Book Note: “Engaging With Parents in Early Years Settings”

Looking through the “historical record” of our school we find notes on speakers, on parent training topics, and suggestions for parenting and early childhood education articles and books. Calling it an “historical record” is a grand way to describe a collection of dusty cardboard boxes filled with meeting minutes, student records, and canceled checks. The historical record is stored in file boxes dragged from the attic, porch, and basement storage spaces of past board and committee members. Folders and boxes have been handed over from past to future member. A long-forgotten box will sometimes turn up at the school after being discovered in an alumni family’s home.

These dog-eared manila folders are filled with fading notes recorded by the sensible and capable hands of co-opers past. The oldest papers feature handwritten notes on lined steno pad paper and these have been slowly overtaken by the hammered letters of a typewriter on onion skin paper. Eventually, we begin seeing the purple of the mimeograph taking over. This signals to us that sharing the news about parenting and parent education became both possible and key in the cooperative model. In other words, meeting our parent cooperative’s mission for parent education became both easier and far-reaching — future members could benefit.

Here is the thing though…We know that parent involvement is key not just in terms foundational learning, but also in terms of life. How do we know this? Research holds it, it is plain and simple, and that research trickles into policy statements and practice far and wide. But what doesn’t get communicated as effectively, even with what we have in hand with our own “historical record” is the how and what are the pitfalls? This is something that even we, with parent involvement as part of our mission, struggle with even with generation after generation of parent and teacher partnerships.

We challenge ourselves to maintain a learning stance for this very reason — because the how to engage and what to engage in seems both changeable and hard to explain. Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Dianne Jackson and Martin Needham’s Engaging with Parents in Early Years Settings published by SAGE Publications, Ltd, 2014. NOTE: Order now using the code N150705to receive %25 discount until December 21, 2015!

This research-based text begins with outlining the successes parent engagement will engender. Even if we feel that we have moved from research to a common sense approach of “we all know it to be true,” it cannot really be reviewed and made relevant enough, can it? Grounding it here and in the way that the authors have crafted the content is much appreciated and valuable because it provides us with a basis for understanding their observations and suggestions for practical changes in program that are also included in the book.

It is the very complicated, fragile, but strong, and so very essential nature of parent/child/teacher interconnectivity that they pull from in Bronfenbrenner’s perspectives (1979) as a guiding framework for their research and resulting book that makes the content of the foundational chapters so useful. It is these chapters that gave me the insight into why I, personally, and our school on the whole, finds it so difficult to share what it is we actually do in regard to building parent engagement in a succinct, roadmap kind of way. We have yet, after all these years and the many generations of gifted parents and educators, with our old file boxes and new blogs and computer files, to develop anything that resembles a one-sheet of how we do what we do in regards to successful parent engagement.

And yet, here in this book we find the very things that make our efforts for engagement successful. For instance, providing opportunities for building — physically building something together that lasts, like landscaping the play yard or refinishing the floors. During these kinds of activities at our school the parents are able to bond and share (another practical program change recommended by the authors). During these purpose-led activities, the open and casual sharing of parenting adventures spring forth. The children will do this as well in the very same way — choose any blog from our Growing Together blog and in it you will find some form of bonding that naturally happens over shared “work,” like building a den or moving the boat. If this is a successful social model for children, of course it is both effective and necessary for their parents. At our school, the attendance at one of our work sessions is a requirement as are monthly membership meetings. In this text we find the research that supports these requirements as part of our success story rather than simply “something we do.” We are that much closer in finding the content for our “one-sheet” along with the research that supports our practice.

Another practical tip in the book that resonated with me are the discussions from the later chapters at the end of Part 2, leading into the chapters of Part 3. In these chapters, I found the content especially helpful in considering how to effectively support parents in the classroom in a teaching model. We have crafted, after years of practice and implementation, a parent-as-teacher curriculum that we hope follows the arc of the families’ participation (3 to 5 years) with constantly new and changing membership. We want to provide new and stimulating content and practice that will keep the membership both interested and well-informed, but there are two key points we must return to for successful engagement. Interestingly both are included in the text.

The first is in engendering a feeling of efficacy — there is a transition between the very unnerving feeling that a new parent has in not knowing what he or she should be doing in the classroom to one of confidence and the feeling that they are contributing positively to the children’s educational experiences. In Jackson and Needham’s text, I discovered that this feeling is universal and in this I am comforted in knowing that once recognized, with a few simple changes in outlook and practice, it can be overcome. We experience this each year and rally to overcome it quickly and with as much sure-footedness that our fast-moving culture requires!

The second point is one of perception — what does teaching look like from a parent’s perspective and how is it similar or different than a trained teacher’s? We know from our experience that parents will be drawn towards activities that feel “right” or what I call “teacher-y” to them. One parent will be drawn to journaling with a child, for instance, while another will lean towards small world play. One will shy away from rough and tumble play while another will celebrate this in all its loud and boisterous forms. We seek to actively provide each parent with the tools and methods to step outside their comfort zones. The book gives that very road map, first from recognizing these patterns as both real and diverse (noting especially the strength and value in diversity) and asking practitioners to consider it as a point of departure while providing practical tips to include in their program.

In other words, what we struggled to collect over years of trial and error and implementation in our parent cooperative, our authors have concluded and advised in one straightforward text. It is a “now you tell me” kind of story, but one that I find is quite joyous and confirming in the telling. I recommend this book highly. Incorporating its suggested practical tips will surely result in that incredibly valuable partnering of parent, child, and teacher.

Please note that the authors also stress that their use of the term “parent” encompasses the many forms that a sole caregiver will take in a child’s life, not just parent, but also grandparent, guardian, relative and of every gender, as it should.