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Helping Parents Parent
By Susan Miller, Ed.D.

The Marcuses’ toddler is constantly biting his baby brother. The Marcuses don’t feel comfortable asking the child’s teacher for advice; they wish to be perceived as capable parents.


Daughter Patty hits her mother to gain attention at arrival time. Staff members notice that this creates an unpleasant stress for both parent and child, but are reluctant to offer advice because it might appear they are treading on the parent’s turf.


Dilemmas like the ones descricribed at left are common in early childhood programs and illustrate the need for parent education. The Marcuses and Patty’s mother – as well as the parents who send their child to your program – can benefit from sincere advice offered in a positive, professional, and non-judgmental manner. As caregivers, you have the perfect 

opportunity to do this. 


Communication Problems

It is imperative to remember that parents are the child’s first, most important, and primary caregivers. As a result, educators should treat all parents with great sensitivity and make every attempt to develop a partnership built on trust and mutual respect. Be careful not to come across as the definitive authority with all of the answers. Sometimes problems seem to stand in the way of positive two-way communication. For example:


Parents may feel guilty about leaving their child in someone else’s care all day. Because they don’t want to be labeled as shirking their parental responsibilities, they are reluctant to share parenting problems with staff members. If you give feedback that already guilt-ridden parents perceive as negative, the parents may respond with hostility.

  • Some parents are insecure about visiting the center because they are uneducated.  They may feel intimidated by educational jargon or think you will suggest things they won’t know how to do with their child. 
  • Cultural and language differences sometimes make it difficult for staff members and parents to understand each other’s motives and suggestions.
  • You may interpret a parent’s seeming indifference as a lack of caring, when in fact all the parent’s efforts are spent trying to simply maintain her family’s basic needs from day to day. 
  • Parents in high-powered career roles are used to making decisions and giving directions. They may be uncomfortable explaining a childrearing problem to you and taking advice when they are used to giving it.
  • It is often hard to be objective about one’s own child. It may be unpleasant for parents to discuss sensitive situations and to handle perceived criticism.
  • When communicating with parents, you must be able to accommodate parents as individuals, with distinct needs and learning styles. 


Set a Positive Tone

Parents should always feel welcome and comfortable at their child’s school. Your body language – your smile, eye contact, and friendly wave – conveys welcome. A positive tone is set when you greet the parents with special news items – “Michelle ate spinach today and pumped the swing by herself!” Parents also appreciate hearing how much progress their child has made after they have followed through with the staff member’s suggestions.


How you share and receive information is as important as what you say; communication needs to be two-way. When the parent raises a concern, you should be attentive and use reflective listening, restating the main idea of the conversation to clarify. 


There are a number of ways to make it easy for parents to pose questions and feel comfortable asking for advice about parenting issues. Even if you must rearrange your schedule, you should be available to parents at arrival and dismissal to share comments in a relaxed manner. Space should also be available for private discussions without interruptions.


Arguments or accusations should be avoided. If a parent is distressed, stay calm and nonjudgmental. Suggest to discuss the problem at another time or to talk it over with the director.


Sharing Information

There are times when parents request assistance from staff members. Suggestions that are concrete, specific, and pertinent to their special needs are best. Such information can be obtained during telephone conversations, parent-teacher conferences, or home visits. Sometimes a topic may be of general interest to many parents. The following are some suggestions for various means of sharing ideas:


Telephone conversations. This allows parents the convenience of setting up an appointed time to talk, often in the privacy of their home where the parent is relaxed. They can schedule the discussion for when children won’t interrupt, and this also works for parents who may not be willing or able to come to school.


Parent-teacher conferences. Sometimes a face-to-face conference can be threatening for parents. To reduce their anxiety, arrange for a private area, where they can sit next to each other. Begin the conference by sharing positive anecdotes about the child. Be an active listener, allowing parents time to express concerns and ask questions. Offer advice and cooperatively assist the parents with ideas to develop a workable strategy for their concerns. An opportunity for feedback should be planned for a future conversation.


Home visits. Home visits are a wonderful vehicle for informal, two-way conversations in a location familiar to the parents. In a relaxed atmosphere, pointers can be given in response to parents’ 

questions. You can model behaviors and demonstrate activities. The parents can practice a technique with instant feedback and encouragement from you.


Workshops. Workshops enable parents to become actively involved by recommending topics and sharing ideas with other parents. It’s often a great comfort for them to discover that other parents are having similar problems, such as toilet training difficulties. You can give a demonstration and encourage the parents to role-play situations or become engaged in hands-on activities such as creating puppets or making games. A workshop is an excellent way to present child development theory; follow it up with practical applications of interest to the parents. Videos and slide shows are helpful to illustrate points.


You should vary meeting times to accommodate parents’ schedules. A “brown bagger” lunch session dovetails nicely between AM and PM nursery sessions. Potluck dinners after parents have finished working usually draw a large crowd. Providing child care will increase productive parent participation.


Newsletters. Although newsletters have the disadvantage of being one-way communication, they can provide busy parents with tips. Parents should be encouraged to propose topics of interest to be addressed, whether as a single item in a “news sheet” or in a short newsletter article with a number of book and/or website references.


Website. A school website can highlight current news and topics of immediate interest. Special themed resources and activities can easily be shared on websites.


Parent Bulletin Board. This provides a spot for parents, teachers, or the director to place notices on workshops – for example, a talk at the local YWCA by a nutritionist discussing “How to Get Finicky Eaters to Eat.” Current articles from professional journals or news clippings on pertinent topics can be posted. You might wish to inform parents about topics such as behavior management techniques that they will be modeling at specific times.


Orientation. This is the parents’ first introduction to the staff members and the programs. It is important to make the families feel welcome at the center and to 

develop a positive rapport, building respect and trust. You should encourage parents’ questions and let them know when they are available to discuss concerns. A booklet describing center policies and children’s developmental characteristics is helpful to encourage realistic expectations about their children and feel comfortable with their parental roles.


Parent place. If space allows at a center, this last suggestion is all encompassing and promotes the ideal arrangement do enriched parent-to-parent and parents-to-staff communication. Some centers have rooms or areas with coffee and snacks available for the parents to enjoy while chatting for a few moments on the way to or from work. Other parents dropped in for a weekly “coffee” – an informal discussion held by the director or a speaker on a topic selected by the parents.



Susan Miller, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Early Childhood Education at Kutztown University in Kutztown, PA.