EYFS Guidance: Part 5 - Parent partnerships: With respect

Dr Julian Grenier
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Parents should be supported to improve the home learning environment in a way that doesn’t patronise or put them off, writes Dr Julian Grenier in the final part of his series

What has the strongest impact on a child’s development in the early years? According to the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project, lots of things we would expect to have a significant impact are, indeed, important.

They include the quality of the provision and the number of years the child attends. But the quality of the home learning environment is even more important than these factors. That’s why ‘Partnership with parents’ is one of the seven key features of effective practice in the updated Development Matters.

The home learning environment is partly about the physical characteristics of the home. Children flourish when they have enough space to play in, and things to play with. Playthings include toys, and also real objects for play and exploration. Real objects that children can play with include pots, pans and wooden spoons, leaves, twigs and other natural materials.

In addition to playthings, children also need stimulating support from parents and carers. Back-and-forth interactions and conversations are especially important from birth. So are songs and rhymes, sharing of books and enjoying pretend play. These are all powerful catalysts for the child’s development. Trips out of the home – to parks, libraries and museums, for example – are also positive.

This may all seem straightforward enough. But it’s actually more complex than that, and it’s important to stop and consider a few ‘health warnings’.


As I’m writing, in the middle of the second national lockdown, many families are under huge stress. But whilst this stress is especially acute now, it is actually part of a bigger trend. For years, working parents have felt over-stretched and under-supported. For example, in 2019 the UK Household Longitudinal Study studied parental well-being. Researchers found that mothers who work full-time and have two children have significantly elevated stress levels. Fathers also suffered from more stress if they worked full-time.

If we fast-forward to look at how things are now, there are even more serious reasons for concern. Parents are even more stressed. A recent report from the Royal Foundation found feelings of loneliness affected 63 per cent of parents at the end of the first lockdown. That compares with 38 per cent before the pandemic struck.

Even more parents feel ‘judged’ – seven out of every ten. Half of them say that feeling judged is damaging their mental health. The Royal Foundation’s report draws on the largest-ever survey of British parents.

This tells us that we have to be careful about our partnership with parents. Families are often already very stressed. So, if we start offering a lot of advice and guidance about home learning, that may have unintended, negative consequences. Parents may feel even more judged, and that they aren’t doing enough for their children.

We need to remember what the World Health Organization says is the most important aspect of parenting young children. ‘Responsive caregiving’ is what matters the most: being aware of your child’s needs, and being able to respond warmly. It is about being loving, and also providing sensible, secure routines with clear behaviour boundaries. When parents feel under stress, or anxious, they are much less able to provide this sort of ‘responsive caregiving’.

Children in poverty are more likely to experience noisy and chaotic home environments. These reduce the chances for them to develop their self-regulation or to learn. You can read more about that in ‘Focus points’, part 4 of this series, Nursery World, January 2021, and at: www.nurseryworld.co.uk.


The second important ‘health warning’ is about our lack of knowledge in this area. We understand the importance of the home learning environment. Developing positive partnerships with parents is also important. But we know very little about what actually works: what makes a difference to children’s development and early learning.

The Education Endowment Foundation describes the evidence on the impact of parental involvement as fairly weak. Its report, Working with Parents to Support Children’s Learning, continues, ‘There are surprisingly few high-quality evaluations demonstrating impacts of parental engagement interventions on children’s attainment, and many of the more rigorous studies show mixed results.’

All the same, there are reasons to be optimistic about supporting the early home learning environment. The EPPSE researchers did not find that living in poverty was always associated with a poorer home learning environment. In fact, they concluded that parents – and children – can succeed against the odds.

The EPPSE study included many parents on low incomes with few educational qualifications. Despite these challenges, some provided very well for their children. The EPPSE researchers concluded that when it comes to parenting, it is what you do – not who you are – that makes the difference.

The Government’s ‘Hungry Little Minds’ campaign draws on the best available evidence about home learning. It also draws on research, mostly from public health, about encouraging parents to change their behaviour. It suggests a range of simple, engaging techniques which we can use to encourage parents to chat, play and read with their young children.


The partnership with parents is about more than the home learning environment. It is also about developing a dialogue about children’s learning in their setting, and at home.

Margy Whalley and Cath Arnold were pioneers in researching how to develop this type of partnership at the Pen Green Centre in Corby. They comment that a partnership approach can lead to parents passing on ‘critical information to staff about the patterns of their children’s play and their children’s interests at home.’ As a result, ‘planning for children learning in the nursery [can become] increasingly rich and … much more relevant to the children’s home context’. (Whalley and Arnold, 1997)

In more diverse contexts than Corby in the 1990s, there are both more varied riches, and greater challenges. Tania Choudhury worked with a group of Bangladeshi-heritage parents at Sheringham Nursery School in Newham, East London. She found that even within the Bengali community, there were many different views about the importance of play.

She focused on dialogue with parents. She explained why play is important for children in the early years. She also listened to parents’ views and respected them. This is in stark contrast to the findings of some earlier research studies.

Carole Ogilvy and colleagues researched staff attitudes in multicultural nursery schools. They found that some practitioners saw black and ethnic minority families as lacking in skills to help their children to learn. One member of staff commented, with reference to encouraging an Asian child to speak, that ‘it’ll be like getting blood out of a stone’. From a different perspective, Ms Choudhury found that many Bengali parents encouraged their children to listen to teachers. She valued this focus on listening. But she also helped the parents to see the importance of children talking about their play and learning.

Liz Brooker’s research into children starting school found that some school practices were meant to be inclusive. But, in practice, they did not work for everyone. For example, the ‘open access’ system in the Reception class was intended to encourage parents to have discussions with staff. It was taken up by many white British parents, but less used by the Bangladeshi parents.


When we look at how well children are doing by the end of the EYFS, there are stark inequalities. Typically, children who are eligible for free school meals do a lot worse than the other children in their Reception class. Many black and ethnic minority children are also not achieving their potential. That is why we need to intensify our efforts to develop respectful partnerships with all parents.

When parents are not engaged, we need to take steps to listen to their views and understand them. As the updated Development Matters says, ‘It is important for parents and early years settings to have a strong and respectful partnership. This sets the scene for children to thrive in the early years.’

Reflection point

Early years consultants Dr Stella Louis and Hannah Betteridge comment that, ‘There is so much we can learn about children and their culture, and it is vital that as educators we work with their parents and guardians to understand their backgrounds and cultural norms. This means that we need to make time to listen to families from different backgrounds.’

At this difficult time, when early years practitioners are under so much pressure, how might you:

  • find new ways to communicate with parents and listen to their views?
  • ensure that you hear from all parents, not just those who are most confident?


This series aims to describe the seven key features of early years best practice outlined in the revised Development Matters guidance, explain their importance and show how settings can incorporate them in their practice, so that they can deliver high-quality provision that meets the needs of each child in their setting. The guidance is at: https://bit.ly/2Fpxt5c

For more on the seven features, seeWorking with the Revised Early Years Foundation Stage: Principles into practice by Dr Julian Grenier, at: http://development-matters.org.uk


World Health Organisation (2004) The importance of caregiver-child interactions for the survival and healthy development of young children: A review. https://bit.ly/2YxzoLv

Brooker, L (2002) Starting school: Young children learning cultures. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Choudhury, T (2017) ‘Assessment in diverse contexts: talking with Bangladeshi-British parents about children’s early learning’ in Grenier, J, Finch, S and Vollans, C (eds) Celebrating Children’s Learning: Assessment Beyond Levels in the Early Years. Routledge.

Louis, S and Betteridge, H, 2020. ‘Unconscious Bias in the Observation, Assessment and Planning Process’, https://eyfs.info/articles.html/general/unconscious-bias-in-the-observation-assessment-and-planning-process-r338/

Ogilvy, CM, Boath, EH, Cheyne, WM, Jahoda, G and Schaffer, HR (1990) ‘Staff attitudes and perceptions in multicultural nursery schools’. Early child development and care, 64(1), pp1-13.

The Royal Foundation (2020) ‘State of the Nation: understanding public attitudes to the early years’, https://bit.ly/3pC5DVT

Siraj-Blatchford, I, Mayo, A, Melhuish, E, Taggart, B, Sammons, P and Sylva, K (2011). Performing against the odds: developmental trajectories of children in the EPPSE 3 to 16 study. https://bit.ly/3ra80zn

Taggart, B, Sylva, K, Melhuish, E, Sammons, P and Siraj, I, 2015. Effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project (EPPSE 3-16+): How pre-school influences children and young people's attainment and developmental outcomes over time. https://bit.ly/3akx7bX

Van Poortvliet, M, Axford, N and Lloyd, JJ (2018) ‘Working with parents to support children's learning’, https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/working-with-parents-to-support-childrens-learning/

Whalley, M and Arnold, C (1997) ‘Parental involvement in education: Summary of research findings’. London: Teacher Training Agency

Whalley, M (ed) (2017) Involving parents in their children's learning: A knowledge-sharing approach. Sage.

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