Recognising parents and families as children’s first and most important teachers, ECMS centres encourage families and communities to contribute and participate in every facet of their children’s kindergarten and early learning experience. It’s an approach that helps the children at QV Children’s Centre connect, settle and become confident and independent learners.
When three-year-old Audrey discovers her mum Andrea has left work to make a surprise visit to kindergarten one afternoon; she rushes over to give mum a big hug. They spend the next half an hour in QV Children’s Centre’s playground, riding bikes, drawing, telling stories and engaged in quiet conversation. Audrey can “share” her mum with her friends, and show her friends her relationship with her mum. She and her mum talk to the other children about what they do at home. This simple interaction gives Audrey a sense of holistic recognition. Showing her whole life to her friends and teachers by having her mum there provides a platform for Audrey to feel ownership and true participation in her kindergarten.
Moments such as these are precious for Andrea, who works full-time in a nearby office building. But although Andrea doesn’t get to spend much time with her daughter during the working week, she’s happy knowing Audrey loves kindergarten and that she, Andrea, “knows” and is incorporated into the environment in which her daughter spends time. Her family contribute to and influence how and what Audrey learns while she’s there. This is important to Andrea because she wants Audrey to grow and flourish within the boundaries of her family’s values, history and culture.
Audrey’s teacher Liz says encouraging parents such as Andrea to share their histories, knowledge, ideas, culture and aspirations in raising and educating their children is a crucial part of QV’s teaching philosophy.
“Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers,” explains Liz. “As their kindergarten teachers, we need to learn and be informed about what the families value, where they come from and what is important to them in raising their children. The best way to support a child’s development is to be well informed, ‘know’ the families and have a synchronicity between families, us and school.”
It’s a philosophy that’s backed by research. A 2008 study, Parent Involvement in Preschool: Predictors and the Relation of Involvement to Pre-Literacy Development, found parents’ involvement in children’s early learning settings is associated with stronger pre-literacy skills. Further research has found that educator efforts in building strong partnerships with parents have a significant impact on improving children’s educational outcomes.
At QV Children’s Centre, building open communication, trust and respect between educators and families starts from the moment a child is enrolled in the centre. This orientation period is critical in getting to know the family and educators encourage families to come in and spend time with them.
“We have developed a questionnaire for the families, to help get to know them better,” says Liz. “Families are encouraged to tell us their family story and cultural background, their festivals and celebrations and their goals and aspirations for their child so that we can work towards the same thing.”
This careful orientation can be a very validating experience for families and helps build trust between the staff and the family. For Andrea, this approach has made her feel both confident in the program and valued as a parent. “It’s huge. They’re making sure we share as parents how we see our children and what we want our children to achieve every year.”
Educators refer to the questionnaire throughout the year to ensure children’s learning continues to be influenced by the knowledge they have of the family. The educators also have daily conversations with parents when they come in the mornings, seeking information on anything they need to know about at home that might influence the children’s day, for example, any events, celebrations, visiting family members etc. This regular catch-up time is important in enabling educators to use relevant family activities in developing and planning the curriculum and programs at the kindergarten.
This exchange of information, activity and learning is also evident in parents’ use of Storypark, an online documentation and communication tool the centre uses that connects families to what children are doing in the program and vice versa.
“I love Storypark,” says Andrea. “It’s great to be able to see what Audrey is learning and doing in the moment, and it helps to be able to check in when I miss her through the day.
“Educators post images, videos and some of the work the children produce at kindergarten. I am able to comment back, ask questions and upload photos of what she’s been doing on the weekend and share these experiences with my extended family, which is really important to me.
“There are many opportunities for families to get involved in the kindergarten community, such as attending movie nights where we can bring in and share food with other families, joining the children on excursions and coming in to read stories. Parents have been encouraged to bring in their favourite stories and tell them to all the children, and also talk about why it’s a favourite story.”
Liz says, “Many of the children in our services speak English as a second language, and we [the educators] have been really proactive in ensuring children have access to and can learn in different languages. We invite parents to come in regularly to talk about their culture and teach children simple words in their language. All the children really enjoy having their parents coming in. Their sense of pride and belonging is evident as the children share their family’s rituals, stories and language with their friends.”
Ninety per cent of QV’s kindergarten families are from non-Australian backgrounds. Liz says finding ways to ensure their histories, cultures and values are maintained and incorporated into the program is vital. First language is a very strong tool that helps children stay connected to their community. QV has a number of teachers in the team who speak different languages, which helps to preserve use of first language. It’s something Andrea, who moved to Australia from Ireland, loves about the centre.
“In the lead up to St. Patrick’s Day Audrey’s teacher asked me if we mark or celebrate it and, if so, what we do. I was able to post up some videos of our traditional Irish dancing and storytelling on Storypark that was shared with all the children the following week. Audrey was thrilled that this family celebration was shared with her friends.”
This culturally and historically inclusive approach to teaching promotes a strong sense of being, becoming and belonging for children. Recognising people and noticing and celebrating differences is the beginning of true inclusion.