This month I want to highlight the importance of getting to know the families of the children you teach and care for by asking crucial yet sensitive questions that help you get to know them and their children.
I’m sure we all start new children in our program with an intake form or some sort of questionnaire that covers basic demographic information, allergies, special needs, interests, etc. This helps us a little, especially if we refer back to it throughout the year, but honestly we probably don’t have a lot of time for that.
If you’re anything like me, you’re getting to the middle of the school year and really getting to know the children you see each day. You may be noticing, or wondering, certain things about them. I’ve recently learned that it’s always best to ask questions of families when you have a question instead of assuming you know what’s best for the child. This can be challenging, depending on what you need to learn more about. It could be a new behavior, something that was said by the child, or perhaps something that you think the child needs help. Sometimes, we truly do believe we know what's best because of all of our experience and knowledge when it comes to working with young children. However, we always have to default to believing that the family knows what’s best for their child (unless of course it's a serious health and safety issue that we would need to report).
Before I approach a family about a serious concern or a not so serious question about their child, I try to take a step back to observe the child and then collect data. If this is a new behavior we are worried about, it’s best to consider all the details. Did the child start exhibiting the behavior last week when it was 20 below and we were all stuck inside? If so- it’s possible they weren’t able to exude enough energy outside! Did the child start acting out new or violent play themes? I had quite a few children in my class tell me they saw Puss in Boots in the movie theater which is a movie with many fight scenes! They might be acting out what they saw in the movie. If the behavior is new and not too concerning, I would give it a couple of weeks of observing and data collecting before you approach the family.
Using the violent play example, I would be prepared with what I had noticed but approach the family with a question such as, “How do you view fighting type of play in your home?” With my own kids, they love to wrestle with their dad, however I hope that’s not something they would do at school!
Depending on their response, I might respond with something like, “Okay, I noticed John acting out some intense fight scenes which isn’t something we typically allow at school so I wanted to see how you dealt with this type of play at home.” This type of questioning and answering should help families feel like they are involved and like you do care about their opinions and ideas. You should now be able to more effectively work with the child engaging in this play knowing you have support or ideas from the family.
Here's one more scenario: Pretend you notice a child who you feel needs more support in a certain developmental area at the beginning of the school year. For example, you see a four year old who does not yet show interest in drawing with markers or writing their name but shows great interest in building, trucks, and outdoor play.
I might approach the family like this:
“I notice Jane doesn’t choose the writing or art table often during centers. Does she like to draw or practice her name at home?”.
Perhaps the Mom responds like this, “No, not really. Her Dad, Aunt, and I all work for the forest service. We spend all of our time outside or in the mountains at the forest service cabins.”
My response might be, “I see! That is wonderful, I didn’t know you were all outdoors so much. Are writing and drawing skills something you would like me to work with her on?”
The mom responds, “No, that is not something we are worried about right now. I feel that she will work on those things when she is ready. We value our outside time and relationship with nature and we are glad she has that.”
I would end the conversation with, “Thank you so much for sharing all of that with me! I’m glad I know more about Jane and your family so I can continue to support her with the centers she enjoys. Your time at the cabin this winter will be a great time to bring in some markers and papers and do some observational drawings from the windows!”
Other things I work on as a teacher in order to build close relationships and communication with families include learning their names and more about their lives outside of school:
I learn family names as quickly as possible because I love seeing their smiles and relaxation when I call them by their name. I think this shows them that I value them as well as their child. I say hello and goodbye to them just as I would their child.
I ask informal questions each day: How did they sleep? How was the weekend? How was grandma’s birthday party? Did you get new shoes, tell me about them! How's your new puppy doing?
I strive for daily, or at least weekly communication. I like to tell the families one thing about the child’s day, post pictures on our class instagram, or send a text message or email with photos by the end of the week. I only have 13 children in my class so I know this is easier said than done depending on how many you have!
I make time for phone calls and meetings. If a family member approaches me with a question or concern, it’s usually at drop off or pick up time which is very busy. I will try to give them a quick answer, but I’ll also ask if they would like to chat later. If I feel like the conversation was left unfinished, I will reach out to them later to see if they want to schedule a time to visit more.
Finally, I’m a safe space for them. I do my best to withhold any judgment and only be supportive. I want every child to know I value them and they are safe with me, no matter what they may be going through in or outside of school.
Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, mama to a rambunctious toddler and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a site dedicated to connecting families to local events and resources.