We all know the importance of strong, positive relationships between families and educators. But the ability to stay connected has been challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Connection and engagement have become more important than ever, but how do you keep up a sense of continuity and community when families and educators are isolating?
It’s a challenge that early learning centres across Australia had to overcome for the good of their families, children and educators.
Documenting and sharing innovative practices
The Murdoch Children's Research Institute, in partnership with the Ian Potter Foundation and the REEaCh Hub at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, has been working with early learning centres to document and share their innovations to keep families and educators connected during COVID-19.
The funding, committed to improving family engagement and educator wellbeing, is supporting five early learning centres to sustain and share the practices they have developed during the pandemic to help keep families, children and staff connected.
The work has increased in importance and priority as COVID-19 has continued, and the potential to use the practices at other times of hardship - such as floods and fires - became clear.
Maria Fong, Senior Project Officer at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, has been heartened by the project and the impact early learning centres have had during the pandemic.
“When it comes to supporting families, a lot of the heavy lifting has been done by long day care providers”, Maria said.
“But times of great change present opportunities to think outside the box.
“However the centres we worked with were coming off a solid base – they already had strong communications and trusting relationships between families and educators before COVID-19.”
Thinking outside the box at Goodstart Boronia
One of the centres involved in the project is Goodstart Early Learning Boronia Albert Avenue, in Victoria.
Goodstart Boronia has a strong sense of family and community. Children join the group based on referrals from other families, and connections are made and maintained through family fun days and celebrations.
But when COVID-19 hit, it all stopped. Team members, families and children were isolated, out of their comfort zone, and without their support network.
Kelly Mills, Centre Director at Goodstart Early Learning Boronia, said it was clear to her team that their daily activities had to change in order to keep connected to their community base, and to look after the wellbeing of the families at their centre.
“The lockdown left families with no contact or engagement with our educators – or with other parents for that matter,” Kelly said.
“People felt isolated and out of control. We realised that we needed to try and bring a constant presence and some consistency to families amongst all the uncertainty.”
Key to the approach was connecting daily with families. Parents and carers needed to trust and know that the educators were still there, and they still cared.
So the team made building and relationships their priority, making use of every opportunity to keep in touch, including:
- Regular phone calls and check-ins to update families on their child’s progress, which also acted as a source of adult interaction for isolated parents and carers.
- Front door greetings kept families up-to-date on the progress of their children, and connected to their educators. Kinder staff now walk children out at the end of the day so they can chat to families. Families have said the enthusiasm of the educators greeting them and their children at the front door is welcoming and reassuring.
- Learning packs were created to complete at home, which mirrored the activity happening in the centre. The packs became an extension of what was occurring at Kinder, and children could share their work either via Zoom or on their return to the centre.
- Online channels like Zoom and Goodstart’s Storypark platform were used to share information and photos.
Supporting mental health for children and families
Teresa Venables, Early Childhood Teacher at Boronia, was particularly concerned with the mental health of the children and families in her care.
“We had a lot of children in Kinder with anxiety, so we formed small groups and talked about how they were feeling,” Teresa said.
“We made sure we had places available for children experiencing anxiety, or with diagnosed disorders.
“Our job in long day care is to support families. We work with our children and families from nursery right though to school – we’re here to support you through your parenting.”
As lockdowns and restrictions are eased across the country, early learning is benefitting from the stronger relationships established during the pandemic.
By focusing on connection and engagement, and supporting families in uncertainty, centres have built a sense of comfort, safety and security for families, children and educators. And parents and carers are appreciative.
As one thankful parent said: “We are so grateful they were very rational and measured. We had complete confidence when our daughter returned to the centre. I have so much confidence in what they do and how they do it.”