The quality of a child’s early experience is vital for their future success. It is shaped by many interrelated factors, notably the effects of socio-economic status, the impact of high-quality early education and care, and the influence of ‘good parenting’ – what parents and carers do on a daily basis with their children is important.
Early years educators who forge strong partnerships with parents and carers and work to develop the home learning environment help these significant adults to improve their child’s progress to make a better start at school. The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE 2004), a study of 3,000 three- to seven-year-olds in their homes and early years settings, found that the quality of the home learning environment is the most important factor affecting a child’s outcomes. This effect continues through to the age of seven. What parents do at home has more impact than their occupation, income and education levels.
In practice, it can be difficult for the early years educator to find time to build meaningful partnerships with parents. However, the EPPE research indicates that such partnerships are crucial for emotional well-being and development and learning.
It is important for early years educators to remember that children learn from their parents, and to:
- inform them of the objectives and content of the curriculum framework
- share knowledge of how their child is developing and learning
- establish ways of sharing information and discussing matters of child development.
In this sense, effective early years education is also parent education. Once parents and educators work together, the outcomes have a clear effect on children’s developing learning. The primary motivator for establishing partnerships with parents is to benefit child and parent.
Educators working with the youngest children will need to be sensitive and culturally appropriate in order to support parents’ understanding of their children’s developing learning, together with how to deal with challenging behaviour that is a normal part of child development.
It is vital that educators are able to identify the causes of challenging behaviour so that they can build confidence in how parents deal with situations in everyday life. For parents, the constant flux of developmental change can present new and unique challenges.
Early years educators will have many opportunities to engage with parents about their child’s developing learning. Extending conversations with parents to include how they can support their children’s learning will ultimately lead to a shared understanding. Edward Melhuish (2007) suggests that the key to successful partnerships is to ensure that the intervention is designed to meet the needs of the child, parent and setting.
Early years educators should:
- involve parents as well as children
- provide intensive support to vulnerable parents in the first three years to enable them to meet their children’s needs
- avoid labelling ‘problem families’
- target multiple risk factors
- plan interventions that last long enough to make a difference
- consult and develop these with parents
- be culturally appropriate.
Some parents may be unaware they could be doing more to support their children’s learning and development and may lack the skill and confidence in helping them to learn. Parents may not always be sure they are getting it right and will need feedback and encouragement.
Respecting and drawing on the personal knowledge of parents about their child is important. This recognises that parents have a powerful influence on home learning and it will help early years educators to understand the influences on the child’s life.
Recognising the personal expertise that parents bring, and the passion they may have about their child, can stimulate conversations between educators and parents. Parent knowledge of their children’s learning will include:
- the child’s personality – are they shy or outgoing?
- what they enjoy doing at home and outside
- how they react to new people, both adults and children
- what they are like when away from the parent
- whether they can use the toilet independently, or with some support if still in nappies
- how willing they are to try things for themselves
- if the child can dress themselves or put on their shoes and coat
- how their child asks for help, whether in a particular language, words, signs or gestures
- things that frighten their child
- how their child shows frustration, anger or upset
- how their child plays with other children
- whether their child’s speech is clear, or if they can talk about events, past and future
- if their child has a particular interest, such as superheroes, wrestling or fairies.
The values and beliefs of early years educators guide and determine their everyday interactions with parents and carers. A sincere commitment to working in partnership with parents and carers should be a feature of any high-quality practice.
Early years educators will need to have a sound knowledge of how children learn and operate in their setting. But it is the parent and carer who knows the child best, and unless there is a genuine sharing of information, a child’s learning needs will neither be fully understood nor met in the end.
By way of sharing how children learn with their parents and carers, early years educators can offer the best quality of learning experience. Starting with the parents or carers’ knowledge of their children in context of home learning, early years educators can learn about children’s fascinations and interests.
To conclude, it is essential that parents are helped to understand that what they do at home is important. Early years educators should provide parents with support on understanding the value of play – so that they can join in with their children – and encouragement to do activities at home.
Working with families: first principles
- Develop a good knowledge of the local community and amenities.
- Involve families wherever possible in the life of the setting.
- Greet parents by name, using correct pronunciation, and have knowledge of where to find information for parents with a second language.
- Recognise that parents play a vital role in their children’s development and learning.
- Ensure all of the resources reflect the different types of families attending the school or setting.
- Provide learning experiences that are always culturally relevant and specific to the children’s home culture and first-hand experiences.
- Ensure the first point of contact is always the key adult, and put in place communication systems that allow for a two-way flow of information between parents and educators, particularly at start and end of the day.
- Always provide regular opportunities, both formal and informal, for parents to talk to educators about their children’s learning.
- Commit to attending CPD training in equality and diversity.
- Use monthly team meetings to reflect critically upon the values and beliefs that underpin professional practice.
- Be consistently welcoming and approachable to children and their families.
- Provide regular workshops which build parents’ confidence in becoming more involved in their children’s learning and show how to support and promote their children’s development and learning.
- David T et al (2003) Birth to Three Matters: A Review of the Literature. The Framework to Support Children in their Earliest Years. Department for Education and Skills
- Melhuish E (2007) ‘The Role of Research in the Development of Sure Start’. British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 5-8 September 2007.
- Sylva K et al(2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education. (EPPE) Project. Final Report: A Longitudinal Study Funded by the DfES 1997-2004. Institute of Education, University of London/Department for Education and Skills/Sure Start
- Wheeler H and Connor J (2006) Parents, Early Years and Learning. National Children’s Bureau
Dr Stella Louis is an early years consultant, author and Froebel Travelling Tutor