Positive Relationships: Working with parents - Single minded

Involving parents in their children's learning is the single most important factor in improving outcomes for children in less advantaged families. Kate Hayward, assistant director of Pen Green Research Base, Corby, explains how to make a difference


It is no longer possible to question the fact that working with parents is key to improving outcomes for children and parents. Desforges and Abouchaar established that parents play a key role in children’s learning and development and working with parents is the single most important factor in making a difference for less advantaged families. Many recent studies including the EPPE longitudinal study and the recent poverty and life chances report by Frank Field MP have highlighted that what parents do is vital to improving children’s outcomes.

At a Westminster briefing (11 May 2011) on the implications of the Early Intervention report by Graeme Allen MP, there was much discussion about the importance of involving parents. The messages were clear:

  • Parents who are living in poverty do not equate to ‘poor parents’,
  • all parents should have the right to good universal integrated services through which appropriately targeted services can be offered to those who need them without stigma, and most importantly
  • effective work with parents is about building relationships and responding to their needs.

The reliance, therefore, on commissioned ‘parenting programmes’ that have been evidenced as effective due to their adherence to a set formula through a well-written manual seems misguided. What came across loud and clear from the attendees at the briefing was that well-trained and well-supported staff who know how to develop relationships with parents and respond to their needs in integrated services is what works – there is no ‘magic bullet’ and a good worker will work effectively given any programme and adapt creatively.


Of course, there is a need to evidence outcomes. The huge investment of public money demands a constant review of effectiveness. At Pen Green, we would argue that it is the constant review of the effectiveness of our work with children and parents that should be the focus – not the ‘evidence-based’ stamp that gives the green light to commissioners to use programmes that were evaluated in different contexts with a different workforce. Some of the most prominent programmes have been ‘evidenced’ in the USA and Australia, countries where, ironically, there are poor social and educational outcomes for those most in need, and levels of inequality that are equal or worse than our own.

There were comments at the briefing from commissioners who said that local practitioners wanted to ‘tweak’ parenting programmes to suit local needs but were prevented from doing so because of the ‘fidelity’ mantra, that unless the programme is ‘replicated’ exactly as it was when it was ‘evidenced based’ it may not be effective. This may help the cashflow for programme developers, but it does not support the development of reflective practitioners who are responding to measures of effectiveness on the ground.


Last year, Pen Green Research Base, alongside the National Children’s Bureau and seven other voluntary sector organisations (a group known as ELPPEG) wrote a booklet outlining ten principles underpinning effective work with parents.

Successful and sustained engagement with families:

  • is maintained when practitioners work alongside families in a valued working relationship
  • involves practitioners and parents being willing to listen to and learn from each other
  • happens when practitioners respect what families know and already do
  • needs practitioners to find ways to actively engage those who do not traditionally access services
  • happens when parents are decision makers in organisations and services
  • raises families’ views, opinions and expectations of services and their confidence as service users
  • happens where there is support for the whole family
  • is through universal services but with opportunities for more intensive support where most needed
  • requires effective support and supervision for staff, encouraging evaluation and self-reflection
  • requires an understanding and honest sharing of issues around safeguarding.

We have given examples in practice of each of these principles in action (ELPPEG, 2010). The organisations subscribing to these principles believe in professional development as a way forward to improving outcomes for parents and families.

A well-trained and supported workforce

Programmes can focus developments and improve practice but whatever programme is used it needs to enable workers to reflect on practice. Simply processing parents through parenting courses, which ‘do to’ rather than work with parents to support their child more effectively, will not bring about life-long transformations or provide lasting benefit from investment.

At Pen Green we have always seen working with parents as the critical process – it may be challenging at times because to work with parents effectively you have to listen and act on what they say. The power has to shift from being exclusively invested with the professional role to being equally distributed between worker and parent. This means reflecting on and making changes to practice, being prepared to work in different ways.

Developing a shared belief about why working with parents is important

We all hold our own beliefs about parenting. Some practitioners have first-hand experience about just how difficult it is to be a parent. All practitioners know how important it is to feel respected and valued by professionals. Practitioners may have strong views about what parents should and shouldn’t be doing with their children.

In our Pen Green PICL (Parents Involvement in their Children’s Learning) Approach we encourage staff teams to discuss their beliefs and values around parenting and to reflect on how these beliefs impact on their practice. We set up a negotiation exercise whereby all staff members contribute their own ideas and eventually come up with a set of statements that reflect their shared beliefs and values. Involving parents in this exercise can lead to some challenging discussions. This is a good way to tease out and address any structural or attitudinal difficulties that staff are experiencing.

Developing a dialogue with parents about children’s learning and development

Early years workers often say that parents are their children’s first and most enduring educators but do we actually work with parents in a way that acknowledges and respects their role? The PICL Approach is all about sharing knowledge about children between parents and workers. We describe this approach through ‘the Pen Green Loop’.

Through dialogue between parents and workers, the parent’s knowledge about the child at home informs practice in the setting or group. The early years worker’s knowledge of the child in the setting or group informs how the parent supports the child’s learning at home. We feel this is the most effective way to improve the home learning environment as parents and workers are learning about the child alongside each other and offering the child continuity in the support of their learning.

One worker engaged in the PICL Approach at East Street Children’s Centre, Banbury, says, ‘Before observing and videoing Luke, I had spoken to his key person about what interests him. She was able to tell me that she thought Luke had a strong connection schema as he loved playing with construction pieces and the chain links. This information had never really been shared with Lisa (his mother). When talking through the video I was able to talk about Luke’s connecting schema as tying the ropes to each tree was a good demonstration of this. Through both the key person and Lisa identifying this schema, we have now been able to get a dialogue of information flowing about the provision for Luke at home and in the setting.


At Pen Green, we use video reflection to help us discuss the child’s interests and analyse what the child is learning (see diagram below). Parents bring clips in from home and workers share video that has been taken in the setting or group. Video is a fantastic tool.

We have never met a parent who does not want to see a video vignette of their child. It is a great way to see and understand how the child acts when they are engaging with other children and other adults. It’s like being a ‘fly on the wall’. It is a resource that can be shared with the child and by the child with many other important people in the child’s life. Sharing video creates so many different layers of possibility for looking at and celebrating the child’s learning.

Choosing a good clip, however, is extremely important and we use several early childhood development frameworks to help us to do this.

Recognising what is significant

We often use the terms ‘Noticing’ ‘Recognising’ and ‘Responding’ which are used in New Zealand to foreground what it is we are looking at when we observe children’s play. Noting down everything a child does at any time in an observation is not very helpful. Noticing what is significant, for example when a child does something for the first time, is useful. It is also useful to notice when an experience links with a previous experience and informs our understanding of the child in a meaningful way.

We share Ferre Laevers’ concept of ‘involvement’ with parents and use the signals of Involvement to help us to notice when deep level learning is taking place. This is when parents and workers video children’s play. We then share the video and begin a dialogue about what we jointly recognise as being significant.

We also share schema theory with parents. On watching the video parents often say, ‘Oh! He does that at home!’ or ‘he did that last week with his granddad’ referring to a repeated pattern that is being played out. The dialogue deepens with each shared experience and parents and workers discuss how to support the child’s learning further by thinking about what the adult and the learning environment can afford in terms of pedagogy.

We also discuss the child’s emotional well-being and use Laevers’ concept of well-being to share the signals that can inform us about the child’s confidence and self esteem at any given time. Most parents are already aware of their child’s well-being but using the well-being signals changes the parents’ general comments such as ‘she’s not herself today’ to a shared language that enables a deeper understanding of the child’s emotional state and how this impacts on their learning.


We call the PICL Approach a ‘developmental partnership’. This is a term that was used by Emeritus Professor Patrick Easen to describe the way that parents and workers both have something very important to offer in terms of supporting the child and that this partnership develops and deepens over time.

He says, ‘Research over the years has shown that the Pen Green PICL way of working produces good outcomes for children and parents. However, we need to be constantly gathering evidence of effectiveness for each child and family that we work with. It is not enough for the programme to be ‘evidence based’ at some distant time in the past.’


Video as a means for reflection



For children

Using the Pen Green Loop the children’s files are full of examples where the child’s learning has been effectively supported:

‘I was a bit shocked seeing the video of Marie. I was blown away. I didn’t understand that making a mess was learning, I liked watching the DVD, it’s like being a fly on the wall.

‘My house is Marie’s little art box now, I also take videos, it’s so exciting to show the workers. I really enjoy it. I lived with my mum and dad for the first two years of Marie’s life – they have a big impact. There’s always been a strong bond between me and my daughter, being a single mum, but understanding her a bit more has made us unbreakable.’

Nicola - Parent

‘I did a home visit and met Grandma and Great Grandma. It shifted me to go and talk about why Marie was doing things. They related what she was doing at home and how she was learning. It helped me to put all we know about Marie into context. I asked Nicola what she wanted for Marie and she told me she wanted her to be Prime Minister! PICL has helped Nicola to gain confidence and be an advocate for her own child and also other parents within the centre.’

Anne, Crescent Children’s Centre Meir, Stoke on Trent

We have also recently introduced our own software programme to help us to articulate the progress that children have made. This programme called ‘Making Children’s Learning Visible’ is an assessment process whereby workers and parents look at the evidence and discuss where a child might be in their learning against the development matters statements in the EYFS at three points in the year. A chart is produced to illustrate the child’s development. The child’s progress can easily be seen and debated, raising questions about provision at home and in the setting and how the child can be further supported.

For parents

When parents gain insights into their children’s learning they often review the way they have been responding to their child:

‘I liked the video of my child and the feedback. Seeing other children on the video was really useful, it helped me understand what children were doing and why. Knowing not just my child does that (transporting) and knowing things like that have a value and a name.’

St Edmunds – Our Community, Our Journey - PICL Portfolio Bradford

‘Lynne made video footage of different things Ethan was participating in during his day and was then able to show it to us. From the video footage, Lynne then explained to us about his involvement levels, well-being and his cluster of schemas. We were able to recognise at home certain things as well, such as his interest in filling cup after cup with water and lining them up when he helps with the washing up or at bath time.’

All About Ethan – Childminder and parent PICL portfolio – Corby

Sharing schema theory with parents often has a profound impact:

‘I felt so very, very proud after watching this video and talking it through with Rob [worker]. I never knew that Luke could play like that and concentrate for such a long period of time. I went home and told his dad all about it and rang his nan to tell her. It reinforced something that I had been talking about with the outreach worker and that was to treat Oliver and Luke [twins] as individuals…. I have made changes to our lives and now spend time with Oliver and Luke on their own. I have learnt a lot about their different personalities. I have learnt that Luke picks things up so quickly and he is a very intelligent little boy.’

Parent engaged in the PICL Approach (East Street Children’s Centre, Banbury)

We offer Pen Green PICL groups where parents come to share video of their child with other parents and workers. We run these groups in the morning, afternoon and evening to enable parents to have as much access as possible. Parents often go on to gain accreditation through the National Open College Network (NOCN) for their own portfolios on their child’s learning and may go on to the crèche course and other child development accredited courses. Over half (56 per cent) of staff at Pen Green came to the centre as parents and have been supported to gain qualifications through the centre and elsewhere.

Parents gain confidence in speaking with professionals. They attend parent’s evenings when their child transfers to school and have much more of a voice in a dialogue with teachers about their child’s learning.

We are developing an evaluative framework around parent shift in attitude and support for their children, which we are using systematically to measure these outcomes.

For staff

Workers are constantly reflecting on and adapting their practice through the Pen Green PICL way of working. They are open to learning from parents and children and find new and exciting ways to support children’s learning as they are developing a much more rounded and complete knowledge of the child through the worker- parent dialogue and video reflection:

‘We have had the opportunity to be part of many different initiatives that have all encouraged the centre to get parents involved to different degrees but the PICL Approach has helped us to examine the superficiality of some of our work.  PICL has made us become more critical of our practice and given us the tools to engage more positively with parents as part of any of the initiatives that we are required to deliver.’

Worker engaged in the PICL Approach (East Street Children’s Centre, Banbury)


We believe practitioners need to gather data systematically to know who they are working with, what they are doing and how they have made a difference. This is part of sustaining effective practice. Practitioners need to reflect on ‘what works’ so that constant improvements can be made. Staff need to be trained to be responsive to families through a principled approach not tied down to ‘delivering’ a de-contextualised ‘bolt-on’ parenting programme.


Further reading about the importance of working with parents:

Desforges, C and Abouchaar, A (2003) The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustments: A Literature review. London: Department for Education and Skills (research report number: 433).

Easen, PP, Kendall, P and Shaw, J (1992) Parents and Educators: Dialogue and Developing through Partnership. Children and Society 6 (4) pp 282-296.

ELPPEG (2010) Principles of Engaging with Families published through National Quality Improvement Network by National Children’s Bureau

Allen, Graham (2011) Early Intervention: The Next Steps, An independent Report to Her Majesty’s Government, HM Government

Field, Frank (2010) The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults, The report of the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances, HM Government

Sylva, K et al (2010) Early Childhood Matters: evidence from Effective Pre-school and Primary Education Project, DfE

Further reading on the frameworks used in the Pen Green PICL Approach:

  • Athey, C (2007) Extending thought in young children – a parent teacher partnership (2nd edition). London: Paul Chapman Publishing
  • Laevers, F (1997) A Process-Orientated Child Follow-Up System for young Children. Leuven: Centre for Experiential Education
  • Pen Green (2005) Parents Involved in their Children’s Learning (PICL) programme materials, Pen Green.
  • Whalley, M (ed) (2007) Involving Parents in their Children’s Learning (2nd Edition)London: Paul Chapman.


Other relevant Pen Green Courses – see pengreen.org

Understanding and planning with Schema theory (two days)

Making Children’s Learning Visible – measuring children’s outcomes (three days)

The PICL Approach; supporting the home learning environment (three days)

Growing Together – the PICL Approach in a stay and play for 0-3 (three days)

Children Centre Self Evaluation and Review (three days)

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