- Use a variety of tools and strategies to teach staff members the importance of strong communication skills.
- Model good communication strategies with staff members and families.
- Observe families’ and staff members’ perspectives on communication.
Positive communication is, perhaps, the most powerful tool that staff 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 classroom staff and the program as a whole, so it is important to focus on effective communication. This relationships starts on the very first day a family enters the program, so it is crucial to identify communication with families as a top priority in all of your work with staff members.
Communicating Program Policies and Procedures
You support management and work together to communicate your program’s policies and procedures. This ensures that everyone is on the same page and helps keep everyone in the program safe and healthy. You provide (or support) orientation processes for families. You can also work with management to ensure your program’s family handbook is thorough and up-to-date.
New Family Orientation
Think of a time when you had to apply for something, such as school or a job. It’s likely that you felt excited—but also a little nervous. Families who choose to bring their children to your program will likely have similar feelings. Whether the family is enrolling a 6-week-old infant or a 4 year old who has already attended childcare in four different cities, they are likely to need time and help to get to know the new program, new staff, and new policies. This is true even if they have already been through the process with other children. To them, each experience is unique and brings with it possible anxiety and lots of paperwork. It is your responsibility to ensure families feel welcomed by the program and staff members. You will work with management to make sure new families get the information they need in a manner that minimizes their stress and increases their confidence in the choice they made to enroll their children in the program.
Providing families with a thorough orientation will acquaint them with your program’s policies and procedures. The manager will likely lead this orientation, but you may play a role in the orientation or may lead the orientation at times. Your program’s orientation process should include an enrollment packet, a tour of the program during which you can share your program’s philosophy, and an introduction to the staff members who will interact with the family’s child. The more front-end work your program does, the easier the transition into care will be for everyone. Here are a few helpful hints when it comes to family orientations:
- Discuss with management a New Family Orientation Plan that includes activities for before, during, and after the children’s enrollment.
- Use a New Family Orientation Checklist that simplifies the enrollment process for families by identifying the items that need to be completed and their due dates.
- Involve program staff to carry out specific tasks. This helps families get to know more staff members than just their child’s teacher and builds leadership capability in the staff.
- Have families complete as much enrollment information while they are on site as possible, as this reduces the administrative burden of having to “chase” paperwork.
- As the trainer, you represent the program’s voice for developmentally appropriate practice and how staff members are trained. Be prepared to discuss these topics with families.
The Importance of Regular Communication
A strong partnership between staff and families is built on good communication. Good communication skills help to make sure that (a) accurate information is shared, (b) expectations are shared, and (c) trust is established. Here are strategies that you should provide to staff members to help them learn to communicate regularly and meaningfully:
- Daily informal conversation: During arrival and departure, staff should make eye contact and greet each family by name. You can help teams identify roles and responsibilities during pick-up and drop-off times that include greeting families. Someone on each team should always be ready to say “hi” and check in with families. This will help families feel more confident that staff members are aware that their child has arrived and that staff members care about the family unit. These conversations do not need to be long.
- Formal conferences: The family conference is a great way to strengthen the program-family partnership. It gives family members personal attention and allows them to freely discuss their child’s development, progress, difficulties or successes. A positive family conference will create a bond between staff members and the family members, which may make the family feel comfortable in having conversations about their child in the future. See the Families course for more details on how staff members can be taught to facilitate family conferences.
- Written communication: Families like to know what is going on in the program. Teach staff about professional communication. They should always check for spelling and grammar errors before sending something homePUBLIC, posting it online, or posting it in the room. Many staff members might be used to abbreviated and brief emails and text messages between friends; they might not realize that families or colleagues require different styles of communication. Families might perceive abbreviated messages, acronyms, or symbols like smiley faces as disrespectful or unprofessional. Teach staff members to always include a greeting (“Dear Jamie”) and a closing (“Thank you”) in any written communication. Encourage staff members to follow your program’s policies and procedures regarding the use of technology when communicating with families.
Modes of Communication that Work for Families
You should help staff members understand that families communicate in different ways. Busy schedules, work demands, and family life can make it difficult for each family to stop and talk every day. Help staff members learn the different ways they can communicate with families based on your program’s policies. Here are things to consider:
- What are the policies regarding calling families at home or work? Who calls families and under what circumstances?
- What are the policies regarding texting families? Sometimes staff members might have existing friendships with family members. Talk with them about professionalism and maintaining relationships.
- What languages are spoken in the homes of your families? It might be necessary to translate written material to different languages. Are translators available to help with conferences or emergencies?
- How comfortable are family members with reading written communication? Staff members should be aware that families all have different educational backgrounds, and some families might struggle to understand long or complicated texts.
- What are the policies regarding email? Coach staff members to follow your program’s policies for email communication. If staff members are permitted to use email: Do staff members have work or classroom email accounts? If staff members use personal email or create their own email addresses, do you check to make sure the email addresses are professional (e.g., no email addresses with potentially offensive, overly personal, or sexual language like “Hottie1995@example.com”)?
- Coach staff members to be culturally responsive. Help them understand that culture can influence who serves as the family’s main point of contact and how families make decisions. Culture can also influence how families interact with staff members. For example, a parent might feel uncomfortable having an individual conference with a staff member of the opposite sex.
- Be prepared to support all staff in the program, including management and administrative staff, as they learn to communicate with families more effectively.
Communicating to Share Children’s Successes
Families count on you and staff members to prepare their children for success and to keep them apprised of their children’s progress. Success looks different depending on a child’s age. When an infant reaches for a caregiver and is willing to leave his or her parent’s arms; that is success. When a toddler refrains from hitting a friend and instead uses words; that is success. When a preschooler can write the first letter of his or her name and is proud of their accomplishment; that is success. When a school-ager asks for assistance on homework; that is success.
There is a great deal of information that gets shared with families, but none is more important than how their children are doing emotionally, socially, and academically.
Here are some ways you can help staff members communicate children’s success:
- Make sure staff acknowledge every family at arrival and departure.
- Communicate developmental milestone information with parents so they know what to expect and when. Do this at the beginning of the year or as new children are enrolled. If there are concerns about a child’s development, follow your program’s procedures for communicating with families.
- Help staff members create portfolios for all children that have, at a minimum, observations, work samples, and photos that are dated and collected throughout the year.
- Notes home need to be personalized and individualized as much as possible. If families read the same information day in and day out, they are less likely to continue reading. If staff members are able to include a photo once in a while, the note will be even more interesting.
- The frequency and content of notes home is age-specific. For infants and toddlers notes should go home daily, and the frequency can decrease as children get older. You need to check occasionally to make sure notes are going home as intended. Check your program’s policy regarding the frequency that notes should be sent home.
- Educate staff on what is appropriate to communicate in notes. Some staff members may not be comfortable communicating in writing and may need additional coaching when it comes to tone and content.
- Help staff members schedule conferences regularly to share progress, not concerns. Provide opportunities for staff members to practice with you. If there are developmental or behavioral concerns, follow your program’s procedures for communicating these concerns to families prior to the conference. This is not a time for surprises. Check your program’s policy regarding the frequency of family conferences.
When Concerns Arise
As a trainer or coach, you will need to help staff develop good communication skills, which are especially important when problems arise. There are two important considerations when helping staff and families resolve conflicts or issues: the level of concern and the ability of the people involved to communicate well. Your program’s policies or guidelines will serve as a roadmap for dealing with major concerns. For example, who is next in line if a family is not satisfied with the solution you offer? It is important to learn how issues are vetted in your program, but you must also know how to respond to conflict directly when you encounter it. It is likely that management will have the primary role in helping staff and families resolve major concerns. In your role, however, you may have the opportunity to respond quickly to minor events and help prevent major concerns from arising. Even when the problem seems small, it can be hard to resolve if family and staff are not able to communicate effectively.
When issues come to your attention, you will need to gather as much information about the situation as possible to understand what the true problems are and how to support good communication between those involved. You may need to meet with families, staff members, and administrators. A meeting with the family and staff members can allow everyone to share their feelings and agree on a plan for resolution.
There will be times when staff members must complete paperwork to inform families of events or concerns. For example, staff members must learn how to complete accident reports. You will need to help staff learn how to complete this paperwork thoroughly and accurately. Teach them to provide clear details about the event. Follow-up with them to ensure the paperwork is completed when concerns arise. Classroom staff may need assistance and you will find that some staff members will be more likely to seek help than others. It is important for you to communicate the appropriate times for staff to bring a matter to your attention. You are in an important position to not only help resolve concerns between families and staff members, but also to help staff members gain skills to use in the future. When you have the opportunity to talk with staff members about a concern, help the staff member process his or her emotions, think about the family’s position on the matter, consider the causes of any misunderstandings, and empathize with the child and family.
You are a role model for staff and your communication skills can make a difference in your program. This holds true both when times are calm and when you are working through difficult situations. You might find yourself calming down an angry family member, or you might be called in to help when staff members are struggling with a family. Your responses and actions in all situations are opportunities for you to model and teach staff members how to interact with families. Some things you can do to promote good communication include:
It is important that you also model professional behavior when talking about families who 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. However, staff members should only hear you speak positively about families to demonstrate your respect for families. Although you may not agree with a family member’s behavior or you may be frustrated with a family’s situation, speaking negatively about family members does not help. Instead, you should model empathy by talking about what the concerns are and what you are able to do to help.
Family members can become emotional about events or concerns related to their children’s experience, especially when families don’t trust staff members or when 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 good interaction skills. When responding to emotions, there are two important things you should do: identify the person’s feelings and tell them you acknowledge their 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 angry 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.” You can also use situations such as these for professional learning: have staff members role play what they would say and do during team meetings.
Families want to be engaged and involved in your program. This video has a two-part structure: hear from a Training and Curriculum Specialist about how you can engage families in your role. The second video addresses how specifically to communicate with families, especially about sensitive topics.PUBLIC This video contains considerations specific to military families. If your program does not serve military families, think about similar situations families experience, such as a family member who travels frequently, is incarcerated, or has an extended illness. Think about your program. How do you learn about family circumstances and use that information when communicating with families?
It can be helpful for you to reflect on the ways you can help staff members prepare for and engage in meaningful conversations with families. These conversations become even more important when there is conflict, disagreement, or tension between families. Use the Preparing for Conversation Guide with staff members to reflect on their conversations.
Creating a Welcome Book for families can be a way to compliment the formal parent handbook they receive and offer an additional opportunity to introduce families to the program. This book could be placed in the lobby of the program, provided electronically, or sent home with new families. Consider presenting the information through the eyes of a child or school-age youth in an effort to further demonstrate that your program is a place where children’s ideas are valued. Use the Create A Welcome Book for Families Activity to develop a resource you could share with families. As an alternative, you can use the attachment as an inspiration for developing a bulletin board that welcomes families and shares information about new staff and/or the program.
It can be helpful to ask families about their communication preferences. Share the Family Preference Form with staff members and encourage them to gather the information from families. You can help staff members make family preferences a priority in their work.
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