Early Childhood (EC) educators have a big role to play in helping parents support and guide their children's learning, development and well-being.
"Context is important. We work with young children in a context and that context is their family. To serve children well, we must work with their families," states Ms May See, ECDA Fellow and senior general manager of MY World Preschool Ltd.
The benefits of a positive relationship is three-pronged. It impacts the parents, the educator and the child. Ms Rebecca Han, ECDA Fellow and senior programme specialist for Odyssey The Global Preschool, observes that in a positive relationship, parents feel valued, respected and their family's values, practices and beliefs are better understood.
"This makes them more comfortable in talking to the teachers about their child and also using the information from them to support their child's learning and development at home," says Ms Han.
She notes from experience that as parents get more involved in their child's learning and development, confidence in their own parenting skills will also increase.
For educators, such a relationship also allows them to feel more connected, valued, rewarded and appreciated. Says Ms See, "Staff feel confident and satisfied in their role of supporting children and their development as they have a better understanding of how each family would like their child to be raised."
Ms Han says such a collaboration makes a child feel more secure and connected as well. Children benefit from increased communication between home and pre-school.
Says Ms See, "When parents and staff exchange information and discuss how children are doing and how best to meet their needs, we can better support children's development. Children can trust and feel safe with staff who are respected and supported by their parents and who respect and support their parents in return. Also there is a much greater chance of the child feeling accepted and valued."
Ms Christine Soo, ECDA Fellow and Manager of PCF Sparkletots further elaborates on the benefits for children: "Research demonstrates that family involvement is strongly related to improved learning, attendence and behaviour in children. This involvement can have a major impact on children's learning, regardless of the social or cultural background of the family."
"Also, children need their teachers to be their champions. For this, educators need to relate well to their families on a real, human and personal level. This positive relationship can spark the children's imagination, generate curiosity and enthusiasm that nurture their interests and focus that lead to excitement to learn."
Yet fostering such a relationship is often easier said than done, and many factors contribute to this. Parents busy with work and family commitments might not make it possible for time to build such a relationship, one in which effort is required from both parties. At the same time, because of the extended hours they spend with a child at the centre, some EC educators might feel that they understand the child better, leading to friction between them and the child's parents when there are differences of opinion.
"However, EC educators should understand and accept that parents are the main caregivers and try to understand where they are coming from," says Ms Han.
That said, she urges parents to put their trust in their child's educator and understand that educators are working in their child's best interest. Negative incidents in the classroom such as biting and hitting can also widen the trust gap, especially when not handled with sensitivity.
But there is just one over-arching solution:
"Proactive, prompt and consistent communication between teachers and parents is key," says Ms Han. "Regular updates on a child's progress or the activities happening at the centre assures parents that their child is in good hands and taken good care of."
Ms See echos her opinion: "I believe building a strong, positive and trusting relationship between centre and parents starts from the parents' first contact with the centre. Every parent and child entering a centre should be treated with attention, friendliness, and respect. Centre staff should be prepared to provide all information requirement, including the parents' role and partnership in the care and education of their children. This would be the best time to establish a 'shared agreement'."
At MY World Preschool, celebrations, excursions and conferences involving parents help to build a connection. Teachers also initiate dialogues and discussions on a topic of interest with parents and work with them to generate ideas and pool resources.
At Odyssey The Global Preschool, parents are also engaged through a Parent Support Group which provides opportunities for them to be more active in their child's learning journey.
"New parents are usually anxious about their child being in a new environment. Having them in the class with their child for the first three days will help ease their anxiety as they get to see how teachers interact with their child and other children. When the child observes how his/her parents interact with the teachers in the class, it will also be easier for him/ her to establish a relationship with the teachers too," says Ms Han.
Here are some strategies for pre-schools to better engage and build trust with parents:
BUILD POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN TEACHERS AND CHILD
It is easier to win the trust of parents when you have a caring and nurturing disposition and a friendly environment that the child is happy to go to.
Respecting differences - from family values and background to beliefs and practices - helps people communicate their needs, find common ground, share an understanding and work together to achieve shared goals in the children's interest.
Tap on parents' expertise. For example, if teachers are doing a unit on oral hygiene, parents who are dentists can be invited to the class to share with the children on the topic. This will build trust with the parents as they see themselves contributing to their child's learning in pre-school. Parents can also be involved in shared decision making. For instance, seek their views and comments when planning a field visit or learning journey.
HAVE REGULAR DIALOGUES AND CONVERSATIONS WITH PARENTS
It's not just about the regularity but also making the communication with parents personable. Be sensitive to parents' needs and priorities, engage in reflective listening, give open and positive responses. These are some key considerations to a more positive and sensitive communication.
GO THE EXTRA MILE
Parents usually appreciate teachers who make an extra effort in helping their child. This will help build trust in the parents as they feel that their child is valued and cared for.
GATHER PROFESSIONAL KNOWLEDGE
Educators should equip themselves with knowledge to support families and review practices to reduce the stressors that might have a negative impact on them.
Ms See also emphasises that building relationships takes time and continuous effort, and highlights the importance of small steps such as making an effort to remember the names of a child's family members and how they like to be addressed.
"Have an 'open-door' policy, where parents are always welcome. When parents feel comfortable about approaching the centre without having to make an appointment, many issues can be solved before they become problems."
Ms Soo also acknowledges the fact that this might not come naturally to some educators. "Some educators may need to overcome the fear of relating with the children's families. Build your confidence and rehearse the content that you'd be using to relate with them, and embrace the expectations that to be an effective teacher, you need to relate well to all the stakeholders of the pre-school."
And even if it takes several attempts before a meaningful and respectful connection can be made, don't give up.
"Your attempts will yield positive experiences for you and the families," says Ms Soo. "Your perserverance will leave a legacy of positive experience that families will have of the pre-school and the early childhood profession."