting moment can quickly become a complex web of best practice considerations and administrative restrictions. As keepers of best practices in early childhood, teachers may be flummoxed by parents’ attitudes and demands. They may respond with authoritarian rules that deny the parents’ perspectives. Or they may enjoy their job of teaching young children, but feel disrespected by their adult clients.
To build up better family engagement strategies, we can’t just look for in-the-moment fixes. This is a long-term process of learning and growing together, and it starts with good communication.
Educators’ and parents’ perspectives can be bridged with strategic communication, to build mutual understanding and find common ground.
When there are concrete ways and places to share information, the level of mutual understanding rises. This communication is best when it’s multifaceted: in person, individual and group, electronic, written, and verbal. And it must be frequent and consistent, using plain language that avoids educational jargon.
Here’s how we can practice that in our daily communication:
Building strong relationships with parents is a big-picture process. Here’s what you can do to structure closer connections and clear communication into your year-round practice:
When the early childhood literature talks about building reciprocal relationships with families, it usually means that educators must make every effort to understand and respect families. That is undeniably important. Yet it often misses the part about educators sharing their own perspectives with families.
Sharing the code of early learning with parents helps them to be equal partners. They get the inside look at how their child's development fits in the wider world of education. It is in early childhood that parents learn to be involved with their children's educators, and to build a shared responsibility in partnership with these educators.
Parents want reassurance that the program will support them in raising their children well. Educators want their expertise to be valued. Both can happen with simple and consistent communication about what the child is learning, and how the educators are teaching.
Angèle Sancho Passe is a writer and consultant. Her latest book is “Early Childhood Leadership and Program Management” (Redleaf Press, 2022). You can learn more about Angèle’s work at www.angelesanchopasse.com
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.