It’s a common enough realisation: you’re standing at the end of year barbeque or concert, chatting to one of the regular parents you see in your service most weeks, while looking at a crowd of unfamiliar adult faces.
Grandparents might be there, and aunties, uncles, older siblings… but most of all, there are those parents and carers: the ones you’ve been trying to meet all year. You mentally connect them to the much more familiar faces of the children they have come to celebrate – you have so much to ask them! So much to tell!
Are you kicking yourself at the opportunity you’re missing to build a stronger connection? Are you calculating how many minutes you might still grab with each of those families? Or are you resignedly thinking it will be another year before you see them again, and planning how to make the most of it then?
It’s not too late
Yes, communicating with families is a year-round exercise, and like a puppy, it’s not just for Christmas! However, year-end events can provide face-to-face opportunities you won’t get at any other time of year. Are you making the most of them?
In this story we bring you:
- three tips for maximising year-end contact
- an adaptation of ACECQA’s guide to family partnerships
- and a personal approach from Clarence Town Preschool Director, Rebecca Boland
Three tips to maximise end-of-year engagement
More, but smaller, events
If you’re exhausted with just one centre event it might feel crazy to add more functions to the busy year-end calendar, but the more personal you can make your occasion for a family, the more time you will have to engage with them meaningfully. Families with more than one child at your service can be given the option to just attend one event so you aren’t adding to their load, and you might space the events out week by week from mid-November through December.
Yes, you want to mingle, but while you’re moving around keeping an eye on logistics and trying to catch everyone, the parents who are looking for you are struggling to keep up. Make it known ahead of the event roughly where you’ll be for the first half hour, and include in the invitation how much you’d love to say hello to family members who aren’t often able to chat.
Leave a card
Grab a few packs of large index cards before your event and share them out among educators, as well as leaving stacks with pens in strategic locations around the centre during the event. In your event invites, and in signage near the cards on the day, ask families to use these cards to share thoughts about their child’s experiences this year, questions about the centre, requests for information, and any other messages. This might not be face-to-face, but it will take advantage of the presence of parents and carers and encourage communication you might otherwise miss.
Adapting ACECQA’s advice on building partnerships
The following is adapted to this topic from an ACECQA information sheet for educators, QA6 Building Partnerships with Families. Read the original version.
First impressions count
Your attitude, manner and approach are important, so consider how families and children are first welcomed into the service, and remember that some parents may feel like newcomers or strangers at your year-end event even if their child has attended all year.
Embed in practice
Partnerships with families should be evident in your service’s philosophy, policies, procedures, environment, curriculum and everyday practices. Harking back to the beginning of this article: if you want to make the most of an annual event to engage with families, put it in your plan!
Communicate and engage
Find the best way to communicate with individual families and the type of information that is important to them. Some may prefer to be contacted via print or online newsletters, or to ask questions in person, through email, SMS or social media. Make sure your invitations to year-end events go out in several formats, several times. The days are long past when a single newsletter was adequate to reach your audience.
Get to know the families
Engage families through informal discussions and at planned gatherings to understand their expectations. It is also an opportunity to develop shared goals for children’s learning. Our tip for smaller year-end events makes this action easier, but if that’s not possible for your service you can also create a team strategy in advance of a celebration event where each educator is tasked to connect with certain families on the day or night.
Learn about and show respect for the background, cultural identity and strengths of each family to inform educator practices. Consider how inclusive your service is in relation to children and families with diverse needs, family structure, including culturally and linguistically diverse and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Reflect on your year-end event: is anyone disadvantaged by the cultural focus, or the time of day, for instance?
Initiate professional conversations and training
Engage in reflective practice and professional conversations with other educators about their everyday interactions with families. Professional learning activities may also build your confidence and capacity to build partnerships with families. Look around for development activities on both celebrations and family communication to really build your capacity.
Regularly reflect on how trust is established and maintained with families and whether the reciprocity within the relationship is working for all parties. The index card tip for your year-end event could be a way of gaining anonymous feedback from a large group of parents and carers. If you could ask them one question, what would it be?
One director’s approach
Rebecca Boland is director of a community preschool in rural NSW. We asked her some questions about how she maximises her time with families at the service’s annual celebrations.
When do you start planning your end-of-year celebrations?
We think about our end of year celebrations throughout the year. We think about how our year is evolving, what worked well the previous year and how the families responded. It is important that we celebrate in ways that are real to who we are.
Celebrations really take two paths – the way we incorporate the culmination of the year into our program and also the Christmas gathering that is an annual event. We don’t have graduation or concerts as we feel that this is in direct contrast to our philosophy and we aren’t willing to compromise this.
How do you get parents involved?
For our program we like to have Questions Of The Day where we ask families to share with us their childhood memories, favourite meals, songs and so on. This opens up lines of conversation. Their responses often become incorporated into our planning and it opens up ideas and cultural practices that we might not be aware of.
We have some other ways we get families and the community involved. Our Christmas tree is made of gathered fallen branches and we invite everyone to hang something they have made or found to decorate the tree. Our local Lions Club send individual letters to each child from the North Pole.
Our annual celebration brings close and extended families together. We share a meal cooked by family volunteers, dance to music from our local DJ, share sweets families have made, and then the rural fire service arrives with Santa.
This year we are looking to do something a little different in response to the hardships that are all around our local and wider communities. Our emphasis is being together and supporting each other.
What tips do you have for new directors or services with a more distant parent community?
- Don’t get too swept up in the wave of Christmas. Early education services don’t need to abandon their philosophy to create an artificial ideal of Christmas. Perhaps start slowly.
- Ask families what they want to do for the season. Do they want to come together? If so, is there a tradition of theirs that they might share with you?
- Personalise your communication – wide open invites can be daunting to many people, so frame it around their child.
- Remember also that the end of the year can be a challenging time for families. Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply welcome them in.