The pandemic has brought with it many waves of fear and uncertainty, particularly for staff and families in our sector. Having a plan for how to communicate with families can help to alleviate fear and confusion on both sides, which can lead to better partnerships and less likelihood of staff facing opposition to policies.
We speak to Donna Goetz, Director of Laverton Community Children’s Centre in Victoria, about how her team have optimised their communication with families during a year of lockdowns. We also share tips for how to communicate in times of crisis, and how to approach oppositional situations.
First thing’s first, do you have a communications strategy in place?
Most services have regular avenues for communicating with families during ‘normal’ times, but many do not have a formal process written down, or a plan for what to do in extraordinary circumstances.
“Pre pandemic we didn’t have any communications plans formalised,” says Donna Goetz, Director of Laverton Community Children’s Centre in Victoria, which educates 190 children across the week. “The need became quite evident during the first lockdown because the phone was ringing off the hook and there were queues of people waiting at the front desk trying to get answers. We began communicating daily with families. Our communications were sent out mostly by email, but we would also put updates on our Facebook page. Families knew to expect our updates and look out for them. If we didn’t know the answer to something people were clearly needing answers for, we acknowledged their questions and let them know that we were trying to find an answer and would provide them with clarity as soon as possible.”
Laverton Community Children’s Centre is situated in an area with a high population of families with English as a second language. Early in the pandemic, many families were feeling confused and scared by what they heard on the news. They weren’t clear on what was government regulation and what was newspaper speculation. It became apparent that a solution was needed. The centre is lucky to have an incredibly diverse team, which Donna harnessed in order to ensure that information could be provided clearly to all families.
Between us we speak 36 different languages. Each time we had important information to impart, we recorded a short video in each of the home languages of our families and sent them links to the videos via email.
What to cover when developing your communications plan:
- Consider which channels you will communicate through, and whether they will differ from your regular communications avenues.
- Stay up to date with trusted sources of knowledge on a daily basis so that you are informed and knowledgeable.
- Plan for how you will ensure your entire team is across the information as it is updated, as well as your service policies.
- Ensure families are aware of your service policies.
- Discuss how you can make your communications inclusive for all families.
You may wish to include your communications plan within your COVID-19 action plan.
Here are six tips for communicating during challenging times:
- Create open and transparent two-way communication, encourage collaboration – Ensure that recipients are able to respond to your communications and invite them to ask questions if they need to.
- Lead with empathy – Imagine how the other person might be feeling, start the communication by letting them know that you understand their situation.
- Be inclusive – Consider how you can reach all audiences. Some families may not be confident in accessing digital platforms such as Facebook, others may not have a good understanding of English or be able to read confidently.
- Be reassuring and helpful in your tone – Use words that are supportive, understanding and sympathetic such as ‘We understand’ and ‘We’re here for you’.
- Communicate frequently and clearly – Let people know when they will next hear from you. Try to be informative and helpful. Ask someone else to review what you’ve written before you send it out so that you can clarify anything that they find confusing.
- Address concerns openly and manage expectations – Don’t avoid talking about the challenging issues – it’s better to acknowledge them early than to ignore them and hope they’ll go away. If you don’t know the answer to an issue, acknowledge this and tell people what you are doing to find the answers.
Dealing with opposition to communications
Members have shared with us stories of challenging situations where parents or carers have opposed certain rules or policies that have been communicated.
Donna gave us the example of a parent who refused to wear a mask when dropping her child off.
There have been many times that people have forgotten to bring masks, and we have always taken a non-judgmental approach,” shares Donna.
“We keep spare masks at the front gate which we offer to anyone without one. One particular parent refused to wear one and insisted that it was her right to come into the centre to drop off her child. Ultimately I had to send her an email noting that we would not be able to continue the relationship with the family because of her refusal to work with us to provide a safe environment for the children. This was within my rights and something I consulted Safe Work Australia about first. The mother then agreed to have someone else drop the children off and thankfully we were still able to keep the child enrolled.
How to approach oppositional situations:
- Pause and respond, don’t react
- Try to take a step back and review the situation, think about what you will say next.
- Refer to the guidelines or your policies relating to the matter and why they need to be followed
- Ensure that you have reviewed your policies and procedures and that you make these available and accessible to all families. Bring your policies to life by talking about why they are important and ensure they are easily accessible via your website. Offer to talk about the information provided in the policies, over the phone or via email.
- Show some empathy and understanding where possible
- Acknowledging that some people have differing views around certain COVID regulations can help to reduce defensiveness and provide ground for negotiation.
- Know your rights and requirements in looking after the safety of the children and staff
- Consider the options, be clear about next steps
- Show compassion where possible, think about whether there’s a solution that could work for everyone, but be firm in what the outcome needs to be in order to keep children and staff safe.
Members, have you downloaded our recently updated COVID related policies?
COVID safe drop off check list
Communicating with parents
Re-evaluating COVID priorities
COVID-19 action plan
COVID-19 risk assessment tool
It’s also vital to have a plan for how you are looking after staff wellbeing during these challenging times.
Members have told us about serious conflicts that have escalated into abusive situations. We will provide suggestions for ways to deal with this in a future article.
Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.