Parents as partners

Key points:

Parents make a crucial difference to children’s outcomes.

Parents are children’s first and most enduring educators.

Each unique family must be welcomed and listened to.

Consider levels of engagement to make the most of relating to parents.

Practitioners have a responsibility to work with all families. 

Clear leadership regarding partnership with parents will provide the right foundation.

Parents and carers make a crucial difference to children’s outcomes. It is vital that early years practitioners recognise parents’ commitment to their children’s early development and education and give priority to working with parents. Research tells us that regardless of the quality of settings, the most important predictor of children’s future outcomes is the quality of the home learning environment, so involving parents in their children’s learning is the most significant factor in enabling children to do well despite disadvantage. The benefits are greatest when practitioners and families work in respectful partnership to develop ways to support children both at home and in the setting. Working together ensures a good understanding of a child’s needs, leading to appropriate provision within the setting and the possibility of supporting learning in the home.

Parents are their children’s lifelong promoters of development and learning. Most families come to early childhood settings with many months and years of fine-grained observations of their children and the most effective ways to support them. When practitioners consider how to harness parents’ voices and deep appreciation and understanding of their children, parents’ knowledge of their children can be knitted into the fabric of daily practice.

Parents and carers have a rich knowledge of their children’s personalities, preferences, interests and skills. Programmes that share how children learn can provide opportunities for parents to deepen their understanding.

Partnerships with parents can be truly effective only 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. A welcoming atmosphere in the setting should be evident from the moment an enquiry is made to a setting regarding their child, and it is essential that all families feel that they belong.   This is expressed through the attitude of the practitioners and methods of communication and language used, as well as the resources and environment of the setting.  The key person’s role includes establishing relationships with families as soon as the setting has been chosen and confirmed. Working with families will often entail developing relationships with the extended family as well as the child’s parents.  This is not only a responsibility but also a great privilege. Each child and family is unique and this needs to be respected and celebrated, as each brings aspects of their own personal and cultural knowledge and values which enrich the whole setting.

We need to make time to listen to parents’ concerns and value what they say about the way in which children learn and behave at home. Only through listening attentively to parents can practitioners build the trusting and respectful relationships needed to achieve the best outcomes for children. Practitioners who show they are listening, understanding and valuing what parents say empower them to make effective choices for their children and wider family. Listening helps practitioners become aware of parents’ beliefs, their aspirations and their concerns. When practitioners look at situations from a parent’s unique perspective, they gain new insights and avoid preconceptions which can lead to misunderstandings. These insights can be used to improve practice.

Listening attentively involves listening to what parents say but also recognising non-verbal messages and actions communicated by parents, as they can be even more powerful than words, particularly where English may not be the home language. Parents may wish to share information:

  • about significant events in the lives of their child and family; adding to the picture practitioners have of the child
  • that is key to the individual care of their child, such as the way they like to be held, changed or soothed
  • about how they could contribute to the setting with offers of time, skills, knowledge or resources for example.

Parents may also seek reassurance and support about child-rearing practices, or about their child’s wellbeing and development.

Parents differ in the frequency and ways they prefer to communicate with practitioners. Creative management of the environment and practitioners’ work schedules is needed to provide sufficient time and opportunity for parents to feel comfortable about sharing information and for practitioners to listen attentively without compromising the needs of the children in their care.  Home visits help to develop relationships and build trust in a more relaxed environment.  The use of the telephone or online platforms can be useful additions to daily face-to-face opportunities.    

Consider levels of engagement to make the most of relating to parents. A setting’s policies may outline an aim to work alongside parents, and describe a range of opportunities such as everyday conversations at the start or end of sessions, parent meetings or workshops. Just offering opportunities, however, does not necessarily mean that those opportunities will be taken up by all parents equally.  Sometimes there is a perceived imbalance of power between practitioners and parents, so it is up to practitioners to take responsibility for developing those relationships.

Thinking about levels of engagement with parents means reflecting on the quantity and quality of that engagement:

  • Which parents do we have a relationship with … and who do we need to continue reaching out to?
  • Which parents do we not have strong relationships with, why might that be, and what could we do differently to encourage involvement? 
  • For each unique parent/family, what do you communicate about? Is it simply about organisational issues, such as reminders to parents about setting events or parents letting you know about pick-up arrangements? Or do some of your conversations include discussions about children’s wellbeing and their learning?  Are those discussions two-way, so that you are learning from parents rather than just informing them about their child’s learning? If parents are not engaging, what do practitioners or settings need to do to facilitate this?

Practitioners have a responsibility to work with all families. Practitioners work closely with many different types of families who continually support and encourage their children in what they do at home, within partnerships based on reciprocal engagements. In order to overcome barriers to developing these partnerships, any factors which may cause disengagement from education must be identified. Identified factors might include:

  • social attitudes towards religious groups, cultures, classes or sexual orientation
  • physical barriers, due to disability, illness or location
  • communication barriers, including EAL, deafness or lack of access to digital information
  • parents’ own previous experiences of education and relationships with authority.

To support parental engagement, practitioners should develop a shared language with parents and a joint understanding about how children develop and learn, both at home and in the setting. Sensitive communication, where practitioners understand parents’ own theories about the development of their child, requires skill and continuous professional reflection and dialogue. It takes time to develop reciprocal ways of working. Practitioners need to get to know the families and understand the challenges that they face, and then be prepared to adapt the way they work in order to accommodate diverse families’ needs.  Working in this way has the potential to transform children’s life chances.

Clear leadership regarding partnership with parents will provide the right foundation. Leaders should show commitment to developing a genuine interest in each family. Regularly reviewing the experience of families is essential for settings to develop their vision and practice.  This should extend to parental participation in policy making, and collaboration  with parents on practical issues such as the timings of meetings in order to develop a more inclusive environment.



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