Early childhood: the changing face of parent-practitioner relations during the pandemic
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 October 2021
Lockdowns and other restrictions in England and around the world since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic have transformed the way parents and early childhood practitioners communicate. This is having significant implications for children’s development, learning and wellbeing.
Two linked studies at the UCL Social Research Institute examining environmental changes for children, parents and practitioners, in England, New Zealand, Senegal and Italy have been uncovering the multi-faceted and evolving roles of early childhood provision in supporting children and families.
Through interviews with practitioners and parents from a top-rated early childhood setting in a disadvantaged neighbourhood of London, we were able to identify shifts in the way communication took place during lockdown. Practitioners provided support to families through weekly phone calls to parents, Zoom calls to engage with the children and sharing ideas for activities at home on the ‘parent app’. One practitioner explained:
We would just have a chat with them and it was also to find out how the parents are doing as well, because obviously it was a big adjustment for them, not just for the children. We kind of wanted to find out how their mental wellbeing is as well. It was just a nice chance to have a chat with everybody, and then we could obviously offer some activities and stuff that they could do at home, just to keep their child entertained as possible.
Parents expressed appreciation for these forms of communication, although levels of engagement with pedagogical activities at home varied. One parent was keen to recreate the nursery day in her home, facilitating playful activities and replicating the daily routine:
Luckily the nursery actually sent quite a few ideas throughout lockdown. They sent, like even putting some numbers on paper and trying to copy it with playdough. Drawing on CD cases with pens. There was loads of little ideas. Washing [dolls], putting them in the bath. Cos sometimes you can just feel so stuck. It’s on the app. They were putting up a couple of things a week, which was nice. They were normally things you’d find around the house, old toilet rolls, using them for activities, making chains out of them. Even going for a walk, picking up tree leaves, painting tree leaves. Really easy things to do.
Since re-opening, restrictions have kept parents out of the building, preventing them from helping their children settle in by spending time alongside them during their first days – a transition point which has long been viewed as vital to children’s developing sense of safety and wellbeing. One practitioner reflected:
it was really hard for them, [it made] settling in more difficult. The children cry and cry for a long time. Previously, when they’re settling in, they will come in, the parents will come in the first day. They will stay with their children for the settling, one hour period […] so their children are playing, but at the same time they can see their parents in the room. That is OK for them. But now we take them at the gate, the parents go, and the children will be like, ‘where am I? I don’t know anybody. I don’t know any face. Mum has just dumped me here’ – and then just scream and scream and scream.
One mother described the emotional impact on her son and herself:
He struggled. It was very difficult for him. [He was] crying constantly. It was about three weeks. I was getting emails from the teachers saying he settled then he remembered you weren’t here and then he would cry again. Up and down. I just took him on that day and said here it is. He had to go in – I couldn’t walk in with him, I couldn’t go into nursery with him in, I couldn’t show him his peg. Actually, now that I think about it, talking about it, it’s quite sensitive, because obviously he is still a toddler, he’s still quite small, and he was walking into the unknown without holding my hand. I know the teachers are great, but that was very difficult for him, he struggled for about three weeks. […] As a parent, you want to walk in, you want to comfort them. […] If I’d been able to walk in with him, show him his peg, speak to him, guide him, I think it would have made a lot of difference.
To comply with COVID-19 guidance in place at the time, practitioners have had to carefully manage the use of space. Parents were required to queue to drop off and pick up their children at the gate, whilst smiley face markers positioned on the ground helped ensure they stayed two metres apart. Parents and practitioners had to wear face masks at drop-off and pick-up times, and interactions were brief and not in a private space. When a more in-depth conversation was needed, this takes place by phone. New parents, unable to visit the setting before enrolling their child, were given a ‘Zoom tour’. Parent consultations also take place via Zoom. Parents were no longer allowed to congregate in a shared space for a chat, reducing opportunities for sociability and the development of friendships. Engaging with parents through workshops and celebration of cultural events ceased, minimising parental involvement in the life of the setting.
Despite these environmental constraints on communication, practitioners at this setting strived to stay connected with parents, many of whom were struggling on low incomes, had limited space at home, and were isolated from support networks because of pandemic-related restrictions. As well as regularly sending emails and sharing photos and updates on their child’s progress with parents via the app, the setting set up a food bank, and continues to give out food bags at the end of every term, and – thanks to parents from a more affluent setting – facilitated clothes donations. These forms of material support and acts of care have had a positive impact on parental wellbeing and children’s development.
As this case study has shown, staying in touch with parents and carers during and post-lockdowns is vital: regular communication enables identification of, and responses to, the challenges that some families face, at a time when many are isolated and unable to access usual forms of support. Adapting communication with parents must take account of the need to safely manage COVID-19 risks, but equally consideration must be given to wider wellbeing needs. Whilst some parents and carers seek and find support, not all find it easy to be open about their needs. A deeper understanding of disadvantage in the local community is necessary to anticipate possible needs and to be creative in finding ways to help address them.
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