How do we, as early childhood teachers, build trusting relationships with children’s parents, caregivers and whanau? This is something I have reflected on often throughout my teaching journey. Working in early childhood centres for the past five years, I have come across many different families, in different situations, from different backgrounds and all who I have had different relationships with. Some relationships were formed quickly; maybe we had similar interests or cultural backgrounds? Maybe we had the same sense of humour? Or simply I was there, and able to help them at a time when they needed it. Maybe in helping them I learnt something from them too? Some relationships took a bit more effort and time to flourish and that was okay too. One thing that I can say from my experience is, the families that I grew strong relationships with I also grew strong relationships with their children – to me the two came hand in hand.
Is it important for teachers and parents to have a relationship? I strongly believe it is. If we want to provide the best possible outcomes for children in our care, it is essential. Why is it important to have a relationship with children’s families? Urie Bronfenbrenner shared with us in his model of human ecology, the positive outcomes that can occur for children when the different systems in their life interact with each other. For children to see two people who directly impact their lives cooperatively working together for their benefit, it provides them a model for healthy relationships. This relationship provides opportunity for continuity of care in the child’s world. If there is no relationship between teachers and parents we miss out on the vital opportunity to learn from one another. For the teachers to learn about the parents – the experts of the child; and the Parents may also miss the opportunity to learn from the teachers – and to seek support when they need it. At the end of the day, parents and teachers working in partnership means they can support each other to do the best job possible and provide better outcomes for the children. In my opinion, trust is essential to building strong, lasting relationships with families.
So where does the trust start? I believe first impressions are so important. When welcoming a family into a centre I think it is important to put ourselves in their shoes. Reflect on your own experiences of going somewhere for your first time. Perhaps, reflect on when you started a new job? How were you made to feel welcome? What were the things that made you feel comfortable? I think of my own experience starting at Oma Rapeti in 2017. Prior to starting (through email communication), I was told what my first day would look like. This included when induction tasks would take place, that I would be given time to read policies, time to observe in the Burrow space I would be working in and also that I was going to be taken out for lunch by some of the senior team members. When I walked in on my first day I had a few nerves but felt secure knowing that I knew what my day was going to look like. Out in the staff room I found my named locker with the most beautifully set up welcome table; home made loaf, a ‘Happy 1st Day Antonia’ sign and some small gifts. How lucky was I right?!
I am not suggesting that all this needs to happen when welcoming new families into a centre. This experience however, provided me with some key ideas as to how we can make a first impression and put people at ease. My first day I walked into an unfamiliar space feeling secure that I knew what to expect. When I arrived that security grew as I saw that I had been considered. I already had a place at Oma Rapeti and although I felt a little uncertain (as you do on your first day) I already had trust in the team, as they showed to me they knew what they were doing.
So what can we do to ensure parents have a good first impression stepping into our centres? Knowing where to go and who to ask for could be a good place to start. Perhaps you have a welcome sign up in your entrance or in the room? If you have bag hooks, you could have a named space for their child ready and waiting. Having their child’s main caregiver/s fully available to them, making sure they have had their break already and can be there to support them. If we reflect on the RIE® principles that we practice with the children, we can use these as a guide and apply these to parents too. We show them respect by giving them uninterrupted time and our full attention.
We are so fortunate to be given the opportunity to care for people’s most loved treasures. It is so special to know that someone chose your centre to care for their loved ones, however their trust is not automatically granted. I would hope that they chose our centre because they thought they could trust us, but sometimes proximity to work or home takes priority. I think it is important to research, ask the question itself, why did you pick our centre? What was it that attracted you here? This will give you a good foundation and knowledge base to find out what is important to this family, including what their values are, and what their hopes are for their child.
So how do we continue to build trust with parents? I believe we build trust with parents by trusting them first. They are the experts on their own children. We need to make that clear to them - that we are here to learn from them first and foremost. To gather information; we need to ask questions, listen and be open. We need to meet parents where they are at and celebrate that they have done a good job. Through our conversations with parents we want them to know that we value them.
This means withholding from any judgements. I believe anyone who has learnt about the Educaring® Approach and values its key principles is passionate about the approach. We want to find ways to share the work of Magda Gerber, to advocate for children and to help others to see infants & toddlers through a different lens. But at what point can we do this with parents/families? As Magda said time and time again, “it depends”.
How much does the family know about the Educaring® Approach? Was this what bought them to the centre? Do they practice the philosophy at home? Is the philosophy completely new to them? Perhaps they chose your centre because they liked the garden, or nutrition? I believe we need to tread carefully when introducing our own ideas and beliefs around children’s care with their parents. Especially when prior to coming to you, they may have done things differently.
Have you ever met someone for the first time and they have asked a question that has made you uncomfortable? A question that you felt made a judgment of you, your values and your worth? How did that make you feel? The worst thing we could do to a parent is make them feel judged and feel that their own parenting is in question. Magda Gerber said “A good enough parent, is a good enough parent. But caregivers must be excellent”.
When writing my personal philosophy during my studies I focused on a quote by Maya Angelou “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better”. I completed the RIE® Foundations : Theory and Observation™ course with Sharon Smith in 2017 and throughout the course I needed that quote again. It was an amazing experience and opportunity to look deeper at Magda’s work, but also confronting at the same time. I struggled, with moments of guilt that I had not been doing right by the infants and toddlers in my care. That was my own experience, one that I am glad that I have had as it makes me weary when introducing my own ideas to families. I give time and space to ensure the ideas are welcomed and am sensitive when making suggestions. I know it can be overwhelming when it requires you to reflect on something so ingrained in your practice that you have done daily. This does not mean I do not share the Educaring® Approach, it’s something that I am passionate about sharing the work of Magda. But as I said above I believe we need to tread carefully. We are here to advocate for children and create better learning outcomes for them, but this cannot happen if we break our relationships with families along the way.
How do we protect our relationships with parents? You may have built and established trust with a family but just like relationships in our personal lives, these relationships need to be maintained. Trust can be broken if we are not careful, we need to nurture and protect our relationships. Communication is so important, for example sharing exciting moments in their child’s day is so beneficial. Ask about what has been happening at home. Keep the conversation going! Sometimes there may be discussions that you need to have with a family. Knowing when to have ‘those’ conversations can be tricky, it is all about knowing the person. Reading people is not a skill that can be taught but as we say with the children, observation is key! Observe the parents, read their body language and that will tell you if it is the time to have that conversation. Are they looking tired, stressed or in a rush? When we look at the RIE® principles, predictability is so important. If it is a tough conversation, let the main caregiver or most known person to the family have that conversation. Perhaps prepare them first and let them know you want to have a chat when they come to pick their child up. Put yourself in their shoes, show them the respect you would like to be shown.
We need to treat the parents the way we treat the child. Allow them to be who they are, and appreciate where they are at that moment. My teaching journey has been a long one; so far filled with so much learning, and it is really only just begun. All parents are on their own parenting journey, learning as they go and trying to do right by their own children. We can not tell them how to be, but simply be with them for the journey.
Antonia Fletcher is a Senior Teacher at Oma Rapeti in Freeman’s Bay in Auckland. She completed RIE® Foundations in 2017 with Sharon Smith.