Debbie Garvey has over three decades of experience working across the private, voluntary, maintained and independent early childhood sector. Her roles include practitioner, leader, author, trainer, consultant, lecturer, researcher and facilitator.

Amongst other things, I’m a writer and researcher. My latest research looks at neuroscience. I am fascinated by the developing brain, and the role we as adults play in early brain development.

The human brain uses a complex, interconnected network which includes the nervous system, hormones and emotions which are designed to protect us from harm.

We know that sensitive, responsive, and empowering relationships between adults and children are critical for early childhood, and indeed brain, development. These vital connections help us to feel safe; safe brains can think, learn, develop, flourish, and grow. It is through our earliest relationships (co-regulation) that we learn to self-regulate and are able to deal with threats – real or perceived.

During COVID, the early childhood sector saw practitioners across the globe respond with warmth, compassion, and professionalism to an unprecedented challenge. Throughout it all, early childhood practitioners on the front line – our key persons supporting key worker parents. Our practice had to change in many ways and our youngest children entered childcare or education having spent most of their lives under restrictions.

As the early childhood world considers the impact of the last couple of years, we are starting to see some research on childcare during COVID. emerge. 

Development Matters highlights how our work today centres on the importance of relationships. Between children and adults, but also between adults who are important in the child’s life.

We know that the relationships between parents/carers and practitioners are vital to child development – and this is why the key person role is critical. As a key person, you will know the child really well, and so will their parents/carers. As adults, we want the best for children, so it makes sense to connect with the other adults in a child’s life. This maybe hasn’t been as easy over the last couple of years, so perhaps we need to reflect on ways to reconnect with parents/carers.

There are many ways to reconnect and rebuild relationships – after all humans are built for connections. One way to begin to consider this, is to think about how we would normally build relationships with other people. Usually, we start by finding something we have in common that we can talk about.

Well, in early years that’s an easy one – as both the key person and the parents/carers are interested in the child at the centre of their relationship. And yes, some conversations might be more difficult than others – so start simple and build from there.

Ask the parents/carers how their day has gone and tell them a little bit about their child’s day. And remember, it doesn’t always have to be about food, sleep and so on. Just a sentence or two about something the child enjoyed doing, or tried really hard to do, can be the beginnings of longer conversations built up over time.

Every opportunity (no matter how small) is a chance to build connections with parents/carers. It is an opening for parents/carers to ask questions or share concerns, and a chance for us to share our professional knowledge too.

Asking questions is also a valuable way to check on a child’s development and helps all adults to hear the child’s voice. For example, if we observe something in the setting, we can ask parents/carers if they have noticed it in the home environment.

Consider the range of parents/carers we meet every day too. Some are quieter, some always in a rush, some more engaged than others. How can we use questions, events, or celebrations for example to connect with all parents/carers?

Having conversations like these shows parents/carers that we value their opinions. People who feel listened to and who feel their opinions matter are more likely to have other conversations in the future. Over time, this helps to develop and build strong, trusting relationships.

It can be worth taking a little time to think about the relationships we have, so here are a few reflective questions to consider:

  • How could we support and include all parents/carers?
    • The quieter, busy, or less engaged ones for example.
  • If we use technology to keep in touch with parents/carers, how could we use this to best build relationships? For example, sending a quick update message via WhatsApp.
  • How can our environments help support partnerships?
    • Do people feel comfortable coming into our buildings, for example?
  • How do we know how parents/carers feel?
  • How could events and celebrations for example, help to bring families together and build connections in communities?

Building parnterships with parents/carers is about a shared commitment to support the children we mutually care for. Just like any other relationship it builds over time and improves when we take a bit of time to think about it. There are benefits for everyone involved, especially if we ensure that we keep the child at the centre of our relationships, partnerships and connections.

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