In these days of dual working parents and super-busy lifestyles, it's even more challenging to build relationships with families and involve them in your programs. When parents are active in their child's education, optimum learning is much more likely to occur, but there's also something in it for you. Not only are parents experts on their own children, they're also talented and can provide resources money can't buy. Nurturing a partnership with parents will strengthen and move your classroom and center towards excellence in care and education. Let's look at some simple ways you can create parent partnerships in your program.
Parents and Teachers Working Together
Parents have good ideas. They know their children well, have their best interests in mind, and have taken a giant leap of faith by placing them in your care. Listening to their collective voice is a wise thing to do. Together you can create a great environment for children.
Suggestion Box: A suggestion box gives shy parents an easy way to communicate, an unhappy parent a way to vent, a supportive parent an avenue for making helpful suggestions, and the happy parent a way to shower you with compliments. Place the box, index cards, and pencils in an easily accessible location, but out of the way—a place that assures some privacy and anonymity. Be sure to check the box frequently.
Parent Survey: A survey will tell you how your program meets the needs of your families. What do they like most about the program? Would they like extended or evening care? Make the survey short, conduct it yearly, and provide some type of incentive so that parents will return it.
Parent Advisory Council: Enlisting a group of helpful, concerned parents is one of the best ways to demonstrate that you want to create a true partnership. If you haven't done this before, it might be a little threatening at first. Parents may make suggestions that are impossible because of budget or policy constraints. That's when brainstorming collectively proves that many heads are better than one. If a suggestion comes up that can be delegated to a parent, don't hesitate, just do it!
Including parents in day-to-day activities creates a sense of belonging, a foundation for building trust and loyalty. There are many effective ways to communicate your philosophy, your center or classroom in action, and ongoing child-related issues.
Parent Handbook: Creating a handbook for easy reference is one of the most effective ways to communicate your philosophy, policies, and procedures to parents.
Newsletters and Memos: No news is bad news. It's imperative to keep parents informed of what's happening. In newsletters and memos, everything can be shared from child rearing tips to the daily menu and field trip schedule. Even though some parents appear not to read what you've tirelessly written, think about the ones who do!
Parent Support Programs and Seminars: Learning more about brain and child development, literacy, children with special needs, the power of play, and a host of other topics are important to parents. Hosting a speaker and providing videotapes are excellent ways to share knowledge. To cut down on expenses and labor intensity, consider sponsoring such a seminar with another program or inviting parents to a staff development workshop.
Family Visits: A lot can be learned from visiting a child's home. This effort of reaching out can also break down barriers; families often feel most comfortable on their own turf.
Creating an Environment for Parents
If you're in the field of early care and education, you're probably a very nurturing person. Reaching out to parents, nurturing the strengths in their families, and creating an environment where they feel special and needed is a necessary step in creating partnerships.
Roll Out the Red Carpet: Make sure parents know they are always welcome. It's not easy to put on a smile and say, "come on in" if the health department is inspecting or if you're elbow deep in plaster of Paris, but it's the right thing to do. When parents feel welcome, and when they see you in action, their respect for you and what you do is reinforced.
Bulletin Boards and Picture Albums: Pictures are worth a thousand words. Telling about a teacher's hobbies is one thing, but posting a picture of Kelly, the pre-k teacher rock climbing in Colorado is even better. Place picture albums on a table depicting field trip excursions, story time, or the ice cream social. You may be able to feature a family every week or every month. Pass on information by posting interesting articles, reminders, and a calendar of events.
Copy Cat: Parents may not know the words to "Johnny Pounds with One Hammer" or "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" but they catch snippets of it from their children. Share these early learning experiences by copying the words of favorite songs and finger plays about once a month so that parents can sing or play along and feel at least as intelligent as their children.
Lending Library or Resource Center: When it comes to their children, parents are consumers of information. The child care setting is an excellent place to house the best books for children along with handouts for parents, parenting books, and videos. Boxes filled with dramatic play props for creating offices, beauty salons, and grocery stores can provide welcome relief to families on a rainy weekend. Puppets, manipulatives, and games will also be appreciated.
Tapping Into Talent
Parents generally love to offer a helping hand, especially if they feel appreciated for what they do well. Look carefully at your families and jot down beside their name what they may be able to help you with.
Parents as Volunteers: Parents, grandparents, even older siblings are often willing and able volunteers. Working parents may not be available to assist in the classroom or chaperone a field trip but may be happy to repair books or cut out shapes for the flannel board. Make sure parents know that little things mean a lot, and resist the temptation to burden a helpful parent with too much volunteering. Have a brainstorming session to come up with all the things you could accomplish if you had the work force, and then create a list of things that need to be done and share it with your families.
Parents as Referrals: Happy, satisfied parents will spread the word about your program to their relatives, friends, and neighbors without being asked to do so. Go one step further by making a list of parents willing to talk with prospective clients. Only a parent can enthusiastically tell their personal story of how Johnny's teacher saved the day when she recovered his first tooth from the apple core that was tossed in the garbage. Parents don't talk about 'dedicated teachers' they talk by using personal anecdotes.
Parents as Fundraisers: Do you yearn for a certain piece of playground equipment, new cots for naptime? Tell your parents. If you can motivate them, you've taken a giant step forward in attaining what you need. Fundraisers take many forms from garage sales and silent auctions to selling refrigerator magnets and publishing cookbooks. Listen to your parents to learn what they are willing to get behind and support.
Parents as Wish-Granting Wizards: Do you have a wish list that includes everything from empty thread spools to rocking chairs, and a video camera? Publish and update your list regularly so parents know what you need. Remember to write a thank you note for donated items. A big banner of children's handprints or thank you notes written as only a child can, will warm the heart of anyone, and it's a great way to involve parents and make them feel appreciated.
Revitalize your program by capturing and nurturing the imagination and support of your parents. Listen, respond, involve, and appreciate. It makes your job easier and provides the best for children.
Edna Wallace, M.S., is editor of parent pages newsletter. Her work as a teacher, director, parent educator, and author has spanned 25 years. She stays active in NAEYC and other professional organizations. She is the author of Summer Sizzlers & Magic Mondays: School-Age Theme Activities published by School-Age Notes. You can contact her at www.parentpagesnews.com.