Social interactions part 4: Making relationships with parents key to positive behaviour

Caroline Vollans
Tuesday, November 21, 2023

In the final part of her series, Caroline Vollans focuses on the tricky area of how to make strong relationships with parents

Families can need extra support due to both short-term and long-term issues they are facing
Families can need extra support due to both short-term and long-term issues they are facing

How many of us feel upset when we see a parent responding aggressively to their child? Or sad when a child is desperately trying to please their parent to no avail?

Parents are only human, so not all interactions with their children are going to be understanding and considered. Indeed, it could be worrying if they were. Having said that, parent-child interactions are highly significant: they impact the child more than any others.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in the USA says, ‘A young child’s relationships and interactions with the important adults in her life have a great impact on her early brain development and ongoing learning. For most children, family members are the primary caregivers who provide this important foundation.’

Supporting parents is an integral, yet complex, aspect of practice in the EYFS. Many vulnerable adults will have had negative encounters with authority, making them unlikely to welcome interventions from early years practitioners. Others may think that what goes on in the home is no-one else’s business.

Practitioners need to find ways of working with parents that are not intrusive and judgemental.


Difficult interactions occur for a whole host of reasons.

Sometimes they are due to a specific turn of events that put additional stress on the family, such as the birth of a sibling, illness or moving house. Though situations like this may have long-term effects, they are often temporary. The family may benefit from short-term support from practitioners.

Ongoing difficulties usually stem from a psychological, social or emotional problem, such as an attachment difficulty or abject living conditions. In these intransient situations, the family are likely to need more constant support from professionals in the relevant field.

Any intervention requires informed thought and planning.


NAEYC points out that, ‘Creating a strong relationship between parents and the school or setting is a key starting point to any intervention …strong partnerships between home and school can support positive family relationships and promote learning at home’ (Stewart-Henry and Friesen, 2018).

The research paper ‘Teachers, parents, and family-school partnerships’ says: ‘Demanding both an intellectual commitment and an emotional availability, family-school partnerships call upon the best of teachers’ professional repertoires. As teachers, we are presented … with opportunities for transformational change in the lives of children and their parents. This is an aspiration worthy of our professional commitment.’

How, then, can EYFS settings go about nurturing this all-important ‘strong partnership’?


During the last 40 years, the Pen Green Centre for Children and their Families has been working on successfully engaging parents.

Felicity Dewsbery, deputy head, says, ‘Since opening in 1983, we have been developing a comprehensive parental partnership in which we work alongside families. We do this by using reflective practice: constantly reviewing what we do and incorporating ideas that come out of dialogues between staff, parents and children.’

Pen Green’s approach (see box) is underpinned by UK academic Patrick Easen’s distinction between telling parents what to do and eliciting their help (see Further information). Dewsbery states, ‘Engaging parents is all about building relationships, it is a two-way process. Our practitioners enter this reciprocal partnership with respect for all that the families have experienced and their knowledge of their children.

‘We share observations with parents – these support them to make informed decisions about the sorts of provision to make at home. Equally, parents share observations with us – these support us to make informed decisions about the sorts of provision to make in nursery.’


All families are different and have their own ways of relating. It is important, then, that early years practitioners reflect on what a helpful intervention regarding social interactions might be. One based on an emotional reaction in the moment may well be ill-judged.

Imagine a situation where a parent is short tempered with their child and feels criticised by a practitioner. Or where an exhausted parent is faced with a number of ‘useful strategies’ to follow. Far from feeling supported, the parent is more likely to feel intimidated or infuriated, and in each case alienated.

As the research and practice at Pen Green suggest, the prerequisite for working with parents is that of building a relationship. Working alongside a parent on a difficulty with interactions may well be part of this process. For instance, when there is a new baby in the family, behaviour on the part of both parent and child may go awry. The nursery can make a sensitive intervention by listening sympathetically and explaining to the parent how common this scenario is. If fitting, they may then offer a simple tip such as acknowledging the child’s feelings or asking the child what is upsetting them.

In terms of supporting the child, setting up play around babies could be helpful. Weighing, bathing, feeding and entertaining them may help the child familiarise themselves with baby-life. It too will give them ideas on how to play with and talk to their new sibling.

Working with parents is central in the early years. Its success relies on nurturing a reciprocal relationship between the setting and the home. Supporting a particular difficulty is secondary to this. No matter how many ideas and strategies we have up our sleeves for teaching positive social interactions, they are defunct unless we build on our relations with parents first.

This is where the real work lies.

CASE STUDY: building parental engagement

By Flavia Ribeiro, lead teacher at Pen Green

‘Alaya is three years, ten months and has attended our provision since she was two. Caitlin, her mum, is one of our younger parents. I met Caitlin when she was four and attended Pen Green.

‘Caitlin experienced a few challenges when she became pregnant with Alaya, one of them being Alaya’s life-long heart condition. Caitlin and Alaya started their journey at a mother and baby unit. Caitlin was keen for Alaya to attend our nursery and requested that I be her family worker.

‘Lesley, the baby and toddler family worker, has worked with the family since Alaya was two, so we both went on the home visit. Alaya could talk to us in the safety of her own home. Alaya found it difficult to settle in the first few weeks. Caitlin and I constantly shared information at pick-ups or drop-offs and through our online communication system. We too shared photos, videos and comments about Alaya’s journey.

‘Caitlin has provided Alaya with experiences at home based on some of the information I have shared with her, and I have used information shared by Caitlin to provide Alaya with experiences and resources.

‘Recently I went to visit Caitlin and Alaya at home again. Caitlin told me how much Alaya has been role-playing doctors lately: this is significant because Alaya will be undergoing heart surgery soon. I have extended this interest at nursery by setting up a hospital role-play area.

‘Caitlin and I also discussed a variety of things that Alaya is interested in. This will help me set up a special basket for Alaya to take into hospital when she has her surgery.’

Working with parents

At Pen Green, work with parents is based on an understanding that:

  • parents and children have rights
  • being a parent is a complex role
  • parenting is a key concern for men and women
  • parents are deeply committed to their children
  • professionals, working with children and families, need to recognise that parents are a child’s primary and most consistent carers and educators
  • we must create a culture of high aspirations for children.


  • Easen P.P., Kendall P. and Shaw J. (1992) ‘Parents and educators: Dialogue and development through partnership’, Children and Society, 6 (4) 282-296
  • Hannon L. and O’Donnell G.M. (2022) ‘Teachers, parents, and family-school partnerships: emotions, experiences, and advocacy’, Journal of Education for Teaching. Routledge
  • Kristan Stewart-Henry and Amber Friesen (2018) Promoting Powerful Interactions Between Parents and Children. NAEYC

Social interactions are ‘encounters between at least two people in which they attend to one another and adjust their behaviour in response to one another’ (Reiset al., 1980). They tend to encompass turn-taking, building relationships, accepting boundaries, co-operating and resolving conflicts.

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