How Social & Emotional Skills Benefit From Parent Engagement

Social and emotional skills benefit from effective parental engagement

So, while the educator in the case study ticked all the boxes to meet the quality standards there was something significant missing: a “sense of the parent as having agency, of being more than a recipient of the opportunities provided by the teacher,” said the researchers.

You and your team of educators probably feel you can pat yourselves on the back about parental engagement being the cornerstone of your early learning service’s best practice.

And that’s definitely on the right track as a win-win for all involved. There’s increasing research to spur early learning services to more successfully engage parents. This would boost their children’s academic as well as social and emotional skills long into their education

However, it’s not that easy. Read on about a case study that unpacks educator and parent perspectives on parental engagement. The findings may just surprise you to litmus test your own approaches.

Spotlight on effective educator-parent engagement

First, we’ll zero in on how effective educator-parental engagement helps nurture those all important social and emotional skills.

A research report from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Health Study of Early Childcare and Youth Development highlights the need for young children to demonstrate social-emotional competences to be school ready. It found that children with “highly involved parents had enhanced social functioning and fewer behavioural problems”.

“… parent involvement may also enhance children’s behavior at home and in the classroom. Parents and teachers work together to enhance social functioning and address problem behaviours,” said the study.

Another study released in January, which covers the school years, has highlighted the role of effective engagement and what it looks like. The meta-analysis investigated 117 family-school interventions finding they had a significant and positive effect on children’s social-behavioural skills and mental health. Those interventions ranged from school conferences, help with homework, and engaging parents to discuss and set goals jointly for students.

The key social and emotional skills

So, what are the key skills? There are five, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). They are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships skills, and responsible decision-making.
What do they look like in early learning? They can be taught through modelling and explicit instruction.

“In the preschool years, such [social and emotional] skills are learned as teachers’ scaffold children’s play, directly teach problem-solving skills, help children find words for their feelings, talk about values, rules and consequences, and teach children coping skills such as learning to calm down,” say researchers Copple and Bredekamp .

And the investment pays off, as CASEL continues.

“… students exposed to social and emotional learning programs continue to do better than their peers on a number of indicators: positive social behaviours and attitudes, skills such as empathy and teamwork, and academics. And they have fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and lower drug use, among many other benefits.”

The parental perspective

More than nine in 10 teachers and parents say that social and emotional learning is vital to education, according to the Aspen Institute . The From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope report highlights that parents, teachers and school leaders have an obligation and opportunity for the future of education. It talks about teaching the whole child to support their academic achievements as well as social and emotional wellbeing.

“Parents and other caregivers overwhelmingly believe it’s important to join forces with schools and youth-serving organizations to support their children’s healthy development and learning. When schools and community organizations actively engage all families, they strengthen the learning environments across homes, schools, and other out-of-school-time settings,” says the report.

Barriers to engagement

Researchers in an Australasian Journal of Early Childhood study say many educators appreciate that nurturing educator-parent relationships is “challenging and complex”. Citing previous work, they say educators may feel reluctant to talk with some families if the latter hail from diverse backgrounds including ethnicities, cultures, socio-economic levels, religions or languages.

This brings in Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory. To better understand a child’s development, educators appreciate that a child inhabits multiple environments – or ecological systems. You’d know that early learning services help bridge those systems such as through parental engagement.

And so that’s why Amy, a director of an early learning service in a regional centre, does a lot of outreach for her preschool, particularly in low socio-economic areas.

“I do a lot of door knocking to see the families and when I visited them in their communities compared to them visiting me here in our service, it’s a very different relationship. They are so much more comfortable having me talk to them in their neighbourhood,” she says.

“We also run a pop-up preschool in one of the vulnerable suburbs. We go with a tent, mat, chairs and games and some morning tea and have partnered with other services in town to do that. It’s about closing the gap to get families to drop off their children and start developing those parenting partnerships.”

Is the feeling mutual? A case study

Are the educators in your early learning service on the ‘same page’ as parents? That’s an uncomfortable question to pose and explored in a recent case study. If found that the teacher believed she had a positive and effective relationship with parents of the children at the service.

However, the parents saw it differently. They were dissatisfied with how the teacher “responded to their individual needs and concerns regarding their child in the program”. In fact, the partnership lacked mutual trust and the valuing of each other’s contribution.

The authors said other studies showed that while parents might want to take part in their child’s early learning program, “many feel that they do not know how to, or that they did not have the opportunity” or lack confidence to help.

“The literature identifies that a lack of encouragement or invitation, domestic or work commitments, family commitments and psychological wellbeing will often preclude families for actively becoming involved.”

In the case study, the educator detailed the range of activities she made available to all families. However, she didn’t have much of a sense of families’ “individual differences, dispositions and considerations”.

Volunteer Activities

“When asked to outline what this involvement might look like she identified opportunities such as the duty roster, working bees, morning teas, fathers’ night, sewing for the fete, saying ‘I have parents who take home things to do for me’, presenting a view of involvement as being a ‘helper’ in the preschool, rather than in decision making about the child or in mutual goal setting.”

However, many of the parents who did help did not perceive this as a way to build the partnership, though. One parent said it was “not a way to get to know the teacher, simply because you’re busy helping them out doing housekeeping things”. Social events the early learning service organised were at best a chance for parents to network although many said they were stressed at trying to fit in their attendance around their work and life commitments.

The researchers said the educator in the case study had seen her role as the more knowledgeable expert to “provide information to families in regards to parenting, child development and in understanding their child as a learner”.

As well, the educator would email families who did not speak English as their first language. She had thought they’d understand the email more easily than having a conversation with her.

The researchers said: “… this suggests an apparent distance … there is no sense of connection with these families and little apparent attempt to engage these families in a mutually collaborative partnership”.

Parents Valued Trust & Openness

Meanwhile, parents involved in the study said they valued trust, honesty and openness. But that wasn’t happening for this parent.

“No, I’d say it is not a true partnership at the moment. It’s just we drop our kids off. I don’t remember [teacher] coming up and sort of saying [child] had a bad day, a good day … it doesn’t feel like it’s a partnership because I don’t know what’s going on (Parent 4).”

Nor was this parent assured when she contacted the early learning service about bullying.

“She presented her feelings of unease when she said: ‘I felt more it was a case of “yes we know what’s going on, we’re dealing with it” … I didn’t think that was dealt with very well’.”

So, while the educator in the case study ticked all the boxes to meet the quality standards there was something significant missing.

“… a sense of the parent as having agency, of being more than a recipient of the opportunities provided by the teacher,” said the researchers.

“When there is a disconnect in the language of the guiding policies and frameworks, it is not surprising that there is a corresponding ambiguity in the way teachers interpret and enact their role in forming partnerships with families.”

Real Conversations

Educators and parents should value each other as an expert, and base their partnership on reciprocity, trust, they say.  Of course, learning stories are a great vehicle for building this kind of understanding. They provide a  way to compare notes between your center and home. In addition, they can be the starting point to meaningful conversations.

How to engage parents

So, if this case study has you thinking you might need to tweak how your services ‘does’ parental engagement, here are some resources to help.

Furthermore, check out Educa’s other blog post about authentic family collaboration here. It talks about the webinar of author Cassandra O’Neill and education consultant Mike McEwan. And here’s how to avoid the top five mistakes when choosing a parent engagement or documentation software for your early learning service.

The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social,
Emotional & Academic Development report,
From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope final report accessed April 2019

1 accessed April 2019
2 accessed April 2019
3 accessed April 2019
4 In Conners-Burrow, N; Patrick, T; Kyzer, A & McKelvey, L. [2017]. A Preliminary Evaluation of REACH: Training Early Childhood Teachers to Support Children’s Development. Journal of Early Childhood Education, V 45; pp 187-199
5 accessed April 2019

6 O’Connor, A; Williams-Smith, J.; Skouteris, H.’ Nolan, A. [2018]. Early childhood educators’ perceptions of parent-child relationships: A qualitative study. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood Vol 43, 1 March citing Ratcliff & Hunt 2009.
7 accessed April 2019 from Bronfenbrenner, U. [1979]. The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
8 Rouse, E & O’Brien, D. [2017]. Mutuality and reciprocity in parent-teacher relationships: Understanding the nature of partnerships in early childhood education and care provision. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood. Vol 42, No. 2, June

9 accessed April 2019
10 accessed April 2019