Working with Parents - Going strong

Gabriella Jozwiak
Monday, April 5, 2021

Lockdown-led video and phone-calls have made lasting improvements to relations with parents at some settings, finds Gabriella Jozwiak

Relationships between parents and staff have improved during the pandemic at Newark Country Kids
Relationships between parents and staff have improved during the pandemic at Newark Country Kids

The YouTube clip begins. ‘Good morning, children! Aunty Debs here!’ Debra Parr, manager of Daisy Hill Pre School in Bolton, beams and waves at the camera. It is 23 March 2020 – the first day that schools are officially closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She stands in a sunlit room wearing a floral top. ‘I know I’m in a different environment and I’m not wearing my uniform, so I might look a little bit strange,’ she continues. ‘I just wanted to let everybody know, we’re obviously in uncharted territory at the moment, we’ve set up a YouTube channel, so I can start to hopefully do some learning online with you tomorrow… OK? See you soon! Bye!’

At the time, Ms Parr thought the initiative would be temporary, but more than 120 videos later, she is still using the channel even though children have returned to the setting. She credits the initiative, along with a WhatsApp group for parents she set up during lockdown, for strengthening communication between parents and staff.

‘It’s been a massive, positive thing that we wouldn’t have done if we hadn’t had Covid,’ she says. ‘The parents have asked us to still do the YouTube and WhatsApp. We always have a handful of parents who are ready to help, but there’s another group who don’t engage. I’ve found that group is far more engaged now.’

POSITIVE CHANGES

Other early years practitioners have also found advantages from increased use of social media during national lockdown periods. A survey of more than 200 settings by Ofsted in October 2020 found ‘most providers’ used apps and social media to share information about children’s development with parents, while some also recorded videos. ‘Many providers said they had observed positive benefits from these changes,’ Ofsted reported.

Ms Parr believes the clips strengthened relations with parents because they present staff in a different light. The videos show practitioners at home with their own children introducing crafts and games, doing baking demonstrations, phonics lessons and completing Joe Wicks workouts in fancy dress.

‘Doing it in your own home, you’re opening yourself up as a person,’ she says. ‘You’re showing your vulnerabilities as well.’

The nursery used the WhatsApp group to make group calls for live story and singing times. Parents also posted videos and photos of their children at home. As a result, parents told staff they now understand better what practitioners aim to achieve in early education. ‘They didn’t realise how much learning and development we cram into a short space of time,’ says Ms Parr. ‘There’s a greater appreciation for us.’

Ms Parr also believes that the public nature of the YouTube channel has improved her staff’s performance. ‘We’ve stepped up our game,’ she says. ‘I’m not saying we weren’t great before, but I feel like we’ve gone to another level. Because it’s on YouTube, you want to do an even better job than you would normally as it’s on the world stage.’

IMPROVED RELATIONS

At Newark Country Kids nursery in Nottinghamshire, manager Sarah Sinclair has been surprised by the improved relationships between parents and staff over the pandemic. ‘It’s better than I ever expected,’ she says. During the first national lockdown, each of her key workers called their children weekly on video-calling service Zoom. Although almost all children returned to the setting from September 2020, staff continue to make six weekly Zoom calls to parents.

‘The Zoom calls allowed us to really engage with parents on another level,’ says Ms Sinclair. ‘We were so used to five minutes at the door when they pick up or drop off. On Zoom we were having half-hour talks each week and you really got to know the parent.’

As a result, parents have become more up to date with their child’s learning and ‘more in sync with their key worker’, Ms Sinclair says. ‘For us, that first lockdown has really been beneficial. Their relationship with their key worker is better than it’s ever been.’

CHALLENGES

Not all settings have experienced strengthening of relationships. At Ellesmere Children’s Centre nursery in Sheffield, located in an area of high deprivation and cultural diversity, Zoom and other tech solutions proved ineffective as a means of communication.

‘A lot of our parents aren’t in a position to be accessing Zoom,’ says centre manager Sharon Curtis. ‘In all the different languages, trying to get parents to do that has its own difficulties.’ These also included parents not owning electronic devices, or having the skills to use social media apps.

Instead, Ms Curtis and her team telephoned children who were not attending the setting two to three times a week during the first lockdown. They also posted updates on the setting’s Facebook page, and distributed food hampers and activity packs. But Ms Curtis says face-to-face contact was irreplaceable.

‘One of our strengths, and now it’s a drawback, is that we put on lots of community things at the weekends and holidays,’ she says. ‘All that stopped.’ However, she feels the centre’s traditional communications were enough to maintain relationships, as all parents returned their children to the setting during the third lockdown from January 2021.

For key worker parents whose children continued to attend the setting during closure periods, the result was different. Ms Curtis says the smaller groups enabled bonds between this cohort and staff to improve. ‘The existing parents have new-found respect for what they actually do,’ she says. ‘There have been a lot of thank yous.’

At Shooting Stars Nursery at St Mary the Virgin Primary School in Dorset, deputy manager Lucy Stevens found relationships between staff and parents remained the same during lockdown. Her setting already used online learning journal Tapestry to share children’s activities with parents, who actively posted home experiences.

‘We always have Tapestry time at school; for example, if they’ve done something lovely at the weekend,’ she says. ‘It’s always been a very interactive communication.’

During closures, Ms Stevens telephone-called parents who were not interacting and also posted videos of herself reading stories and delivering phonics lessons. But she does not plan to continue this now children have returned. ‘If I need to speak to parents, we have a big sheltered outside area and we go and sit there,’ she says. ‘It’s a close community, and I’ve known the families for a long time.’

EXPERT VIEW – another widening gap?

Several factors affect a parent’s ability to engage virtually with an education setting, and those from lower-income backgrounds tend to be at a disadvantage, says Professor Kathy Sylva, Department of Education, University of Oxford.

She bases this suggestion on recent experience of helping private, voluntary and independent early years settings deliver a training programme for parents online during the pandemic, in a programme led by the Sutton Trust.

‘It’s different attending a workshop on your phone in a small flat in a high-rise with three children, compared with a nice house with a garden, a good tablet that’s easy to use and has a big screen that’s easy to read,’ she says.

‘In a more advantaged home, the father may be working at home and keeping an eye on the children. In the home of a manual worker who has to go into a factory, he’s not there.’

Rich and poor

Recent research shows school closures have widened the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. An Education Endowment Foundation report (June 2020) suggests school closures will potentially reverse progress made to narrow the gap since 2011 among Year 1 and 2 pupils.

An Institute for Financial Studies report from September 2020 found that socioeconomic gaps in learning time during the first lockdown were larger than before it happened. ‘The richest third of primary school children spent about four and half hours per week more on learning than the poorest third of primary school children,’ the report says.

Nursery closures

Professor Sylva says early years settings closures could be forging another gap in relationships between settings and parents. ‘In the case of more advantaged parents, the relationship may be getting better because of all the efforts staff are making to support parents at home,’ she says. ‘Maybe it’s not the most disadvantaged parents who are having a better relationship because they don’t have time and they don’t have the technology.’

‘It’s not that the settings aren’t trying – they are,’ Professor Sylva continues. ‘Practitioners have to pay attention that they’re not exacerbating another gap.’

A PARENT'S VIEW

Poppy Lloyd is mother to Jem (aged three), who attends a school-based pre-school in north London, and Molly (6).

‘When Jem was off, I found it difficult to engage him with what the school was providing. The head of early years posted daily videos of herself reading stories or introducing numbers. Jem just wasn’t interested, so we did our own thing. I was also home-schooling his big sister, which meant they were competing for my attention.

‘The teacher rang every week to see if we were OK. I kept apologising about not doing much with him. That check-in call with an authority figure was reassuring.

‘I knew his teacher before we went into lockdown, but over the phone I probably shared more things that were going on in our lives than I would have done at pick-ups. I told her about losing my father-in-law – things that were significantly affecting our family. We have all bonded a bit as we’ve been through this shared experience.

‘You don’t want communication from a setting to feel overwhelming and spammy. But I’ve felt much more engaged in what both kids were learning during this time because I’ve been actively managing it at home. That’s only a good thing.’

REFERENCES

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