Working with children and families often means that we are juggling competing demands and expectations, and sometimes this also requires us to deal with complaints when expectations haven’t been met, or when unexpected situations have occurred.
Most of us will have to deal with complaints at some point, but if we have a strategy in place, the whole experience can be a lot less stressful for everyone involved. We share tips for how to approach complaints along with two examples of how services have successfully resolved issues.
Lost socks and chickenpox… where do complaints come from?
A typical day in an ECEC setting is anything but typical! Educators are constantly dealing with a multitude of joys and challenges, and situations which need to be responded to with care, kindness and grace.
Whether it’s about paint on the “good” clothes, missing hats and socks, or the fact that their child has caught an illness from the service, parents are often concerned or upset when confronted with a situation they did not expect at the beginning or end of their day. Complaints can also come from within a service when staff members aren’t happy with an aspect of operations or the way in which an interaction has taken place.
Acknowledge, support and follow up
Dealing with complaints can be stressful for anyone. For educators, who are caring for many children and families at once, all with different needs, perspectives and understandings, it can be incredibly challenging.
Here are some small steps which may make the process easier:
When someone is bringing a complaint, they are already unhappy and maybe on edge. Although it can be nerve-wracking when you know someone is unhappy, it’s important to stay calm and think of yourself as a partner in problem-solving, rather than an opponent.
It might sound strange to think of a complaint as an opportunity for gratitude, but when someone is complaining, they are trusting you with something that is upsetting them and trusting you to partner with them in getting a resolution. Take a deep breath, and be thankful for a chance to make a change.
People who are complaining are seeking two things: to be helped and to be heard. As the person making the complaint is speaking, try to repeat back what you understand to be the key points of what they are saying, or ask clarifying questions to make sure you have the heart of the issue correct.
A core aspect of acknowledgement is also recognising and naming the feelings behind the complaint. Phrases like “I can see why you feel that way” or “that would frustrate me too” can go a long way to helping to diffuse a tense situation.
Support and acknowledgement go hand in hand. While noticing the problem is important, so is helping to solve it. Missing socks? Perhaps offer to check other children’s bags or the lost property space with the parent. If the problem is bigger, you might suggest finding a quiet place to talk it through, make an appointment to speak uninterrupted or get support from an educational leader or manager. Support is a two-way street, and it’s important for educators to feel supported by colleagues as they help solve the problems of others.
Following up may look like revisiting the complaint in a few days or weeks, to make sure the person who complained is happy with the outcome, or to explain what measures, processes or steps have been put in place to make sure that situation doesn’t happen again.
Following the steps above is more likely to leave parents, families, fellow professionals and other stakeholders with the sense that their complaint has been effectively managed and resolved.
People, policies and principles – what and who is involved in the complaints cycle?
All ECEC services should have a policy that governs how complaints should be dealt with, in line with Education and Care Services National Regulations Regulation 168(2)(o), which requires policies and procedures for dealing with complaints.
This policy may outline how important details, such as those required under Regulation 173(2)(b) (approved provider to make the name and telephone number of the person to whom complaints may be addressed clearly visible at the service) will be displayed, or how the service will notify the regulatory authority of a complaint that alleges a serious incident has occurred or is occurring while a child is being educated and cared for by a service, or that the National Law and/or National Regulations have been contravened.
These policies are developed and grounded in the understanding that when complaints and grievances are effectively managed, educators, management, coordinators, staff, families and the community are assured that complaints are taken seriously.
When viewing complaints through the lens of continuous improvement, services and educators can explore how complaints sit within Element 7.2.1: There is an effective self-assessment and quality improvement process in place and 7.1.2: Systems are in place to manage risk and enable the effective management and operation of a quality service.
Policies and procedures should be regularly reviewed to ensure they reflect best practice and are in line with current regulations, as well as reflecting the National child safe principles.
Where complaints or issues centre around problems or areas that involve children, the voice and perspective of the child should be considered in the process of managing and resolving the complaint.
For example, if a parent is worried about a child getting dirty during messy play, why not consult with a group of children to learn more about how they feel when they get messy, or what benefits the children get from the experience. While the parent voice isn’t discounted by this process, adding the perspective of the child can add colour and clarity to the outcome.
Other core stakeholders to consult with may include any governing bodies involved in your service context, the local community, families and educators. The Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics may be a useful tool in guiding this process.
Good fences make good neighbours – how one service dealt with neighbour complaints
For those services located in suburban areas, outdoor play spaces often border neighbouring yards, which can present a problem when children experiment with trajectory and transportation schemas that see toys, balls and other items go over the fence.
At one New South Wales service, a neighbour was “constantly” complaining about toys ending up in their garden. While the service made some attempts to reduce the number of toys going over by adding Colorbond lattice to the top of the fence line, toys still found their way over, leading to further complaints.
To resolve the issue, as well as talking to the children about the need to respect the neighbours’ space, and instigating a rule that no ball play was to take place near the fence line, educators reached out in the spirit of community, building a positive relationship with the neighbour, offering to walk the children to his home to replant damaged plants, and inviting the neighbour into the space to share his gardening expertise with the children by working on the service gardening program.
In reaching this solution, the service not only drew on their complaints policy, but also on their underpinning philosophy and commitment to working in partnership with local communities.
Since the changes have been implemented, the number of toys sent skyward has reduced, and the relationship with the neighbour has improved.
Vacation complaints – how educators and families worked together to find a compromise
While under private ownership, one Queensland ECEC service had a policy of closing for four weeks over Christmas, something which educators and some families valued, whilst other families who relied on the service for care during a busy retail season found the closure challenging.
When the service was purchased by a large national company a new policy was implemented, with the service now closing only for public holidays, and remaining open at all other times, some parents and educators raised complaints, while others were relieved.
After conducting a survey of both the educator team and the parent community, and researching the policies of the other services in the surrounding community, a compromise was reached whereby the service closed for two weeks over the Christmas/New Year period, when the bulk of the public holidays fall, allowing educators a short break, while also meeting the needs of the families who required care during the summer break.
Permanently employed educators who wanted more work over the period to avoid using their annual leave allowances were offered first preference for any casual shifts at centres under the same provider up to 40 minutes from home, while parents needing care were able to access any casual vacancies at neighbouring centres with different closure patterns.
Would you like your team to feel more confident and capable when dealing with complaints?
Our upcoming session will cover the neuroscience and behaviour around stakeholders making complaints and participants dealing with complaints, as well as the regulatory requirements.
An important session to equip educators with the skills to understand the ‘why’ behind complaints, and how to regulate and work effectively with stakeholders.