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Developing relationships with children and their families

Developing relationships with children and their families

February 14, 2017 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #31" Developing relationships with children and their families”

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.

INTRO: In this week's episode we discusse the importance of parent-teacher collaboration in early-childhood education. In our conversation with Lynn Arner we talk about the movement towards including family engagement as a new measurement of childcare quality in California.

We also delve into her decision to include parents in her coaching work, as she believes that parents are a child's first teacher and the foundation of their learning. Lynn also gives us some perspective into how the field has evolved over the years, and share some tips for teachers who are trying to connect with parents in a hyper-connected society.

If you're looking to learn about how to engage families by tapping into different modes of communication in this day and age, then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast!
Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Lynn, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

Lynn ARNER: Thank you. Happy to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG: Well, it's great to have you on the show. Let's start right off by asking why you started this organization – Early Years – to help early childhood educators and parents.

ARNER: I worked at the University of California, in Davis, and we would do parent training. And a lot of times parents would come up to me afterwards and say, “Can I meet with you one-on-one? Can we have more conversations?” And so my colleague and I started seeing that there really was this need in our community to reach out to parents and to actually go into their homes and coach them and talk with them. And so we began doing that. We began offering that as another service. And so I started doing coaching with families, and I've always done coaching with teachers. In my role at the university I was actually teaching social interaction with children, and I now do a lot of coaching with healthcare providers around, “How can they more effectively interact with children? How can they help the children to be learning through those interactions?” And so that's a lot of what I do.

SPREEUWENBERG: What are some of those specific training sessions that you offer? What kind of content does that cover, more specifically?

ARNER: The training that I offer for preschool teachers and childcare providers is… I'm in California, and California has a Quality Matrix. We have seven different elements on that matrix. I usually am coaching around those elements of quality, things like the quality of that interaction that they're having with the children. Also the environment, qualifications that the teachers have, so that we know the more that teachers know, the higher the quality of their interactions are going to be. And so that's a lot of the coaching that I do with the providers.

And so it is around those topics, screenings and assessments and those kinds of things. But then with the parents, the topics that I cover oftentimes are around challenging behavior because that's the most popular topic. That’s what everybody wants information about. But also anything from temperament to… sometimes parents want me to come in and talk about biting specifically, or gun play, or some topic that they're really dealing with at that time.

SPREEUWENBERG: Got it. Now just sticking firstly with the teachers, you mentioned screening and assessments. You're doing coaching on how to improve quality relative to the Quality Matrix provided by the state. But obviously the screening and assessments are about measurement. How, typically, does that happen? Is there any guidance or advice to educators about, “Where do you spend your time on those genuine quality child interactions versus just measuring?”

ARNER: We like to do assessments as more providing some background information for us that we use – like the ages and stages questionnaire – just to see, “Are there any red flags in this child development? Is there anything that we should be looking at further? Yes, there's always data collection while you're interacting. We've always got our little notepad in our pocket and we're jotting down things that the children that, or taking pictures of things that happen in the moment – that structure that they just built – that we want to record.

But it's also… those rich conversations are going to be the best interactions that we can have, and are going to really lead to that development continuing for that child. And so it is a difficult balance to say, “How much am I supposed to be really recording and taking notes? How much should I really be interacting?” We want teachers interacting. We want them there on the floor with the child, engaged with the activity. And later you can jot yourself some notes about what you want, the data that you want to keep for that assessment. It is a delicate balance.

SPREEUWENBERG: I think the reflection with having that information is also important. So it's definitely the balance. Now, for on the parents’ side of things, you sounded like you were a bit surprised that some of the parents came to you and said, “Hey, we'd love to speak to you a bit further.” Do you think that's a trend, where parents want to be more involved in their children's education and learn more about how they can deal with things like challenging behaviour?

ARNER: I think that there's always some parents who want to. I don't know that it's necessarily changed over time. I think that there are there's always been those parents who are much more engaged and are willing to say, “I want some help. I want I want to partner with you and help my child.” And I think other times there's some resistance on parents. They don't want anyone to come in, and they might judge them.

I think that's the greatest fear is that judgment: “You may think I'm a bad parent.” And so [they are] not willing to open themselves up. But those that are, I think that they're really ready to have those conversations and get some ideas about how else they could do it. We don't get any training on how to be a parent; we just have them. There they are. And anything that comes up, we're desperately searching the internet and reading the parenting books and trying to figure out, “How should I respond?” It's almost like we always say, “We should have a manual for parenting our children. But it's almost like there's too many manuals out there. Which one do I listen to? What do I do?”

And so I think that when you're there doing a parent workshop, they're saying, “Hey, you're somebody I could actually talk to. You could come in and help me think through this situation.” And that's I think what's appealing to parents. And so they’ve asked me to do that.

SPREEUWENBERG: And given that you have a history of working with early-childhood education programs and teachers directly, why do you feel like it was important to spend your time working more directly with parents

ARNER: Parents are… it’s that saying, “Parents are the child's first teacher.” And I really believe that. The parents are the ones who [are] going to be there consistently. The teachers come and go. You have one teacher for a year and then another teacher comes in and it changes. The parents are there. It's that primary relationship that needs to be strong, and everything that a child needs the parent can provide… providing them with the knowledge and the information and the assistance and the support to be able to do that for their child.

SPREEUWENBERG: Do you feel there's also a role to be played by the teachers or the educators to more proactively get the parents involved in their child's learning development and challenges in the preschool programs?

ARNER: Absolutely. This year in California they actually added one more element, and it's family engagement. That piece is so critical. We don't get a child alone. We get a child within a family. And we're never just working with that child. They are a part of their family and we need to be communicating with that family and having a relationship with them as well as with the child.

SPREEUWENBERG: And from the teacher-educator standpoint, what are some of the challenges that you've seen with getting the families more engaged or involved?

ARNER: I think it always comes down to time – they're going to work, they're busy. So much life happening that it's hard for them to stop and take time to fill out that assessment that you've asked them to, or to come to that parent workshop, or to come in and watch their child for a little while in the program to see what you're trying to communicate about. It's that time issue. They're busy. That's the biggest hurdle.

SPREEUWENBERG: And what about from the teacher's perspective? Do you find that we have sufficient time? Or [are] there also time challenges on their end?

ARNER: I don't know that there's so much time challenges. I mean, it is more priorities, whether programs are willing to have that evening meeting, to have that lunchtime meeting, whatever it is. Sometimes it’s a compensation issue from above, whether the supervisors are willing to compensate them for their time, or whether it's after-hours – you do it on your own dime. So that sometimes there's an issue.

But I think most of the teachers realize that the more communication that they have with parents, the better equipped they are to actually deal with that child. The parent is the expert on that child. They have all this information that we don't have. And so being able to communicate with them and work together really does benefit the child and helps things run more smoothly. And so I think that once a teacher has had that experience she's, like, “I’m good to go. I'm always going to connect with that parent because that’s what really helps me.”

SPREEUWENBERG: Once they see the benefits, that makes a lot of sense. And do you have any specific strategies or tips that teachers or educators can use to improve their involvement and engagement of families?

ARNER: - That relationship matters. That's the key, just to really pay attention to: “Are we interacting with that family, as well as with the child?” And so the ways that I think that the teachers that I've spoken with have found the most effective is through newsletters and e-mails and texts and things that go home. That's another mode of communication, because that face-to-face can tend to be really quick, and they don't have the time to stop and chat. But you can do all the conversation starters and all the background information through those other means of communication. And then that's when you can set up the time to have that more in-depth conversation.

And so I think that what happens is: “Oh, that parent keeps running out the door. I can't catch them.” And that if there's no other mode of communication then there's no conversation starters. There’s no way to get that communication going. And so the more that the teachers and providers reach out to the parents and try to communicate through different avenues, the stronger that gets, that the parents really say, “Oh, they do care. They do want me to know about these things they do.” It's all those little trails you're leaving for them to come and communicate with you.

SPREEUWENBERG: Our app – HiMama – is meant to improve parent engagement and create more of a partnership between teachers and parents. It's through technology. And one of the points of feedback that we get quite often is, “We try to focus more on face-to-face.” And, “We don't want the technology to get in the way of our face-to-face communication.” But sort of we frame it the same way as you just did, where we want to see that as something that's complementary to the face-to-face and not a replacement. And keeping in mind that different families prefer to receive communications in different ways. For better or for worse, parents are busy and some of them prefer face-to-face, but some of them might prefer email or a text message.

And I think it also goes back to the point of – which I try to stress a lot – you have to make things as easy as possible for families if you want them to engage and be involved.

ARNER: I would agree. They don't want to do the extra work. So that falls on us to do that. I'm also a grandmother. My daughter, I know, she's tied to that cell phone and that the text messages are going to communicate the quickest with her. And so I think that we have to also recognize that our world is changing, and that there are these other modes of communication that people are very hooked into. And so, how do we tap into that as well?

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally. The way I refer to it is, “the hyper-connected society.” People want information that's timely, it's relevant, and they want it to be easy. And – whether you agree with that or not – I think it does fall on you as an educator or as an administrator as your responsibility to get the parents involved through whatever channel makes it easiest for them.

ARNER: Absolutely.

SPREEUWENBERG: How long have you been working with teachers and parents?

ARNER: For 30-plus years. For a long time.

SPREEUWENBERG: And for the early-childhood educators teachers that are listening to this, what is some wisdom that you can hand down to them, to say “I wish I would have known this or done something differently 30 years ago that I know now,” and would love to tell other people out there?

ARNER: You’ve heard me talk about how important I think that that relationship is. And I think that, equally important, is the relationship that the provider the teacher has with that child. And so whenever I'm struggling with a child, I realize I need to get to know them better. I need to connect with them more. I need to know, “Where are they coming from?” and what's going on with them. Just taking a little time to spend one-on-one with them… Yes, there's all the other children around. But really sitting down and focusing on them – and we have the eyes in the back of our head as we're doing it – but getting that real communication with them and figuring out, “What do I like about this little guy right here? What do I like about this person?” That gives us a more whole picture.

Oftentimes we're focused on that behavior that's bothering us, or that one thing that is difficult to deal with. Once we develop that relationship with that child, there's mutual respect there. And that goes a long way in communicating with the child and changing their behavior and helping them to get with the program and then figure out what we're doing.

And so I really feel [that] making sure that every one of those children and that you have a relationship with them is really key. Sometimes when a child is more difficult we back away. Instead, go in further. Develop that relationship even stronger to support that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 100 percent. In fact, we recently did a podcast with a guest [Kathy Brodie, Ep. 30] who talked about this and termed it “sustained shared thinking”. But it's all about having that genuine conversation with children, where they're providing real input into the conversation as well. So that's certainly a theme on the podcast and a very interesting topic that I think can be explored a lot further by educators. So very good. Yeah, very good wisdom to pass along.

ARNER: One of the other things that I think is one of our issues with childcare is our ratios and group sizes. Research has shown over and over again that the lower the ratios and the smaller the group size, the better. That's when children can actually learn. But we tend to go for, “How do we make the most money?” Those larger classrooms and less teachers per-child.

They really need to have that attention. Children learn everything in relationships. And so if they don't have that person that they can actually catch their eye and have that conversation with and know that you're interested in what [they’re] doing, they're not going to be learning as much. They're not going to be as engaged. They're not going to be progressing as much in their development.

And so we really do need to pay attention in our field, too. What are those group sizes and those ratios that we have in the classroom and in our childcare programs? And whether we're really making sure that children are getting the attention that they need, and that they have an adult they know they can go to.

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally. So I guess more a message to policymakers, owners, executive directors, to keep that in mind, that in order for the teachers to have those quality conversations they need to have those ratios that allow them to do it right.

ARNER: Exactly.

SPREEUWENBERG: What is exciting to you in early-childhood education right now?

ARNER: That is a good question. I think that the most exciting thing to me… I had a colleague who left the field for a little while and then came back in, and we were using the C.L.A.S.S. Tool - the Classroom Assessment Scoring System - and it's all around and teacher-child interaction. And that wasn't a part of what we were looking at when we were assessing programs when she left the field. And I think that that is exciting, that it's not just: “Are the children washing their hands? How many toys do you have on the shelf?” It's really about: How are you interacting? What kind of questions are you asking? Are you really engaging them in that learning? And that I think is an exciting shift that we're making to saying, “That's an important piece. That's an element we need to make sure is a part of our quality.”

SPREEUWENBERG: So it's almost like a way to be able to track whether we're having these quality conversations and meaningful interactions in a practical way?

ARNER: - Exactly. We always knew it was important but we didn't necessarily measure it. So this is our beginning-to-do-that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. Now if I'm listening to this podcast and I want to learn a little bit more about your work or who you are – maybe I want to get in touch with you – where would I go to learn more?

ARNER: So I have a website. It's a very basic website, probably because I developed it quite a while ago and it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles. But my business is called Early Years. And so it's EarlyYears.us. You can find contact information there and information about the services that we provide.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Thanks so much. So I don't think anyone will argue that family engagement is a very critical aspect of improving outcomes for children. I think there's a lot that both teachers and parents can learn about how to improve the partnership between teachers and parents for the overall benefit for children. So thanks so much for your input on this on this subject, Lynn, and thanks for coming on the show.

ARNER: You're very welcome.

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