- Teach the importance of effective communication skills and model good communication strategies with staff members and families.
- Identify the developmental stages of relationships and strategies for supporting staff through those stages.
- Utilize reflective supervision to support staff as they build and sustain relationships with families.
The Importance of Communication
An essential component of family engagement is the use of effective communication strategies. Positive communication is perhaps the most powerful tool that staff can use with families. Effective communication helps to inform, reassure, and engage families. A single conversation, positive or negative, can set the tone for a family’s opinion of classroom staff, so it is essential to emphasize the importance of effective communication. Effective communication also helps staff learn about children and families and be aware of any changes in the child’s life. Communication and engagement support the development and learning of children, strengthens parent competence and confidence, and provides a source of comfort and support in times of need.
Positive communication and relationships with families help to build trust. Trust is an important part of helping to make sure that you (a) maintain partnership with families and (b) work as a team with families to help children meet their goals. Trust between families and staff makes families feel good about the program and its ability to meet their child’s needs. In your role, you should prioritize creating and maintaining trust with all families.
Within your program, there should be a specific plan as to how to engage families throughout the year. Though families’ participation is voluntary, it is your job to make them feel welcome by actively encouraging involvement. Program activities should reflect families’ interests, values, and needs to promote participation. Additionally, your program may have a family involvement committee. This committee is composed of family members who encourage communication and involvement with the goal of strengthening and supporting the well-being of children and families. A family involvement committee is a resource and asset to your program and the staff as families may discuss issues or concerns and suggest changes to improve family satisfaction and involvement. Refer to your program’s policies to determine your role in creating a plan to increase family involvement.
A strong partnership between staff and families is built on effective and positive communication. Effective and positive communication skills help to make sure that (a) accurate information is shared, (b) expectations are shared, and (c) trust is established. As a Program Manager, you will need to help staff develop communication skills, which are especially important when concerns arise. There are two important things to consider when helping staff and families resolve concerns: the level of urgency of the concern and the ability of the people involved to communicate well. Even when the problem seems small, if the family and staff are not able to communicate effectively, the problem can be difficult to resolve.
When issues come to your attention, you will need to gather as much information about the concern as possible so you understand what the true problems are and how to support communication between those involved. You may need to meet with families and staff members. A meeting with the family and staff members can allow everyone to share their thoughts and feelings and agree on a plan for resolution.
When family members voice a concern that is not easily resolved, policies and procedures must be followed and that may require necessary paperwork be completed. You will need to help staff learn policies and procedures when families have concerns and how to complete any required paperwork. You may also need to remind staff of their responsibilities when concerns arise. Classroom staff may need administrative assistance. Some staff members will be more likely to seek help than others, and it will be important for you to communicate appropriate times to bring a matter to your attention. You are in an important position to help resolve concerns between families and staff members, and also to help teachers gain skills to use in the future. When you have the opportunity to talk with staff members about a concern, help the staff member (a) process his or her emotions, (b) think about the family’s position on the matter, (c) think about the causes of any misunderstandings, and (d) to empathize with the child and family.
Finding the “Right” Time to Communicate with Families
Although communication with families should be ongoing throughout the year, you should help staff members understand the appropriate times for certain conversations with families. For example, imagine staff members are struggling to support a child with challenging behavior. The staff members might feel it is appropriate to discuss a behavior support plan at pick-up time. This approach, however, does not allow the family to prepare themselves for the conversation. Talk with staff members about planning ahead for difficult conversations: how will these conversations be planned? Where and when are they best to occur? Who will be involved? When staff members need to discuss serious issues with families, a formal discussion should be scheduled. This will maximize the likelihood that all parties will be satisfied with the outcome. Families will feel respected and able to prepare in an environment that focuses on outcomes and collaboration. This kind of outcome cannot occur at the end of the day during pick up.
Conducting an Individual Conference
At times there will be reason for staff members to have an individual conference with a family. This may be to discuss a development or behavior concern or a more general check-in on a child’s development and learning. Whatever the reason, remaining positive and respectful are crucial for staff members to conduct conferences. Your role is to prepare staff members before conferences and to provide support throughout, in some cases you will be involved in the conference and in other cases, you will not be present. You should help staff members in the following ways:
- Help staff members prepare and organize for the meeting.
- Make sure they have specific, objective examples, documentation and photographs or videos available to share with the families. Role play with the staff member how they will talk about each piece. Make sure staff members have identified materials that reflect the child’s development and abilities. After a staff member shows you a piece of material, paraphrase what you heard and saw. Have the staff member confirm that what you understood was accurate. If you misunderstood something, help the staff member refine their communication until it is clear to you.
- Make sure staff members have developed a basic agenda for the meeting. Families are busy, being organized helps keep the meeting on track and make it worthwhile and meaningful.
- Brainstorm questions families may have with the staff member. Role play is a great way to do this. Find appropriate resources the staff member might need for the conference.
- Teach staff to use the “Sandwich Approach.”
- When sharing difficult information with families, it is best to “sandwich” it between two pieces of positive information about their child.
- Brainstorm positive information with the staff member in advance of the meeting. Help them practice sharing information in a natural way.
- Support staff during the meeting.
- Offer to attend the meeting if you are needed or requested. Be supportive, listen actively, and help the staff member feel confident.
- Express that you are on a team with the goal being the child’s success.
- Help staff members stay calm.
- Don’t engage in arguments. If you feel tension start to rise or notice an unkind comment from anyone, use one of the communication strategies in the next section to diffuse the situation. You might say, “I can tell that this topic is important to all of us. Let me see if I understand the situation…”
- Be available to families and staff members after the conference.
- Staff members may need to debrief or brainstorm. Families may need additional information or to discuss their child’s care with you. Provide ways for people to reach you after the meeting: in person, email, or over the phone.
Family conferences are a great way to strengthen the family-program partnership. It gives family members personal attention and allows them to freely discuss their child’s development, progress, difficulties, and successes. A positive family conference will create a bond between staff members and the family members, which may make the family feel comfortable in discussing their child in the future.
Supervise & Support
How You Can Promote Effective Communication with Families
Address Staff Members’ Protective Urges
As a Program Manager, it’s important that you keep an eye out for signs of conflict that sometimes develop when staff feel families aren’t caring for their children the way they should. West Ed’s Program for Infant Toddler Care coined the term protective urges as a way to describe these types of feelings. It’s natural for staff members to feel protective of the children and youth in their care on a daily basis. However, if these feelings go unchecked, they can often lead to relationship problems between families and staff.
It’s important that you create an environment where families and staff feel safe to share their feelings without fear of negative consequences either for themselves or for their children. When you acknowledge that these feelings are natural and provide opportunities for ongoing communication, trust develops and relationships are strengthened.
Model Effective Communication
You can role model effective communication skills for staff to use in their communication with families. Some things you can do to promote good communication include:
- Provide specific and factual, or objective, information (example: I saw Pedro sitting quietly during circle time today!)
- Ask open-ended questions (example: What concerns do you have about your child’s first day?)
- Paraphrase (example: If I heard you correctly, you are worried that the other children aren’t treating Mia nicely.)
- Encourage the person to continue talking (example: Tell me more about what makes you think Ms. Jones doesn’t like Anthony.)
- Think about the person’s point of view (example: Think “This mother wants the best for her son even though I disagree with what she’s saying.”)
- Respect cultural and family communication differences (example: Ask a family how, what, and with whom they wish to communicate.)
It is important that you also model respectful behavior when talking about families when they are not around. It is easy to become defensive or critical of others. It is also natural for staff members to want to “vent” about families to someone who will understand. But staff members should hear you speak positively about families to demonstrate your respect for families. Even though you may not agree with a family member’s behavior or you may be frustrated with a family situation, speaking negatively about family does not help the situation. Instead, you can model empathy by talking about what the concerns are and what you are able to do to help.
Family members can become emotional over factors related to a child’s experience, especially when families don’t trust staff or there is a problem with communication. Staff members may have a difficult time responding to a family member’s emotions. A situation like this might be an ideal time for you to model effective communication skills. When responding to emotions, there are two important things you should do: identify the person’s feelings and tell them that you understand the feelings. This validates the person’s feelings. When dealing with others’ emotions, avoid an emotional response. It can be easy to get defensive or feel offended, but thinking carefully about your response will reduce the chance of the issue becoming more intense. For example, consider if a mother gets upset during a meeting. She begins yelling and accusing the staff of being incompetent. After gathering some information (using the tips above), you could say, “Ms. Adams, it seems like you’re upset that Kamaya isn’t making the progress that you hoped she would. I understand why you feel this way, and we’re going to talk about what we can do as a team to help.”
Strong relationships with families provide the foundation for sensitive and effective communication to occur. Listen as families describe ways that staff members and program leaders communicate effectively and involve them in the program.
Effective communication forms the underpinnings necessary for families to feel welcomed, appreciated, and supported. This lesson shows that you and your staff can engage families by maintaining open lines of communication.
You communicate effectively when you:
- Model inclusive, culturally sensitive, and responsive practices
- Participate in family conferences with staff members
- Take a “why not” approach whenever possible
- Model respectful behavior and communication
Family engagement means different things to different people. It can include special events, parent-teacher conferences, book clubs, breakfast or coffee clubs, parenting workshops, or parent committees. Involving families in your program will help engage parents and make them feel more connected to you, program staff, and other families. Use the Ideas for Engagement activity to create a list of new ideas for involving families in your program.
Understanding the stages of relationship development (forming, storming, norming, performing) can be a useful tool in your work with families and staff. Use the model provided in Lesson 2 and the template below to think about where you are in developing relationships with your staff, and how you might differentiate how you communicate with staff members to further develop your relationships.
You may also do this with your staff members to identify where they are in developing relationships with families in your program. Discuss how you might adjust communication based on this information. This can be done one-on-one or together as part of a staff meeting or training.
Considering Relationship Development with Staff
Greenman, J. (1998). Places For Childhoods, Making Quality Happen In The Real World. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press Inc.
Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center. (n.d.). Family Engagement. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/family-engagement
Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental Sequence in Small Groups. Psychological Bulletin 63(384):99.
Parlakian, R. (2001). Look, Listen, and Learn: Reflective supervision and relationship-based work. Washington, D.C: Zero to Three.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). (n.d.). Family Engagement. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/family-engagement
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). (n.d.). Diverse Families. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/diverse-families
Zero To Three. (n.d.). Family Support. https://www.zerotothree.org/policy-and-advocacy/family-support