An “old story” of parent engagement in the early years

Debbie Pushor opened our session by inviting participants to bring to mind a recollection of their participation in a common early years event: an event such as a parent orientation meeting for a childcare, preschool, ECE or K program or a Meet the Teacher Night for Grade 1 or 2. After each table grouping had sketched out an agenda that typically represents an event such as this, Debbie asked us to analyze the event:

  • Who created the agenda?
  • Who led the session?
  • How much time during the meeting did the educator(s) talk?
  • How much time during the meeting did parents talk?
  • What did the parents’ talk consist of?
  • How much planned/facilitated interaction took place between and among parents?


Analyzing the “old story”

As groups shared the agenda they had sketched out, and their analysis of that agenda, it became evident they had certain elements in common:

  • These events typically happened in the early years classroom/centre.
  • They were planned and facilitated by the educator/s.
  • The educator/s did most of the talking during the event.
  • The educator/s shared policy and programming decisions they had made with parents.
  • Most interactions occurred in a back and forth between the educator/s and the parent/s, not between and among parents.
  • Parents were invited to be involved in their child’s early years program in the ways the educator/s outlined/proposed.

Proposing a “new story”

Debbie then proposed a “new story” of parent engagement in the early years. She invited participants to consider an alternative to the “old story” they had just described and analyzed. Instead of the typical orientation event we had just discussed, she suggested we put in its place, as an example, a 6 week orientation process for parents whose children are entering an early years context.

Session 1:

  • Held in early years setting.
  • Friendly, relaxed, food available, time to mingle.
  • Educator(s) introduce themselves to parents/caregivers both personally and professionally.
  • Parents are invited to introduce themselves to the group.
  • An educator shares a story with the parent group, such as Linger by Marny Duncan-Cary.
  • In response, parents are invited to talk in small groups about how they are feeling regarding having their child enter the early years context:
    • Hopes and dreams
    • Fears
    • The information they feel they want or need to support their child in their early years program.

Sessions 2 – 6:

  • The information shared by parents in the first session is used to plan the remaining sessions. These sessions may include such things as:
    • Parents sharing how they are engaged with their children at home/the kinds of things they do together.
    • Introductions of other staff from the centre/school (1 or 2 each session with time to talk about what that person does and how they may interact with the family over the course of the program).
    • Presentations on topics the parents have asked to be discussed/want to learn more about.
    • A feature on one aspect of the early years program (e.g. literacy, numeracy, play).
    • Site tour.
    • Time for parents to mingle with one another and with the educators.

Beliefs and assumptions about parents in a “new story” of parent engagement in the early years

As Debbie analyzed the agenda she had sketched out, she emphasized that this “new story” is based on different assumptions and beliefs about parents:

  • The home is as important a site of learning as the early years setting.
  • Educators  and parents are both “knowers” about children, teaching and learning.
  • There is benefit in educators sharing power/decision-making with parents.
  • A web of relationships is important:
    • Educator with parent,
    • Parents with parents.
    • This “new story” of early years learning creates opportunities for parent engagement.
    • A story of parent engagement is a story that:
      • Is strength-based
      • Engages parents as parents, not as teachers
      • Honors the capacity parents possess
      • “Asks them”
        • What their hopes and dreams are
        • To share their knowledge
        • How they want to be engaged
  • Ensures all individuals (children, educators and parents) are strengthened through their engagement.

Debbie then challenged participants to generate their own “new story” of parent engagement in the early years. The following items, listed on their brainstormed charts, reflect participants’ initial thinking and work.

Participants’ imaginings of a new early years story of parent engagement

  • School – hold the orientation over a 2 week period, keep it informal, provide parents the opportunity to meet and interact with the teachers.
  • Child Care Centre – provide the opportunity for a site tour during interview/registration times, discuss and write specifics and notes about individual needs into the contract, include a comments section for parents on the contract, use the website as a rich source of information, share parent testimonials with others.
  • OEYC – provide a survey for participants to complete after workshops, survey parents about  specific topics of interest to them (e.g. specific behaviour, resources, any issues, comfort level to approach), ensure workshops are available and are well-communicated.
  • During agendas, as well as having the principal/teacher talk and share information, have the teacher invite parents to share information, to ask questions, and to have a short time for parent visits.
  • Establish a parent-led cooking program – an opportunity to cook together, to discuss nutrition, to engage in decision making.
  • Distribute an open-ended parent questionnaire at the beginning of the school year: “Tell me about your child.”
  • Hold a Make and Take Event – parent and child create a shadow box, and tell about their family.
  • Host a Career Day/Meet My Parents – an invitation to parents to tell about themselves to the class.
  • As a fun way to gain parent insight/input, hold a raffle with a different spin on it. On the raffle paper, include a question regarding the program. Parent answers the question as part of their entry
  • Orientation:W
    • Week before nursery school, children and parents were invited to meet teachers & tour classroom. Parents were offered coffee, children were engaged in craft/circle time. Parents completed forms and reviewed parent handbook.
    • JK stagger start – introduce into Parenting and Family Literacy Centres.
    • Parents are oriented with supervisor.
  • Engaging Parents:
    • How to use everyday material to sort colours (Parenting and Family Literacy centres), homemade learning materials.
    • Shared reading
    • Family Literacy Night
    • “In a million words or less tell us about your child and yourself”
    • Music Program – “ABC and Me”.
  • Speaking with parents, listening to parents, using communication books, inviting dialogue.
  • Parent handbook – develop the parent handbook with a committee of parents.
  • Introduce self, program.
  • Get to know families.
  • Provide a tour – child plays/explores.
  • Answer all questions/concerns.
  • Find out child’s/family’s history.
  • Work together.
  • Phone home when things are going well.
  • Ask new parents what they need/want to know.
  • Help parents find their voice.
  • Use simple communication to find common ground.
  • Honour parents’ knowledge about children.
  • Engage in goal setting with communication.
  • Help parents to “live life” with their children.
  • Share themes – ask parents what they could add (info/ideas/resources).
  • Ask parents about their culture and religion.
  • Ask how parent wants to volunteer – to share his/her strengths.
  • Plan face-to-face communication.
  • Draft an agenda – and give parents a chance to respond/provide input.

While the points listed here may be brief, the discussion and sharing surrounded them was rich. Please feel invited to use these ideas as a starting point for creating your own “new story”!