Shifting the dial up on ‘family engagement’

Published on Tuesday, 02 June 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Across the sector many early childhood services are grappling with significant changes to their operational practices and activities as COVID-19 shakes the community. Traditional routines have been upended and the definition of ‘family engagement’ has changed significantly.

This new environment of physical distancing and strict health protection strategies has meant that social events are cancelled, visitors may be banned, and families are restricted from entering the centre as freely as they once did. Staggered – and short duration – ‘pick up and drop off’ times curb the usual face-to-face conversations, which have always been an essential opportunity to share, deepen mutual understanding and strengthen relationships.

This ‘new normal’ prompts a rethink of traditional models for building family engagement. It provides an opportunity to co-create with parents a range of new structures to support and involve them with their child’s learning and wellbeing.

Research has consistently shown the positive impact of parent engagement in early learning. A strong connection and involvement with families in early childhood education services can improve learning outcomes and scaffolds a child’s wellbeing. Engagement with community is also essential for business sustainability.

Through this time, educators and families can build a new understanding of how crucial they and their relationship with each other are for a child’s development. As many parents temporarily stopped taking children to childcare or centres closed, educators across the country have risen to the challenge and curated a steady flow of learning resource packages that have strengthened this essential relationship and provided valuable home learning support for families.

The essential role of educators has been highlighted during the pandemic and there is a new appreciation and increased respect for the profession. Many educators have had a crash course in creating and sharing online resources while adopting different communication technology to bridge physical divides caused by the pandemic.   

For the purpose of this article, family engagement is defined as the process of involving them as collaborators in their child’s education – it’s sometimes referred to as “parents as partner.” It needs to be mutually respectful, responsive to families’ cultures and languages, and includes genuine efforts to understand each family’s beliefs, values, and priorities.

Effective family engagement involves interaction, support and relationship building, with parents and professionals working together toward shared goals for the child.

So, what are some of the ways educators can reach out and grow family engagement at this time?

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Everyone is navigating this new reality and many are feeling vulnerable and anxious. Parents, carers and children need familiarity, reassurance and connection with their early childhood service to feel supported, and this relationship requires consistent communication.

Take the lead and reach out regularly, clearly and honestly about what is happening at your centre. Keep families abreast of health and hygiene policies and procedures as well as disseminating relevant information about COVID-19 and measures to prevent infection.

When planning your communications remember to add handy tips, words of encouragement, important reminders and relevant news. Celebrate achievements and inject some fun.

Use every communication channel available to you to foster a sense of community and, if you haven’t already, take advantage of easy to use technology. The goal of online communications is the same as face-to-face communications: to bond; to share information; to be heard, and to be understood.

Ensure there’s a two-way flow of communication to encourage sharing perspectives, partnering, empowering and listening. Establish a safe and caring forum to offer support and invite comments and contributions. Private conversations will get more cut through and can encourage a more useful discussion about how each family is coping and their child’s needs allowing your service to offer additional support where required.

Listen and respond

Effective communication builds understanding and trust and makes it easier for you to work with a family to support a child’s wellbeing and development.

When communicating with families practice empathic listening, pay attention to what they are saying and respond to any questions or needs they raise. By asking questions and listening you not only learn more about the family and the child, you strengthen this relationship. With in-person visits more limited at the moment, use the phone, Skype, Zoom or Face Time to maintain your connections. 

Remember, not every family has access to technology to support communications and learning at home and it’s important to consider alternative forms of communication, such as snail mail, when engaging with these families. 

Stay calm and stay a step ahead

Model a calm and caring approach. This attitude can help to provide a stable influence, lesson the grip of anxiety in others and support emotional resilience of your community. Remind families about what hasn’t changed at your centre such as the values and commitment to the children in your care.

Create a culture of kindness

Encourage your learning community to look out for each other and undertake simple acts to make each other’s day easier or happier, how and in the longer term. Promote kindnesses in all communications with families and instil a culture of hope. When families and children see a positive relationship between all the staff at an early childhood centre, they feel a sense of belonging, comfort and safety.

References and additional reading

Global Family Research Project: Sharing a continued commitment to family engagement

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