Over the last 16 months, early years settings have had to rely on their relationships with parents and carers to a far greater extent. With teachers and practitioners providing physical resource packs for home learning, talking to parents via video, or reading stories live to children at home, families have been a core partner in each child’s learning.
It has forced settings to scrutinise the quality of their communications, and it appears that the experience is leading to changes in how information is shared with families about their children’s learning.
A recent Tapestry survey of 370 early years practitioners and Reception teachers helps to shine a light on some of the things that appear to be changing. Probably the most significant is the role of video in supporting communications between setting and home.
Of course, video was already pervasive in many areas of life, but pre-pandemic, use of video to communicate with parents and carers by early years settings was quite limited. The survey found that only nine per cent of settings had used recorded video messages to stay in touch with families, but a third (30%) are now planning to use them as normality returns.
Similarly, seven per cent used one-to-one video calls previously, but now a quarter (26%) plan to use them. Even live video broadcasts, which some find quite daunting, have increased from three per cent to 11%.
These results suggest that video is, at last, coming of age within early years, which I welcome. I’m a huge advocate for using video to support home engagement. For instance, a practitioner who films a message for parents can communicate in a much more human way than via a written note.
It’s more engaging, and therefore more likely to be watched. It’s flexible, usable for everything from demonstrating a new song or rhyme for children to learn at home, to explaining a new maths concept and how parents can provide support, to delivering messages and news updates.
Suma Dini, author, researcher and educator, has focused her research on Muslim mothers’ experience of engaging with their child’s early years setting or school. At a recent conference hosted by Tapestry, she talked about some of the experiences shared with her.
These included a mother who had found video very helpful: “During lockdown, when I watched live lessons, I saw what they were actually teaching. And I thought this is what she’s supposed to know.” It’s interesting to see how this practice made such a difference to how a parent could support their child’s learning at home.
More widely, the survey found that traditional communication approaches are being used far less. Printed letters were used by three-quarters (79%) of respondents before the pandemic, but this has dropped to under half (44%) who plan to continue to use them.
Similarly, the opportunity to try out online parents’ evenings during the lockdowns has clearly been positive, as a third (30%) plan to continue to use them.
Despite this, traditional approaches are still important. Interestingly, schools rely more on these when supporting those who experience barriers to engagement. More than three-quarters (79%) reported that phone calls and face-to-face communications were essential.
Also, having a key person assigned to each family was important. Encouragingly, three-quarters of respondents (77%) believed they’d reduced the barriers to engagement for their families in the past year.
So, it appears that rather than a complete switch to digital, things are more nuanced. There’s a greater diversity of communication approaches being used. And settings are clearly more confident in their use of technology.
This chimes with advice from early years expert Jamel C Campbell, who advises schools and settings on engaging with families. He recommends keeping parents informed about what their child is learning through lots of different ways including sharing pictures and videos, using digital communications and traditional word of mouth.
He underlines the importance of using simple jargon-free language and remembering that parents with a young child are also transitioning and getting used to being separated from their child.
More options for staying in touch hopefully means communications can become more personalised. Certainly, this is a priority for teachers and practitioners, and the survey found that nine out of 10 (92%) placed great importance on personalised communications.
To do this effectively, we must reflect on our relationships with families who may not share our own cultures and beliefs. Suma Din suggests we ask ourselves three questions:
- What assumptions do we have about these families?
- Which stereotypes do we have about groups of parents and carers?
- Am I challenging myself about these assumptions and stereotypes?
Alongside the importance of personalised communications, teachers and practitioners were keen to access CPD around supporting families. CPD relating to diversity and inclusion was felt to be particularly important in helping to foster positive relationships.
High quality CPD should encourage reflection on what it means to develop respectful relationships with all parents and carers. It’s easy to label some as ‘hard to reach’, but we need to ask ourselves why they feel they don’t belong and consider what practical changes we can make so they feel welcome.
The charity Learning with Parents works with those who experience barriers in engaging with their child’s school or setting. Their CEO, Tom Harbour, feels strongly that so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ parents would never describe themselves as such.
He explained: “We need to remove these harmful labels and appreciate the underlying issues that can make it harder for some parents and carers to engage with their child’s education. A lot of the time it is about settings or schools seeing things from a parent’s point of view, addressing the barriers that they may be facing and empowering them to get involved in their child’s learning. This is really motivating for parents and carers, who can sometimes not realise they have just as important a role to play as the setting or school does.”
At the end of the first lockdown, we asked teachers and practitioners what support they felt was needed if they were required to close again. Ninety-five per cent identified better communication with parents and carers who were, or appeared to be, less engaged.
It’s encouraging that, a year on, respondents feel they’ve improved their connections with these families. Certainly, the unique circumstances of the past year have helped this and, as we begin a new academic year, I feel that many practitioners will bring new-found confidence to their communications with families plus a wider array of communication tools, whether that’s video messages, online parents’ evenings or a traditional letter.
Questions to consider
- Who are the parents we don’t see or hear from? Why might this be?
- How can we sensitively find out more about the home lives of our children?
- How can we respect the uniqueness of each family to help parents and carers feel warmly welcomed?
- What methods of communications do we use regularly, so our parents and carers come to expect it? A newsletter every Friday, for example? Regularity is key!
- In what ways do we ask our parents and carers questions about their children, or ask them to contribute to their learning journal?
Dr Helen Edwards, co-founder of Tapestry. Visit www.tapestry.info