Courtney has recently turned three years old and is a shy, quiet child. She is the middle sibling with two brothers aged five and one, and lives with them in a single-parent household.
Staff were already familiar with Courtney’s family when she started attending Paint Pots Nursery in Sholing, Southampton a year ago because they also cared for her big brother before he started primary school.
They had built a strong relationship with the family, so were unsurprised by Courtney’s timid personality. They knew that her mother, whom she lives with, had experienced domestic problems and issues with anxiety, partly due to her lack of confidence with reading and writing.
ADDRESSING PARENTS’ LITERACY NEEDS
The staff at Paint Pots are experienced in supporting parents who have literacy problems and currently there are ten parents out of 32 pre-school children who need help. This is due to a mixture of factors, including:
English as an additional language
lack of schooling, and
learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.
Paint Pots firmly believes that in order to give the best care to the individual child, it needs to get to know and support the wider family. Often problems with reading and writing are flagged up when a parent registers their child and is asked to complete an application form.
At this point, the parent may inform the staff that they are unable to read or write, or that they lack the confidence to do so. In these cases, nursery manager Reagan Grainger will arrange a time for them to complete the form together.
Sometimes, parents’ problems with literacy are noticed when they are asked to sign a form and need to have the relevant line pointed out, or apologise that their signature is unreadable.
‘As my team has worked with a variety of families with literacy needs, they know how to support them through simple things like using a coloured felt-tip to pop a dot where a signature is needed and “chatting” about the form, so the parent knows what it is about but doesn’t feel like someone is reading it out for them, as this can be embarrassing,’ says Ms Grainger.
Staff also ease communication with parents by providing information in a variety of formats, both written and verbal.
They communicate via the online journal Tapestry but also place notes on doors to prompt parents to ask staff and provide hard copies of letters, so that a family member or friend can read them on their behalf.
Courtney’s Mum, Abbie, confided in the staff that she didn’t enjoy school, had undiagnosed dyslexia for most of her time there and left at a young age.
‘Although she can read and write reasonably well, if an element of ICT is added, she panics that she is not filling in the right boxes or pressing the right buttons.
‘We were aware Abbie can find form-filling difficult because she asked us for help with a Universal Credit claim,’ says Ms Grainger.
‘Along with the additional time it takes to help parents complete paperwork, we find we have to become experts on housing waiting lists, council tax, debt repayment and Universal Credit, all things which aren’t considered a nursery’s responsibility.
‘As a company, we believe in going the extra mile to support families. Our biggest challenges are often when parents need more “universal” support, which includes anything from getting additional help with special needs to completing housing requests.’
Ms Grainger adds, ‘We are the trusted people the family see every day, so they turn to us to help them when a letter gets posted through their door.’
The nursery works closely with local services such as the housing office and staff signpost parents to additional support, including the local Sure Start centre, which runs adult literacy groups.
‘However, often these parents haven’t had the best experiences at school and can find it hard to trust authority figures,’ Ms Grainger says. ‘A lot of our families see us as a middle ground – not as formal as a teacher, but not a friend who they may not want to share official things with.’
Courtney’s mum recently mentioned to staff that they were struggling in a small two-bedroom housing association property and wanted to know if she was entitled to a larger house. Ms Grainger contacted the local housing team on Abbie’s behalf who confirmed that she was entitled to a three-bedroom house and informed her of what documents would be needed to complete the process.
‘I informed Abbie and asked her if she would like to come in and complete the form with me – even though a parent struggles with literacy we feel they should still be involved with the process,’ she says. ‘Abbie was very grateful and is now able to pick a larger property.’
Despite some parents having problems with reading, staff advise them on how they can share books with their children to help them to develop a love of books from an early age.
They have supported Abbie to look at picturebooks with her three children and discuss what is happening in the illustrations. They also set simple, fun challenges for parents, such as looking for environmental print with their children, spotting road signs or looking for common logos.
‘Abbie will often say that she is disappointed by her lack of achievement and that she wants better for her children. She had her first child at a young age and has never had an employed life, but she wants her children to achieve and to pursue college,’ says Ms Grainger.
‘We know that she regularly reads with her eldest child because he comes to nursery with his book bag and shows us.’
READING AND WRITING FOR A PURPOSE
Along with supporting Abbie, staff work with Courtney to support her pre-reading and writing skills by providing an environment rich in mark-making activities, simple signs and plenty of opportunities to share songs, rhymes and books. Staff let the children see them enjoying reading and writing and using it for a purpose.
To enhance Courtney’s emotional well-being and social skills, she is included in Sunshine Circle ‘theraplay’ groups led by the early years advisory teacher who has been trained in the method.
Courtney attends the 20-minute group twice a week where she is helped to manage her emotions and behaviour through participation in group activities, including sharing food together, and having fun. The groups are helping her to build self-esteem and become more confident.
Courtney has recently moved to the pre-school class, supported by the Sunshine Circle leader.
‘She has surprised us by finding the transition easy and although she is still relatively quiet, she is forming friendships and is happy,’ says Ms Grainger. ‘It is lovely to see the difference that the groups have made to her.’
Forming a positive relationship with Abbie and supporting her with official procedures, including applying for a primary school place for her son, has had a direct impact on the life chances of all her children.
'Abbie can get very anxious with formal situations, but she can come into nursery and we will help her,’ says Ms Grainger. ‘A knock-on effect of Courtney and her brothers being re-housed is that their living conditions will be better and their behaviour will improve as a result of the whole family feeling more positive. We find that our parents want help, they just don’t know where to start or what’s available.’
Be patient – it’s up to the family to share if they have problems with reading or writing. They will do this at a time when they feel comfortable in the setting and safe to confide.
- Consider how parents access information about the nursery and try to provide it in different formats, verbal and written.
- Signpost parents to local services that can help them to improve their reading and writing skills.
- Encourage parents to join their local library and show them how to share picturebooks with their child. Suggest books with detailed and appealing illustrations – pictures can be ‘read’ as well as words.
- Encourage parents to have fun by sharing nursery rhymes and simple songs with their child or tell made-up stories.
- Consider setting up a small library of picturebooks with audio CDs for parents to borrow. You could check out whether your local library has an audio book scheme, or investigate YouTube and book apps, many of which have free trials.