Amanda Norman University of Winchester, UK
Relationships between parents and practitioners working in early education and care (EEC) settings
Working in partnership with parents and carers is central to the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework (Department for Education - a ministerial department responsi... More, 2021a) and is one of the seven key features of effective practice in ‘Development Matters’ (DfE, 2021b). Collaboration between parents and practitioners can occur at various times and in various ways, such as supporting, advising, signposting information and reassuring parents. An open-door policy, as well as scheduled meetings and event days as points of contact and arranging home visits, all contribute to parent partnerships. Irrespective of the ways in which to engage parents, consistency and valuing the relationship between practitioners and parents in providing the best outcomes for the child during their early childhood should remain central. When partnerships are effective and meaningful to both parties, collaboration develops and mutual respect is achieved, recognising the impact that each key agent plays in the child’s development (Baum and McMurray-Schwarz, 2004).
Reflections on the value of fostering parent relationships
Establishing reciprocal communications increases opportunities and the likelihood of parents becoming more responsive to their child’s social and emotional needs. The relationship between practitioners and parents has a significant impact on their children’s development (Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003; Melhuish et al., 2008). In developing an open dialogue and sharing information with parents about their child, practitioners build personal and sensitive relationships, that at times can be challenging and complex. Working with young children often requires a practitioner to assume the role of key person and develop an emotional bond with the child so that comfort and care can be authentically offered. This ‘personal’ role of sensitivity extends from the child to their families. Key aspects of a key person’s daily relationships include being available, tuned in and consistent with the children and their families (Norman, 2019).
Reflecting on the way a Person-Centred Approach (PCA) could foster parent relationships
A Person-Centred Approach (PCA) promotes shared engagement and reduces the focus on overtly authoritative and principally offering advice conversations within the professional and parent dialogical spaces. A PCA has often been adopted as a valuable interactional approach within nursing care as well as developing an inclusive form of practice within specialist education (Rogers, 2007). Person-centred planning as an ethical approach has also been successful in working with vulnerable clients. The guiding principles of person-centred planning with parents are that:
- parents are listened to, and their views and feelings are considered
- parents are valued partners who play an important role in making decisions
- autonomy is promoted and parents are empowered to develop a voice
- a person-centred culture is developed, with reflection on how this could be integrated in policies, attitudes, and daily practices.
‘Parent’ defined in its broadest sense includes those carers who take the primary lead on the parenting role. Gopnik (2016) considers that parenting a young child is like tending a garden: it involves digging and wallowing to create a safe, nurturing space in which innovation, adaptability and resilience can thrive. This is reminiscent of the value of community and the way in which a child – but also the parents – is nurtured and cared for by practitioners during their daily interactions. As ‘Birth to 5 Matters’ (Early Education, 2021) highlights:
Partnerships with parents can be truly effective when parents and practitioners work together to enable children to create meaningful connections to their wider world and to foster a love of learning. No parent or family should be excluded from this process. Parents must feel included, listened to and trusted within their own role supporting their child’s wellbeing, development and learning. Each unique family must be welcomed and listened to.
Central to this is valuing parents and carers as their children’s first educators and giving them the opportunity to contribute to their child’s holistic journey at the early years setting, they attend (DfE, 2021c).
Reducing potential barriers to parent relationships
When parents disengage, it is important to find out why this occurs and then actively listen to their views to try to understand their reasons for this. ‘Development Matters’ (DfE, 2021b) outlines the importance for parents and early years settings to have a strong, trusting, and respectful partnership for children to thrive in the early years (Grenier, 2021). Often, language, time, and confidence are the potential barriers preventing parents from engaging in the partnership process. Furthermore, a lack of clarity to the ways in which these could be overcome perpetuates the maintenance of familiar approaches rather than seeking new ways to re-engage families. Kambouri-Danos et al. (2018) found that practitioners perceived activity and charity events as positive ways to involve parents in their child’s learning experiences and empower parent–practitioner partnerships. However, the parents in the study did not hold similar views, with parents perceiving these events as not particularly beneficial. Both practitioners and parents did agree that the lack of physical time was the main barrier to empowering practitioner–parent partnerships. Parents also acknowledged that their own lack of time or availability during the settings’ opening hours, rather than the practitioners’ lack of time, was influential.
For successful parent–practitioner relationships, there is therefore a need for settings to consider their cultural setting regarding parent relationships and to acknowledge and actively address the barriers to the relationship as a way of strengthening collaboration. Shifting the focus from hard-to-reach parents to addressing hard-to-reach settings promotes reflections and a refocus on the ways communication and relationships exist between parents and practitioners.
Reflections and refocus: Developing a PCA approach to parent–practitioner relationships
A Person-Centred Approach (PCA) to parent partnerships is about is about actively listening to the parents, ensuring that their preferences, needs and values help guide professional decisions and actions. This form of caring relationship is respectful and responsive, positioning the parent at the centre of the parent-partnership relationship. Parent–practitioner relationships in the early years aspires to be trustful and warm so that parents can flourish, evoking open and honest communication. Embracing and implementing a PCA positions the parents at the centre, treated as a person first and being involved in making decisions about their children. By adopting a PCA way of working and thinking with parents, there are fruitful opportunities for practitioner self-reflections and intrinsic motivation for considering how relations could be enhanced. In the Parents, Early Years and Learning’ training in parental engagement (PEAL) (Soar, 2012), the following were considered essential for relationships to prosper in a variety of early years settings:
- strong relationships (time allocated for practitioners to discuss and reflect on how they value parent relationships)
- unique and inclusive parents’ interest and involvement in education (this may need regular revisiting with the turnover of parents and practitioners)
- active involvement in family, setting and community life (this is from the outset in building a culture of An approach where a school aims to ensure that all children ... More and collaboration)
- regular recognition, praise and feeling valued (practitioners need to acknowledge, value and support the parents’ role in their child’s early learning and development and building confidence).
Everyday interactions within a Person-Centred Approach (PCA)
A PCA is a way of discovering and acting on the value of developing positive regard towards relationships. It is about finding the balance through a process of active listening. Listening helps to inform practitioners about the parent’s capacities and choices and to signpost the resources and services necessary for them. As previously mentioned, listening with intention as well as attention is important in creating a supportive and engaging parent relationship. This approach is about responsive action, and the following three core elements of a PCA for navigating and developing parent relationships are:
- understanding of a given situation and mindset
- congruence, being open and honest within communications
- empathic relationships, focused on not getting embroiled in others’ emotions but appreciating situations and the emotions attached to them (Rogers, 1980).
It also gives agency of voice to the parent, so that they may feel less ignored or silenced. Sharing power enables parents to work together and make choices, rather than the practitioner’s role being primarily informing and leading the decisions about care. Within this approach, it is about responsive action, deciding on the practitioner’s professional responsibility and how, in working together, the parents and practitioners can find shared solutions. This is supported by the Children and Families Act (2014), which advocates supporting and involving families in decision-making and providing information to aid decisions to ensure and support the best possible outcomes for their infants.
Listening to practitioners: Reflections on their relationships with parents
Louis and Betteridge (2021) found that there is much on offer to learn about children and their families’ culture when creating partnerships. Understanding parents’ backgrounds and cultures needs space to enable listening to occur. In understanding this further, a group of practitioners from various work backgrounds reflected on meeting parents for the first time and what they would like from partnerships with parents. They thought that parents’ needs should be taken into consideration.
- Practitioners believed that they should have the time to become thoughtful agents in reflecting on their experiences, tensions, and celebrations of their role. These included parent partnerships, which were often perceived as an additional and separate aspect to the children that they cared for.
- They discussed creating innovative ways in which to bridge the home and setting, with examples of practice shared. One of these was the use of story sacks to extend learning and enhance communication opportunities. A parent who had recently moved brought in a sack one day with a few items that she had got from home to support the emotional transition. The ‘moving home’ event sack was given to the child and was a resource for her to share her experiences. The parents found that by collating their child’s favourite things, alongside photographs, pictures and associated objects, the child was able to express themselves through play. The parents’ feedback enabled the practitioner to reflect on their own practice and introduce resources collaboratively that were more personal and connected with the family.
Reflecting though a PCA can create relationships that have meaning to both practitioner and parents. Partnerships can be perceived as challenging, with connotations that position practitioner as ‘expert’ or suggest that practitioners and parents have the same perspective. By focusing on the parent– practitioner relationship, this implies an active connection that has the potential to flourish, assuming both the practitioner and parents’ willingness to engage together. In generating knowledge about PCA, this enables practitioners to reflect on their own perceptions about parents and how they could connect with understanding, authenticity, and positive regard. In valuing and fostering parent relationships, the child is placed at the heart, with their development and learning nurtured both in their setting and at home.