Positive Relationships: Working with Parents - A point of view

Kathy Sylva, Claire Schofield, Jenny Goff and Arjette Karemaker of the University of Oxford and the National Day Nurseries Association
Friday, September 28, 2012

A joint research study into parental engagement in day nurseries challenges current thinking, say its authors Kathy Sylva, Claire Schofield, Jenny Goff and Arjette Karemaker of the University of Oxford and the National Day Nurseries Association.

With the increasing focus on 'working with parents' under the revised Early Years Foundation Stage, the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) and the University of Oxford teamed up to explore parental engagement in day nurseries.

Through our study, we aimed to help the frontline of the nursery sector to engage in new ways with busy working parents by identifying barriers, solutions and good practice. To shed light on current challenges, we deliberately chose a diverse sample of nurseries, and what has emerged are findings that challenge current thinking about the 'typical' parent.

Research has shown that engaging parents in their children's learning at home at an early stage leads to more positive engagement in learning at school (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003; Sylva et al, 2010). Children with a rich home learning environment are already ahead in their social and intellectual development at the age of three (Sylva et al, 2004) and at age five (Sammons et al, 2007). However, unsurprisingly, the degree of parents' involvement varies, in particular according to social economic status, poverty, education, health, parental perception of their role and levels of parental confidence (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003).

Research literature on engaging parents in early education is dominated by the theme of 'empowering parents'. Empowerment is an intentional, ongoing process centred in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring and group participation (Cochran, Johnson & Sierra, 1989). Empowered parents have a strong sense of agency and feel confident about their own effectiveness.

A key component in empowering parents is the positive relationship between the caregiver and parents (Eccles & Harrold, 1993). Throughout the literature, childcare settings are urged to empower parents in their role as the 'first educators' of their children. The EYFS also recommends practice centred on supporting parents to extend their children's cognitive and communication development at home.

Also central in the research literature is the assumption that parents need to 'lift their aspirations for the children's futures'. Parents may need support to overcome attitudinal barriers to high aspirations. The early years of a child's life are key in the formation and development of aspirations (Gutman & Akerman, 2008) and parents with high aspirations are more involved in their children's education (Goodman & Gregg, 2010).

To summarise, the 'typical parent' in the research literature is:

1) disempowered and lacking in confidence

2) fails to stimulate the child's cognitive and communicative development at home, and

3) has low aspirations for the child's future.


Our study set out to test these three themes in a sample of NDNA member settings. We also challenged the widely-accepted literature by including staff in the sample from nurseries that serve a diverse range of families - including parents employed in 'white collar' jobs.

Our research questions were:

1) What are effective practices employed by NDNA member nurseries to engage parents in children's development?

2) Are the findings of this study in agreement with research literature?

Focus groups were used to explore 'the main barriers and potential solutions' and 'the most effective strategies' to parental engagement. Seventeen managers were involved from nurseries that catered for diverse families, with a wide range of jobs and incomes, and that were rated Outstanding by Ofsted or that had completed NDNA's e-Quality Counts quality improvement programme.

Thirty-two childcare managers completed an online survey, which included questions such as 'What are the top three barriers to parental engagement in childcare settings?' and 'What are the top two ways you actively encourage parents to engage with your settings?'


The participants in this qualitative study gave examples of parents who had gained much from working in partnership with nursery staff to further the all-round development of their young children. However, the study challenged the existing literature in several ways.

1) Empowerment for whom?

The study found that parents in the sample of nurseries are often confident in their educational views and can be demanding. In fact, one nursery manager commented, 'It's the staff who need empowering in the face of confident, successful parents with very definite views'. Staff need training and support to respond confidently to parents with successful working careers whose educational qualifications may be higher than their own.

2) Do parents fail to extend children's intellectual development at home?

Evidence from this study suggests that many parents interact responsively and verbally with their children and use a rich narrative style along with complex vocabulary and grammar in their speech.

3) Are parental aspirations too high or too low?

As for raising aspirations, few nurseries in the sample reported it was a problem for their parents. If anything, academic aspirations among parents are often too high, not too low. The challenge is to achieve the right balance between encouraging high aspirations and celebrating childhood.

Again, staff need support to talk to parents about their aspirations for their children and not letting high academic expectations obstruct other areas of development.



The main barriers in linking nursery and home included parents' limited time and the lack of staff training and/or confidence for adequately dealing with older parents. Additional barriers included jargon in documents. And finally, some parents viewed only their own child's needs.

Solutions and strategies

Potential solutions included optimising communication with families. Staff should be totally flexible and empathise with parents' busy lives. Many respondents mentioned the use of daily diaries, emails and texts to give parents the chance to ask something at any time of day/night, and innovative use of the internet was mentioned many times.

Managers need to check that policies and strategies are communicated in full through clear language. Several respondents said how useful it was when parents participated in management committees and shared in some tasks related to management.

Also mentioned was specific training for staff on how to engage parents and identify parents' needs and expectations. Many respondents mentioned robust induction procedures, staff appraisals, training and supervision and careful recruitment as potential solutions to difficulties in engaging parents.

In essence, the most effective strategies for supporting parents with jobs ranging from PA to barrister all centre on the creative use of staff time, innovative use of ICT and websites, emails to parents, regular meetings with the child's key person, diaries/communication books, parents 'stay and play' sessions at the weekend, 'Wow' post-it notes (highlights of the day at home and the nursery) and 'all about me' sheets (what the children are learning and enjoying).


Our study may assist the sector to engage with busy parents who could be very different from the disadvantaged parents studied in previous research. The difference between these findings and previous ones may relate to the diversity of the NDNA sample.

NDNA plans to publish more detailed findings from Exploring Barriers and Opportunities for Parental Engagement in Day Nurseries in late October


Parents whose children attend Nature Trails Day Nursery in Rugby, Warwickshire are generally highly literate, knowledgeable about quality in nursery provision and very much engaged in their children's learning. They are also invariably busy.

'Because our parents value spending "quality time" with their children, they prefer to prioritise their time in the evenings and weekends with their children, rather than coming back to nursery for meetings and events that are adult-only oriented,' says Alison Dyke, owner and manager of the 88-place setting. 'Using reflective evaluation, focus groups and questionnaires, we have explored the best ways of involving parents and found that most prefer to engage with the nursery and practitioners on a daily basis while collecting their child or at social events that are organised to include children and families.'

The nursery organises around five all-family weekend events throughout the year. Day to day, email is increasingly being seen as the most effective way to arrange appointments and deal with queries.

The children's learning journeys are sent home once a term, and information is also passed via displays, monthly newsletters and the nursery website. This is being revamped to include play ideas and links through social media.

The most effective means of communicating, however, remains face to face, achieved through an extended day (7.45am-6.15pm) and a four-day week for staff. This arrangement means the nursery is fully staffed at both ends of the day so that key workers - or key worker 'buddies' (for the fifth day of the week) - can be available to spend as much time as necessary with parents and exchange essential information, both practical and developmental.

'Families look for our advice and they expect us to be available to share our expertise,' says Alison.


  • Cochran, M, Johnson, H and Sierra C (1989), Networking Bulletin: empowerment and family support
  • Desforges, C and Abouchaar, A (2003), The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: a literature review. Research Report RR433. DfES
  • Eccles, JS, and Harrold, RD (1993), Parent-school Involvement During the Early Adolescent Years. Teachers College Record, 94(3), 568-587
  • Goodman, A and Gregg, P (eds) (2010), The Importance of Attitudes and Behaviour for Poorer Children's Educational Attainment. Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • Gutman, LM and Akerman, R (2008, Determinants of Aspirations. Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning. Research Report 27. Institute of Education.
  • Sammons (2007), EPPE 3-11 Influences on Children's Development and Progress in Key Stage 2: social/behavioural outcomes in year 5. Research Report RR007
  • Sylva, K, Melhuish, E, Sammons, P, Siraj-Blatchford, I, and Taggart, B (2004), Effective Pre-school Education. DfES, Institute of Education.
  • Sylva, K, Meluish, E, Sammons, P, Siraj-Blatchford, I, and Taggart, B (eds) (2010), Early Childhood Matters: evidence from the effective pre-school and primary education project. Routledge

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