Getting to Know the Families

Hedda SharapanLast month I gave you some helpful hints for “getting to know” the children at the beginning of the school year. But I hear over and over again that it’s even more challenging to get to know their families. (I usually write about “parents” but there are so many grandparents or other relatives raising young children today, that I think it’s important to be inclusive.)

I have also heard that some families just seem unapproachable. I have a hunch those are the ones whose children are a little more challenging, and you feel you really need to talk with them about their child’s behavior. I wonder if maybe the reason they have their defenses up is that they continue to hear negative things about their child. Can you imagine how it feels to hear day after day that your child wouldn’t listen, or bit or hit someone today?

When families are told there has been a behavior problem with their child, they tend to hear “I have a bad child.“ But a more devastating message they hear is “I’m a bad parent.” If I felt the teacher thought I was a “bad” parent, I’d probably do my best, too, to avoid any conversation with her or him.

I thought you might like to hear from some caregivers who are working on ways to build relationships with families whose children have challenging behaviors.

Here are some helpful hints about building a positive relationship with families that I learned from Fred Rogers:

Fred always reminded us to start with empathy.

So many people are struggling just to make ends meet. Fred once said, “Many mothers feel severely pressured these days. They often feel like they’re falling short in one part, if not several parts of their lives.” Take the time to show that you care about their "story."

Think about ways to make families feel welcome,

even in those short moments that they’re in your room, at the beginning and end of the day. It might help to remember people who have made you feel welcome somewhere. Maybe it was something in their face, their body language, or tone of voice that said, “I’m glad to see you.” You have your own ways of reaching out to someone. Remember, too, that person may have already had a rough day. You know how much a kind word helps you on days like that.

Look for positives about their child’s day.

Then you’ll be able to tell the family something that makes them feel good about their child -- and their parenting. It might be hard to find something good, but I think that if you focus on that child and really look for a positive moment, I’ll bet you’ll find something. And noticing the positives can help you connect better with the child, too.

Ask yourself if you really need to say something about a problem.

That doesn’t mean we ignore a problem in the classroom or family child care home. But a teacher told me how she learned what’s helpful to say and what isn’t. Just after she discussed a problem with a mother, she overheard her say to her son, “You’re really going to get it when you get home!” The teacher realized that it would be better if, for now, she just focused on telling that mother about the positives – and work on building the relationship with her. In the meantime, she’d continue to work with the child on the behaviors that arose in the child care setting. After all, that’s where the problems happened.

Relationship-building isn’t always smooth. And it does take time. But when “building a relationship” becomes your goal -- rather than the goal of having the family work on “correcting a child’s problem,” you may be surprised to find that it’s easier to connect with these families than you thought.

P.S. I’ll be in Orlando for the NAEYC conference next month. I'm leading a session on Friday, Nov. 4, 2:30 – 4 p.m. on “How Fred Rogers approached STEM concepts -- and how we can build on that in our work with children?” It would be great to see you there.

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