Families, like people, are unique. They all have their own routines, traditions, ways of communicating, behaviour, social skills, belief system. The list of how families are different from each other is endless.

For staff in early childhood centres building relationships and engaging with families is pivotal to children feeling welcome, valued, accepted, happy and self- confident. This in turn leads to good outcomes for children, families and staff.

Young children are dependent in so many ways on the emotional wellbeing of their family. They are keen observers and listeners and can quickly pick up on joy, excitement, calmness, surprise, contentment, unhappiness, anger, doubt, fear, confusion. Children observe and listen wherever they are and gauge whether this is a place in which they feel safe and valued. They observe,” Are my family members, usually the parents, letting me know they are unsure, uncomfortable and therefore so am I”.

It is vitally important that early childhood centre staff engage families in ways that encourage, and nurture relationships built on honesty, a shared interest in their children, open communication, respect, and sensitivity.

The following ideas are good places to start and can be discussed at staff meetings and implemented by all the team.

  • Acknowledge and greet all families when they arrive and leave the centre.
    This may be a verbal greeting, a wave, a smile. Acknowledgment signifies I see you; I welcome you or I say farewell until next time.
  • Listening is paramount to a relationship.
    Trying to listen and respond appropriately while working with children can be challenging. Listening requires eye contact, concentration and a response that matches the information we are hearing. You may need to make a time to meet with parents if the issue is complex or requires more time than you have when families arrive or leave a centre. There are always exceptions, if a family is in a crisis or an issue has arisen that is causing distress. All teams should have a plan that enables a staff member to engage with a family in a time of need. Having a prepared list of where families can access more formal support is always a good idea.
  • Think about the information you request from families.
    What is essential to you may appear intrusive and at times upsetting for parents. Take time to explain what you need and why. A parent who is unwilling to fill out forms or provide information may need your assistance to do so. Be patient and offer your support. We have all been in a situation where having someone sit beside us is all we need. Keep in mind that every family has had experiences, that when shared, may elicit expressions of joy or sadness. Always be prepared for a reaction that may be different than the one you expect.
  • Reflect on how you talk to individual families.
    One approach does not suit everyone. Remember we don’t know everything that is happening in a parent’s life and what is small to us may be a large issue to them. We all make decisions that with hindsight we wouldn’t have made so try not to rush parents into decision making. Allow them time to get back to you. Staff should do the same – take time to respond to parents. Reflect, consider, be honest and give a timeframe in which you will get back to them.
  • It may be in people’s nature to quickly observe and judge others. It has been my experience that parents are doing the best they can within the context of their family. It may not be what we would do but is the best that family can do at the time. Our conversations need to be supportive and non-judgemental, not allowing our personal feelings to override our professional engagement with the family. This needs to be balanced with our responsibilities to children’s wellbeing.
  • Ensure information given to parents is balanced.
    We all know children can have some challenges in their day and yes, we do need to inform parents. However, hearing only negative information can take over from the wonderful things that have happened in their child’s day. Assign one staff member to talk with a parent about an issue because the more they hear about something the bigger it becomes.
  • Lastly, parents know their child better than anyone else. We need to acknowledge this.

The points above are just a few ideas you can implement to build a relationship with families. Remember that most important is the first message you convey to families. If you are welcoming, interested, respectful and willing to listen and engage you have already begun to build a relationship.