Working with Parents in the Early Years


Ute Ward

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    For my parents

    Für meine Eltern

    About the Author and Editors

    Ute Ward Ute Ward has been involved in the Early Years sector for more than 20 years in a range of different roles and contexts. She started as a parent, volunteer and staff member in her local pre-school. Recognising the vital role parents play in a child's life she moved to working more directly with adults for the Pre-school Learning Alliance and then for a Sure Start Local Programme. Four years as children's centre manager followed during which time she gained the National Professional Qualification in Integrated Centre Leadership and her Master's in Education, both contributing to her strong interest in supporting the practitioners who work with children and parents. In October 2011 Ute became Senior Lecturer in Early Years at the University of Hertfordshire where she teaches on Foundation Degrees and on undergraduate and postgraduate courses as well as supporting the Early Years Professional Status Programme.

    Lyn Trodd Lyn Trodd is Head of Multi-Professional Education at the University of Hertfordshire. Lyn has published and edited a range of articles, national and international conference papers and books focusing on self-efficacy in the child and the role of the practitioner. Her doctoral research explored how autobiographical stories of practice shared in interprofessional learning communities influence the professional identity of adults who work with young children. Lyn is the Chair of the National Network of Sector-Endorsed Foundation Degrees in Early Years.

    Gill Goodliff Gill Goodliff is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the Open University where she leads the Early Years Qualifications team. She is on the Committee of the National Network of Sector-Endorsed Foundation Degrees in Early Years and from 2006 to 2012 was involved in the development and delivery of four pathways leading to Early Years Professional Status. Gill has edited and contributed to a number of published core texts for Early Years practitioners. Her doctoral research explored young children's expressions of spirituality and her research interests continue to centre on under threes and the professional identities of adults, particularly those working with the youngest children.

    Lyn Trodd and Gill Goodliff have worked on this title since the publication of the first edition in 2009. Lyn and Gill were series editors for the Achieving EYPS Series and this title was previously published in the series.


    My thanks go to my colleagues, past and present. I have learnt so much from them, and with them, that this book could not have been written without them. I am also grateful to Lyn Trodd for encouraging me and enabling me to write this book. But most of all I have to thank all the parents and children I have worked with over the years – they have been and still are a constant source of insight and inspiration.

    Ute Ward,May 2013


    Years ago I left the small village pre-school where I was working as play group leader because I felt very frustrated. Seeing most children for only two or three mornings a week I seemed to make little difference in their lives. I changed my career to focus on working with adults, initially as a pre-school development officer and then as tutor, thinking that my scope to enhance children's lives would be greater by working with parents in preschool committees and with staff members. Several years of Sure Start Local Programme experience and hands-on parent involvement and community development work later I realised that it is not a question of working with either children or adults but a question of working with both, parents and children. This is the key to improving the well-being and learning of children. I know now that all those years ago I should not have left my preschool; I should have stayed and started working differently and more intensively with the parents in addition to my work with their children.

    This book is about the more intensive work with parents. It explores why it is important, how the relationship between Early Years practitioners and parents can be improved, and what the challenges are in this partnership. The book is of interest to all practitioners who work with parents and want to extend their practice in this area. Each chapter focusses on a different aspect of the work with parents making this book a valuable resource for undergraduate and Foundation Degree students of Early Years and childhood studies as well as postgraduate students and trainee teachers.

    Although the focus for this book is very strongly on the adults in a child's life, and children often do not get mentioned for several pages, it does not mean that the child is not important. The whole purpose of the partnership between professional and parent is the well-being, learning and development of the child. The details of how you can work effectively with children are, however, explored elsewhere. Here the parent is at the centre of attention so that you can explore how you can change your way of working with parents to engage them deeply in their children's learning while also addressing their learning and development together with your own.

    Reading the first three chapters in this book will assist you to examine your attitudes to parents and your approach to working in partnership with them. Chapter 1 explores the enduring contribution parents make to their children's lives. Chapter 2 focusses on assumptions and prejudices towards parents and families and outlines some values and beliefs which support effective partnership working between professionals and parents. Chapter 3 examines the relationships between parents, children and professionals in more detail. Chapters 46 and 8 will lead you to exploring the different practical aspects of parental engagement and involvement, especially with parents described as ‘hard-to-reach’. In addition, Chapter 9 will highlight how you can work with other professionals from outside your setting to support children and their families more holistically. Chapter 7 is dedicated to adult learning, and Chapter 10 outlines the link between partnership working in Early Years settings and community development work. The emphasis throughout the book is twofold: on the one hand it draws a link between research and theory and daily work, and on the other it aims to stimulate reflection and discussion leading to improvements in practice. The reflective and practical tasks in each chapter help you to explore your own practice but can also be used to stimulate discussion in your setting or staff team. Furthermore, you will find two or three self-assessment questions at the end of each chapter which are designed to enforce some of the key learning points. Many of the examples, research papers and case studies refer to pre-schools, Sure Start Local Programmes and children's centres but are just as relevant to day nurseries or nursery classes. The term ‘Early Years setting’ which I use throughout the book is deliberately wide because many of the principles and practices discussed apply regardless of the exact environment you work in. Where I use the term ‘Early Years practitioner’ I include all staff members working in an Early Years setting, while the term ‘Early Years professional’ refers to a staff member in a leading role with responsibility for shaping practice and managing a staff team. With the terms ‘child’ and ‘parent’ I alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns to avoid the dominance of one gender over the other. On occasions, I write about ‘your children’ in which case I am referring to the children in your setting rather than your own children.

    Depending on your experience and the context you work in, much of the contents of this book may already be familiar to you and the work with parents may seem quite simple and easy. Or many of the book's ideas and suggestions may be completely new to you and you feel overwhelmed by how difficult the work with parents appears. Working with parents is neither the one, nor the other; like all human interaction it is complex, at times demanding and challenging, and sometimes very frustrating, but it is also highly stimulating, occasionally very moving and often greatly rewarding. And most importantly, it makes a real difference to the children you work with.

  • Answers to Self-Assessment Questions

    Chapter 1
    • What do children gain from their parents’ involvement in their Early Years setting?

      When parents get involved in their children's schools or Early Years settings, teachers have higher expectations for their children. This in turn enhances the children's levels of achievement. Children also gain because their parents’ understanding of play and learning increases and they become more confident in their role as parents.

    Chapter 2
    • Explain the importance of jointly held values and beliefs regarding the work with parents in an Early Years setting.

      If individual staff members base their work with parents on different values, parents and children will get mixed messages which may lead to confusion and uncertainty. There may also be scope for discrimination and injustice if there are different approaches and value systems within the setting.

    Chapter 3
    • Outline the importance of early attachment between child and parent.

      The early relationship between the child and her parent or primary caregiver forms the blueprint for later relationships and therefore has an influence on the relationship between Early Years practitioner and child. Furthermore, both the attachment between parent and child and the attachment between Early Years practitioner and child correlate to children's adjustment in school and therefore influence the child's educational attainments.

    • In the light of parents’ comments about how they would like services to be delivered, how should professionals relate to and communicate with parents?

      Professionals should seek parents’ views on matters that affect them and their families and take them into account when planning services. They should treat parents with respect and acknowledge their role and competence in the education of their children. The ethos of the relationship should be one of collaboration with a strong emphasis on open, honest and frequent communication.

    Chapter 4
    • Explain the varying role of the Early Years practitioner on the continuum of access or process of engagement with services.

      Making the initial contact: the practitioner has to meet the parents where they are, give them information on services and help them decide which ones are right for them.

      Introduction to and take-up of a service: the practitioner encourages regular use of the service, helps the family to get to know other service users and ensures they can participate in all activities within the service. The practitioner also considers how the family could progress and develop by exploring with them the use of other services.

      Autonomous and continuous take-up of services: the practitioner steps into the background and no longer needs to encourage or facilitate use of services but remains available to provide further information or other development opportunities.

    • What are the main features of an effective parenting course?

      Effective parenting courses link theory with practice and involve both parent and child, that is to say parents should be able to use newly learned skills immediately or try out strategies that have been discussed as soon as possible. It should also be supported by clear and accessible course notes and material and be delivered by an experienced, well-trained staff member. The programme for the course should be well-structured and cohesive, and have clearly defined objectives while still having the scope to address parents’ wider needs.

    Chapter 5
    • What are the different types of parental involvement in children's learning and schooling?

      Epstein (2011) distinguishes the areas of basic family matters and of basic school matters, volunteering and helping out in school, supporting learning activities in the home, contributions to leadership and governance, links between the school community and other community organisations.

    • What are the main strengths and weaknesses of a parent forum which includes parents as well as staff members from the Early Years setting?


      • Parents and staff members can develop better relationships in a more informal environment.
      • There is better communication between parents and staff members.
      • Parents gain a greater understanding of the setting and the issues concerning staff members.


      • Parents may not feel able to speak up when there are too many staff members present.
      • The forum does not represent the parental view or voice.
      • Staff members may dominate the meetings.
    Chapter 6
    • Explain how data collection can support your work with BME families.

      Data about your local community and the families using your services will help you to understand the home environment and the families children grow up in. You will be able to see the range of different faiths, beliefs and values represented and can plan your work accordingly. By comparing user data with community data you will be able to judge whether you reach all parts of your community or whether you need to target some groups specifically. Ongoing data collection and monitoring will alert you to changes in the ways in which families use your centre and potentially to problems within a family.

    • What are the main benefits and potential drawbacks of employing a staff member from a BME group to your Early Years team?

      Easy access to information on the BME group.Work with BME group may be seen as role for this one staff member alone.
      Help with communication through translations or interpreting.Fewer staff members make the effort to work across cultural or ethnic boundaries.
      Increasing the general understanding of diversity and equality issues.Unaddressed prejudices and stereotypes may make integration of the new staff member difficult.
      Opportunity to offer culturally sensitive activities and events.
    • What are the main factors which facilitate a father's involvement in his children's learning?

      The mother of the child is also strongly interested in the child's learning and development. The father lives with the child. If the father does not live with the child, it is helpful if he has a positive relationship with the mother. The Early Years setting explicitly invites and addresses the father. He is consulted about his views and preferences before activities are planned. Events or sessions are less discussion-based and offer more scope for joint activity with the child.

    Chapter 7
    • What are the key characteristics of adult learners?
      • Their self-concept is further developed which means they see themselves as independent, self-directing personalities.
      • They have considerable life experience which shapes their identities, thoughts and behaviours.
      • They are motivated to learn by particular problems or dilemmas in their lives, often linked to changes in their social roles, rather than by learning to please others or achieve grades.
      • Their learning is problem-based rather than subject-based, that is to say they want to find a solution to their particular dilemma rather than gain all the understanding and knowledge linked to a limited subject.
    • What are the benefits and challenges of having staff members with different learning styles working together?
      Issues are explored more thoroughly in all their theoretical and practical aspects.It may be difficult to reach agreement on the right course of action.
      A more dynamic and stimulating environment as colleagues approach work differently.If there is only one team member with a particular learning style, he or she may feel isolated or sidelined.
      The team provides good checks-and-balances as theorists explore activists’ actions etc.There may be tension in the team if members do not understand their differences.
    • Explain the role of the Early Years professional in relation to the learning partnership of parent, professional and child.

      The Early Years professional has a dual role. Firstly, she is a learner within the partnership directly engaging with parents and children learning from and with them. Secondly, she is the facilitator of the learning partnership for all colleagues and families in her setting. She shapes the framework and ethos in which this partnership is placed and encourages colleagues to actively engage in their own learning and support parents to learn (in addition to enhancing the children's learning).

    Chapter 8
    • When you are trying to resolve a conflict and want to achieve positive outcomes, which steps could you take?

      There are three steps:

      Assertion    Negotiation    Problem-solving

      When these fail, mediation is a further option. This involves inviting a third party to come and work with all parties involved to resolve the conflict.

    • What are the particular issues for grandparents who assume full parental responsibility for their grandchildren?

      Grandparents who become parents to their grandchildren often grieve for the loss of or separation from their own children. They also lose the more supporting, caring and fun-based relationship with their grandchildren when they have to assume the role of authoritative parents. In dealing with practical matters they may be at a disadvantage if their own knowledge of schooling, health matters and so on relates to circumstances and expectations that were relevant several decades ago.

    Chapter 9
    • Which communication strategies can you use to communicate effectively with parents when there are concerns about the well-being and safety of their child?
      • Show empathy.
      • Use open questions.
      • Use reflections.
      • Emphasise strengths and positives.
    • What may help you to improve your work with professionals from other agencies?

      A willingness to change and engage with new ways of working; strong commitment at all levels within your setting to work in partnership with others to support children; very good communication skills; ability to clarify terms you use and you hear others use; for your setting to provide a clear understanding of your roles and responsibilities; training so that you are clear about CAF processes and procedures; time to engage with other professionals.

    Chapter 10
    • Explain the impact empowered parents have on their children.

      Empowered parents feel more confident in their roles as parents and generally have better relationships with their children. They present positive role models to their children, and their individual or collective action can improve the environment in which children grow up.

    • Explain the importance of empowering staff members in the context of community empowerment.

      To be able to empower parents and other members of the community staff members have to work in an environment which respects and values them, be confident and clear about their roles and responsibilities, and believe that their contribution can make a difference. Their capacity to empower others is dependent on their own ability and freedom to act and express themselves.

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