With so many demands on their time, mums and dads often find it hard to engage with early years settings, but there’s lots you can do to make it easier, says Natasha Wood…
So there I was, the end of my son’s first term at ‘big school’ and I had run to his school from mine to meet his Reception teacher and discuss how he was getting on. I was greeted at the gate by a teacher/TA/office manager with a kind smile: “Are you here for the parents’ evening? Straight through to the hall.”
“Okay, thanks – erm…” I replied, with the sudden realisation that I had no clue where the hall was. This was, in fact, my first time entering the building since he had started – a privilege more commonly reserved for my partner and parents, since I, like most teachers, have to get to work for 7.30 and don’t leave until gone 5. The parent/premises manager/deputy head, noticing my strained expression, quickly replied with a gentle laugh: “Don’t worry, what class is your child in?” Crap. “Teacher’s name?” Double crap. Suffice to say, at that precise moment in time, I felt that on the ‘parental involvement’ scale I was most definitely in the minus numbers.
But was that actually true? My son and I read books together every night without fail; we spent our weekends drawing, playing and exploring the outdoors, and because of my role as an EYFS leader, I knew if there was anything I should be supporting him with at home.
As practitioners, we must remember that parents lead busy lives, and that finding time to engage with early years settings can be difficult – just because we don’t see some doesn’t mean they’re not interested. However, we must also remember that parents have a significant impact on a child’s academic and social achievement, and do what we can to support and encourage mums, dads and carers to be actively involved in their education.
Vanessa Cleak, an early years consultant for Southwark, describes parental involvement as being both “the role parents play in their child’s education and the relationship that exists between families and the child’s setting”. It seems obvious, then, that to gain a good relationship with parents, you need to establish good two-way communication.
The good news is that this can be accomplished in a number of ways, from home visits, workshops, stay-and-play sessions and coffee mornings, to having an open-door policy where on a selected day on the week/month parents are invited in to observe what happens in a morning carpet session and see how their children are taught basic literacy, number, social and play skills.
Vanessa explains that once relationships are established, parents are more likely to increase their interaction with the setting and as a result become more responsive to their child’s social and emotional needs and do more to create a home environment that supports their child’s learning.
It is also important to be aware and understanding of the barriers that you may be faced with – the most common ones are usually time, language (for those parents who have no or little English), costs and parents’ lack of confidence in ways in which they can support their child with their learning at home.
At my setting we run family workshops throughout the year. The focus tends to be on literacy, maths and phonics, and the parents are invited to join their children in doing the workshop together.
The workshops cover what the children will be learning throughout the year as well as modelling practical activities and providing opportunities for parents to ask questions. We also give out packs to take home with more games, further ideas on how to help their child at home and free books and pencils. As a thank you for coming, we have a raffle prize and when the children have gone back to class we barricade in invite the parents to stay for biscuits and tea and a chance to build relationships with each other.
The workshops are hugely successful and we are proud to have 100% attendance, which, I believe, is down to giving parents plenty of notice (all our workshop dates are handed out in our prospectus at the beginning of the year), opening it up not just to parents/carers (if parents are unable to attend we encourage another family member to come, or if they would like to bring a friend for themselves to interpret), and a bit of gentle persuasion from me (mainly in the form of standing at the gate and not letting them out). Having the children do the workshops with them means the parents don’t feel too nervous or pressured to participate as well as being a gentle form of bribery – “the children are always so excited to have their parents there!” etc.
One of the most useful parts of running a workshop is that you can invite parents to complete a short evaluation at the end. Ask what they found helpful, whether there was anything they felt might have been missed, and whether there are any other subjects they would like to cover. This feedback becomes part of our school improvement plan and is a great way to identify any areas where parents would like support.
In case you were wondering, my parents’ evening dilemma was resolved by finally giving my son’s name, at which point the helpful staff member was able to work out where I actually had to go. The result? He was doing extremely well in all areas, had many friends and was a pleasure to have in the class – I put it all down to his amazing parents!
1. Communication is vital! Use your website, newsletters, text messages, notice boards, emails, etc. to keep parents informed of upcoming events, and give plenty of notice.
2. Invite parents to attend workshops with their child – a fantastic way to give mums and dads the tools needed to support learning at home.
3. Hold coffee mornings to help parents build relationships with each other as well as the setting.
4. Set up a reading café: one morning a week, parents arrive slightly earlier for tea and toast and the chance to share books with their child or others. This is a nice occasion for them to ask questions and get tips.
5. Carry out an audit of parent skills, then invite them in to share their experiences through storytelling, cooking, gardening, etc.
6. Be aware of any language barriers that may prevent a parent from getting involved. Try to organise an interpreter or ask the parent to invite a friend who can translate.
7. Consider offering a crèche at parent events – that way mums and dads can focus their attention on their school-age child without worrying about younger siblings.
8. Most importantly, be friendly, approachable and welcoming. Take the time to get to know your parents as well as their children.
Natasha Wood is an EYFS leader, SENCo and the author of 50 Fantastic Ideas for Children with EAL.