- Recognize the importance of communicating with families.
- Identify elements of responsible family information gathering.
- Recognize features of effective communication and barriers to effective communication with families.
- Describe effective ways to share child information with families.
Communicating with others can be both simple and complex at the same time. Have you ever been surprised that someone misunderstood a message you thought you had communicated quite clearly?
Communication between teachers and families occurs during daily hellos and goodbyes, as well as in more formal activities such as family meetings. All of these opportunities require you to be aware of many of the family’s characteristics, 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 and respectful of families. Families will be eager to know how their child is doing, and you can support comfortable communication by offering encouraging responses and asking for clarification if something is not understood.
Importance of Communicating with Families
Positive communication is perhaps the most powerful tool that you can use with families. Good communication helps to inform, reassure, and engage families. A single conversation, positive or negative, can set the tone for a family’s opinion of preschool staff, so it is essential to develop effective communication skills.
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 you and families makes parents feel good about the program and its ability to meet their child’s needs.
A strong partnership between staff and families is built on positive communication. Positive communication skills help to make sure that (a) accurate information is shared, (b) expectations are shared, and (c) trust is established.
Ways of Communicating With Families
It is critical that programs use communication practices that are sensitive to the diverse language and cultural backgrounds of the families they serve. Each family is teaching their young children how to be successful within their own culture.
Communication preferences may be related to cultural or community values, priorities and commitments. For example, Sohn and Wang (2006) found that Korean-born mothers, even those who spoke English well, had difficulty communicating with teachers face-to-face. Their preference was to communicate with teachers through email or program letters. When communicating with families, it is also important to understand and consider:
- Different forms of greetings and use of titles that may be preferred
- Male and female roles defined within various cultures
- Non-verbal communication and body language (e.g. eye contact, use of touching, use of physical space)
You can ask questions to learn how families would like to communicate about their child’s day. Some families may prefer face-to-face conversations while others prefer telephone or regular (daily) notes. Other ways of communicating with families include:
- Program website
- Family meetings or conferences
- Articles of interest
Families will also help set the pace for their communication with you. It is important to acknowledge it can take time for families to feel safe, comfortable and friendly. Different forms of communication can play an important role in easing the process. Using a combination of communication styles with families might work best for their needs to be met. Other ideas may be to translate written communication into the home languages of the families supported in the program and consider having translators that are regularly available for face-to-face or phone communication.
Having Difficult Conversations with Families
Conversations with families can be difficult for a number of reasons. Sometimes, you might worry that families will be upset by something you share and even decide to enroll their child in a different setting. You may also worry the family will stop communicating with you altogether. While conversations with families about concerns may be difficult, they can provide you an opportunity to express your care for a family, as well as the preschooler’s development and learning, in a thoughtful way.
Misunderstandings can also occur as your views and understanding of a situation may differ from that of a family member. In these instances, it is helpful to consider the multiple perspectives to a situation. For example:
Mother picks up her preschooler at the end of the day. It’s the third day in a row her daughter has come home messy and with dirty clothes (grass stains and finger paint).
It’s important to offer preschoolers multiple sensory experiences throughout the day. Sensory experiences support early learning, growth and development.
We spend money on her clothes and we need to keep them looking nice. We do not go right home after I pick her up and I do not want people thinking I do not keep my daughter clean.
As a teacher, you want to provide the best care possible for the children in your program and you have an opportunity to consistently observe and learn about their development. Your observations, notes, screenings and assessments are helpful for identifying strengths and possible areas of need that might arise during the preschool years. Sharing these concerns with families is a first step to a supportive planning process.
See the handout, Sharing Concerns with Families, for additional ideas and resources.
Collecting Family and Child Information
Think about a situation when you were asked to provide information about yourself or your family. You may recall experiences that made you feel comfortable and at ease, and others that made you feel nervous, anxious, or uncomfortable. What was it about these different instances that made you feel either comfortable or uncomfortable? Maybe it was the particular way or tone in which certain questions were asked or the content or nature of information you were asked to provide? Perhaps it was the available time you had to respond, the environment or space in which this information was shared, or maybe the opportunity to know ahead of time the kind of information you would be asked to provide?
Now think about instances when you as a professional are the one collecting this information. How do you make sure that you are asking questions in ways that makes families feel respected and at ease? Generating family and child information is a critical piece of your work in preschool. As children and families join your program, establishing strong and meaningful relationships with them starts with getting to know them. Learn about their interests, their heritage, their needs and their hopes and dreams for their children in a respectful way and use this input to enhance the quality of your work in preschool. As you continue to engage with families, think about how you want to be treated with dignity and respect and assume the families of children in your care want to be treated the same way. During this time, it is critical to maintain confidentiality and respect families’ right to privacy.
Sharing Information With Families
Now, think about the ‘reverse’ scenario from the one described in the previous section: Situations in which you were the one receiving information. During a visit to your doctor’s office, for example, what were things that made you feel that the doctor or nurse sharing information with you was doing so in an effective way? What was good or not so good about that experience? What made you feel that the individual was sharing information with you in a respectful way? Was the information was provided in a way that helped you understand it? Did you have the opportunity to ask questions? Did you feel that the person talking to you had your best interest in mind?
Just as you have to be careful and considerate about gathering information from families, it is critical that you do the same when sharing information with families. As a preschool teacher, you must help families understand their child’s development and share with them information that you have gathered about their child. This information should be shared in a respectful way, considering families’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Always use family-friendly language and avoid jargon, including terms, acronyms, or terminology that families may not understand.
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 2009), one of the most salient issues in early childhood policy and practice is ensuring that children are ready for successful school experiences. As children grow and approach the school-age years, families and professionals often talk about school readiness. In your work at preschool, families may ask you to share information about whether or not you think their child is “ready” for kindergarten.
Despite the fact that often school districts or communities develop screening programs or processes to help teachers and families determine if a child is “ready” to transition to kindergarten, school readiness must be flexibly and broadly defined. It should involve more than just children and their abilities or developmental milestones. NAEYC believes that schools are responsible for meeting the needs of children and for providing them with the services they need to reach their fullest potential. Specifically, NAEYC supports that promoting school readiness requires: (a) giving all children access to opportunities that promote school success, (b) being responsive to children’s individual differences, and (c) establishing appropriate expectations about what children should be able to do when they enter school.
It is your responsibility to help children learn and develop at their own level and to provide developmentally appropriate services and activities that meet each child’s needs. It is not the responsibility of children to meet school expectations upon entering school. As you meaningfully plan and implement your work, you are setting the foundation for children’s school success.
Considering that children in your care have varying abilities, cultural backgrounds, and diverse personal experiences, while also keeping in mind that children learn different skills at different rates, it is inappropriate and unrealistic to expect that all children will demonstrate skill mastery at the same time. As you read in the Cognitive course, even though there are universal patterns of development that children follow, there are individual differences among children that need to be acknowledged. You should assume this way of thinking when considering school readiness, and when sharing information with families about kindergarten readiness.
When talking with families of children in your care, consider sharing the following about what they can do to foster their children’s development and to support your work at preschool:
- Spend time playing with, talking to, and engaging with your child!
- Create routines at home that children follow (e.g., mealtimes or bedtimes).
- Invite and answer questions from your child.
- Engage in book-reading with your child.
- Familiarize your child with symbols in their environment (e.g., letters, numbers).
- Talk to your child and encourage him or her to talk to you about the world around them.
- Provide your child with opportunities for social interactions outside school.
- Involve children in activities that include planning and carrying out tasks (e.g., making a list and going to the grocery store, following a recipe to cook or bake something).
When collecting information from families, Banks, Santos, and Roof (2003) highlight the following:
- Consider using ongoing informal opportunities to engage in conversations with families.
- Establish rapport with families before attempting to gather information from them.
- Use a variety of open-ended and close-ended questions.
- Be respectful of families’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds when asking questions.
- If possible, try to gather information from several family members about a child.
Whenever possible, use specific examples (e.g., classroom observations, examples of children’s work) to convey information about children to families. Data can help family members understand that the information you are sharing with them is based on instances where you observed or collected information in an organized manner, as opposed to sharing things based on your personal views and opinion. As part of your work in preschool, it is likely that you collect developmental information on children through assessments, and it is critical that families have access to that information. This also enables families to follow their child’s progress over time.
A great starting point in sharing information with families about their children’s development is by inviting them to observe their children in the classroom. Schedule some time after the observation to talk about what family members noticed and address any questions they may have. If families are unable to observe during classroom hours, you might ask for their permission to video record a portion of the child’s day so that the family has an opportunity to see the child engaged in the classroom environment.
It is very important to offer families various opportunities to understand their children’s development. Try some of these ideas:
- Weekly or monthly newsletters:
This is a great way to share information not only about what’s happening in the classroom, but also about child development, activities that promote child growth, themes explored in your classroom, or community resources. Newsletters are a fantastic way to share information without families feeling singled out.
- Weekly emails:
Preschool classrooms are very busy places! You can share information on some of the wonderful learning and discovery that takes place in your classroom in emails to families. These emails can be brief and may include information about activities children were engaged in in your different learning centers.
- One-on-one conferences with families:
These may be scheduled at set times (e.g., once or twice a year according to your program’s policy). Additional conferences may be arranged if families request them. Check with your trainer or program director to find out about your program’s policies regarding conferences with families.
- Phone calls to families:
This is another great way to communicate with families who may be unable to attend meetings at school or who may prefer this way of communication.
- Communication journals:
These are usually sent home with the child and returned the next day. Teachers can share noteworthy observations or events, and families can respond to those or share their own news or reflections.
- Developmental charts:
These may be posted inside your classroom or displayed in a general area within your program building for families to review at their convenience.
These are visual representations of a child’s work and progress. In a child’s portfolio you can include photos or artifacts from a child’s work, writing samples, and other examples that demonstrate a child’s development across time. Included within the portfolio can be notes on milestones the child has met.
Think about times in your personal or professional life when you experienced effective communication with another individual or a group of individuals. Then think about times in which you did not experience effective communication. What factors contributed to effective or non-effective communication in each case?
Download and print the Thinking about Communication Activity. Write your thoughts on this document. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.
This section includes documents to help you think about and work toward achieving effective communication with families of children in your care.
The first document is a jargon-busting exercise. Jargon are words or terms that are specific to your work and that families may not be familiar with. Download, print, and fill out the Jargon Busting Exercise. Change the provided education-related jargon using terms that families can relate to. You can share your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor. Then, compare your answers to the suggested responses in the second document.
The third document includes websites that you can explore to learn more about strategies for effective communication with families. Download the Effective Communication Resources document and use it as a resource.
Finally, the video in this section provides an excerpt from a family-teacher conference. As you watch this video, think about some of the "dos" and "don'ts" of communicating with families and the different ways you exchange information with families in your program.
Banks, R.A., Santos, R.M., & Roof, V. (2003). Discovering Family Concerns, Priorities, and Resources: Sensitive family information gathering. Young Exceptional Children, 6(2), 11-19.
Diffly, D., & Morrison, K. (1996). Family-Friendly Communication for Early Childhood Programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Glascoe, F. P. (1999). Communicating With Parents. Young Exceptional Children, 2(4), 17-25.
Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (2004). Understanding families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Koralek, D. (2006). Spotlight on Young Children and Families. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Lynch, E.W., & Hanson, M. J. (2004). Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A guide for working with young children and their families, 3rd ed. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. Engaging Diverse Families.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/positionstatements/ethical_conduct
National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995). NAEYC Position Statement: School readiness. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/PSREADY98.PDF.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (2009). Where we stand summary on school readiness. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/Readiness.pdf.
Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.