- Discuss the significance of establishing and maintaining communication with families.
- Reflect on your own ideas and experiences associated with communicating with families.
- Plan activities that promote communication with all families in your program.
"Parents are the key mediators of experience for infants and toddlers, and...their influence is critical during this period of rapid development" - Powell & Dunlap, 2010
Close your eyes and picture the qualities you want in your communication with families. What do you notice about the words you use, tone, pace and the feel of your everyday actions and routines? Ask yourself, “What am I doing to honor communication and relationships with families?” Your most important partner in this work is the infant’s and toddler’s family. It’s helpful to find a common understanding, rhythm and approach to family communication. The enrollment process, for example, can be considered the beginning of relationships. Future daily interactions are then supported by ongoing communication, systems and policies that provide multiple opportunities for communication and collaboration.
The information in this lesson was adapted from the Infant Toddler Family Engagement course. Refer to the Family Engagement course for more extensive discussions on various topics related to engaging and working with families in your early care and learning setting.
Importance of Establishing Relationships and Communication with Families
Several research studies show that positive relationships between teachers, children and families are essential to learning (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Relationships can be built and strengthened through communication between caregivers and families that occurs during hellos and goodbyes, as well as in more formal activities such as a planned family meeting.
All of these opportunities require you, as an infant and toddler caregiver, to be aware of many things, including tone, choice of words, and nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and body language. When you are aware of these characteristics, you can better communicate in ways that are most supportive to and respectful of families while keeping in mind this may be the family’s first experience with caregivers in an early care and learning program. Even experienced caregivers will not know more about infants and toddlers than their families. Families will be eager to know how their infant or toddler is doing, and you can support comfortable communication by offering encouraging responses and asking for clarification if something is not understood.
You can also ensure that each moment offers sensitive communication, active listening and opportunities for making connections. Developing relationships and communicating with families can help bridge the home and care settings. The Extension Alliance for Better Childcare recommends the following 7 steps caregivers can take to establish effective communication with parents:
- Be interested. Show genuine interest in each family and convey that interest in each interaction
- Be humble. Although you may have years of caregiver experience and knowledge remember that the parent is the expert on their child. Our goal is to work with parents as a partner to support the well-being of their child.
- Be respectful. It is important to maintain an attitude of respect for the parent’s role and for the culture, beliefs, values and experiences that shape their decisions.
- Be inviting. Let families know that their input is welcome. Look for opportunities to invite families to share and communicate with you. Ask questions that show you are interested and are paying attention.
- Be a good listener. Practice active listening skills to show that you are listening and invested in the conversation.
- Be positive. Find and share the positives about a child’s learning, behavior and experiences. Don’t communicate only when there is a problem or concern, or a need from a parent. This could damage the relationship and cause parents to avoid all communications
- Be creative. There are many ways to communicate with families. Newsletters text messages, bulletin boards to name a few. Take advantage of as many of these methods as necessary to meet the needs and preferences of families.
Building a successful partnership with families is beneficial to you, the child and the family. Research says:
- Programs that demonstrate and support partnering with families tend to have families that feel more confident and comfortable in supporting their children’s development (Wilcox & Weber, 2001).
- When services incorporate practices that promote partnerships with families, outcomes for families and children are improved including parenting capabilities and positive child behavior and functioning (Dempsey & Keen, 2008; Dunst, Trivette & Hamby, 2008).
Establishing communication and meaningful relationships with families is a critical aspect of your work, and when it comes to families of infants and toddlers with special learning needs (who may be simultaneously interacting with several different professionals from varying agencies or disciplines) establishing relationships with effective communication becomes even more important. As an infant and toddler caregiver, your role in helping families develop goals for their children and coming up with ideas for achieving those goals can have a tremendous impact on these families’ lives. You will work closely with your trainer to meet the needs of young children with disabilities, but it is important for you to know some key terms.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal education law, mandates the development of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs) for children who qualify for either special education or early intervention. IEPs will be completed by the local school district and IFSPs will be completed by the local early intervention agency. CYP Professionals do not complete EAPs, IEPs, or IFSPs. However, you may be asked by the family to participate on the team for a child’s IEP or IFSP. Each IEP or IFSP describes the educational program designed by the team to meet the child’s or student’s unique needs and must contain specific information about the child or student, as required by state and federal law.
For families new to this process, your role can be very important. Families may view you as their liaison or advocate to help them understand the system, access meaningful services, and set goals that can make a difference in their infant’s or toddler’s life.
Maintaining Ongoing Communication with Families
Sharing information about infants and toddlers in ways meaningful to families is critical to maintaining ongoing communication. Whenever possible, use data (e.g., observations, examples of growth and development) to convey information about infants and toddlers with their families. Data can help family members understand that the information you are sharing with them is based on instances where you observed and generated information in an organized manner, as opposed to sharing things based on your personal views or opinions. As part of your work with infants and toddlers, it is likely that you collect developmental information using assessments, and it is critical that families have access to that information. This fosters engagement and allows families to follow their infant’s or toddler’s developmental progress over time. Along the same lines, invite families to observe their child in your care setting. Schedule some time after the observation to talk about what family members noticed and address any questions they may have.
Families will also help set the pace for their communication with you. It is important to acknowledge it can take time for families to develop trust with the caregiver and feel safe, comfortable and friendly. Different forms and methods of communication or can play an important role in easing the process. Using a combination of communication styles, or forms, with families might work best in meeting their needs. It’s also important to keep in mind there are likely to be a variety of factors that create challenges to communicating with families such as language barriers, cultural differences, or overwhelming family problems and crises. Take a moment to think about and list a few of the barriers that you have faced when communicating and building relationships with families. What methods of communication worked to break through the barriers?
There may be times when you must have conversations with families about difficult issues. It is important to prepare for the conversation keeping in mind that your shared goal with the family is supporting the child. A problem-solving approach will help you and parents work together to address concerns. This approach involves:
- identifying the problem
- Collaborating with the family to brainstorm as many solutions as possible
- jointly evaluating the pros and cons
- deciding on a solution to try
- putting the solution into action
- reviewing the solution after a period of time.
One of the keys to this approach is talking about concerns when they come up. Problems usually don’t go away by themselves. And if you leave them to escalate they might be more difficult to repair later. (Effective communication with parents: for professionals, 2018)
Involving Families in Young Children’s Communication and Language Development
The interactions that infants and toddlers have with adults influence how they develop and learn. It has become increasingly clear that the more infants and toddlers experience shared interactions and connection, the more effective they become as communicators.
Keeping relationships at the focus of all your communication efforts with families can help create and maintain an environment where people are seen, heard, acknowledged and celebrated for their strengths and who they are. How would you describe your approach to first interactions with families? Think about how your efforts immediately welcome families into your early care and learning setting. In addition, consider the following:
- Review the documents used when enrolling an infant or toddler into the program. What other documents are shared with families? How are these documents shared with families? Think about the ways these documents are connected to infants’, toddlers’ and families’ strengths and fond memories, as well as how these documents capture required information.
- Use photos of infants, toddlers and their families throughout the care setting, as well as to identify special places to keep personal belongings.
- Ask current families to help welcome new families.
As an infant and toddler caregiver, you want infants, toddlers and families to feel welcomed and form strong relationships in the early care and learning setting. You also recognize the importance of keeping infants and toddlers connected to their families when they are with you. Review and complete the Role of the Family activity. Check off all of the ways in which you feel families can be involved and add some ideas of your own. Share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.
Creating a welcome book for families is a way to complement the formal parent handbook they receive and offer an additional opportunity to introduce yourself and your program. Review Create a Welcome Book for Families activity for helpful suggestions.
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