Professional relationships with families

As early childhood professionals, we play a significant role in the lives of young children. We are in a position to support their learning and wellbeing, and have a profound affect on their lifelong disposition for learning. The National Quality Framework reforms are a reflection on how important early childhood education is, both in Australia and internationally.

While our relationships and learning with children is the most important part of our work, we should not underestimate how work as educators influences, and is influenced by, each child’s family. While we may only see them for a few minutes each day, how we enact professional relationships with families is worth taking very seriously.

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) acknowledges this explicitly, with Partnerships with families one of the fundamental Principles of our work. The EYLF states how important it is for educators to value and respect a child’s family life, while also exploring learning opportunities for each child both in their early learning setting and at home.

Quality Area 6 of the National Quality Standard gives services a strong guide to developing high-quality approaches to working with families, with a focus not just on developing good relationships with families (Standard 6.1) but actively working to support them in their parenting role (Standard 6.2).

At this early stage of the year, getting to know children and their families is a big part of our work. While we often out in a lot of thought, reflection and planning into supporting children to build relationships with their peers, educators and the learning environment, do we give as much attention to how we work with families? Specifically, do we think about how to ensure that our partnership with a child’s family is respectful, ethical and above all – professional?

The work we do with young children provides both exciting opportunities and risky challenges in relation to working with families. Families trust early learning services and organisations with the care of their children every day. This can lead to deep bonds of respect and even personal friendship – but is there a line of professional responsibility that can sometimes be crossed?

In my career in early childhood education, I’ve been privileged to work with and visit a large number of services and organisations. In some cases, it seems evident that some relationships between educators (including Centre Directors and other leaders) and families seemed to be based on developing personal friendships rather than professional relationships.

Professionalism is important to me. The National Quality Framework reforms are about raising the standard of early education around Australia, and part of those reforms is raising the professional standing of the work we do. We’re moving away from being viewed as “childcare workers”, and while we have a long way to go, I’m heartened that the work we do is becoming a little more valued and acknowledged each day.

However, as early childhood professionals we have to take the primary responsibility for how our work is viewed. We are advocates for ourselves, our colleagues and our sector each and every day. It is particularly important to remember this in the context of working with families. Families are coming to us as professionals, working in the early childhood sector as experts in the provision of early childhood education and care. How we conduct ourselves, from a simple welcoming chat in the morning to a formal Curriculum Night, will inform how families view us.

It can seem counter-intuitive, but focusing on being “friends” with families can undermine this professionalism. While we should always be welcoming, approachable, available and friendly, we should always focus on developing professional relationships that are focused on supporting all children and their families.

This can be challenging for educators and leaders who are used to viewing themselves primarily as a “friend” to children and their families, or who are used to communicating in ways that are affectionate and light. But in some cases, this can lead to unprofessional behaviours that are counter-productive to the important work of educators and their colleagues.

The kind of behaviours that I have witnessed in the past that have concerned me include:

  • Centre Directors regularly emailing personal information about their own social lives, and even signing off emails to families with “xxoo”
  • Educators developing social friendships with a number of families through their work, and meeting with them regularly on weekends
  • Educators “friending” families on social media, particularly Facebook, and regularly discussing their children

These are just a few examples, and I know without a doubt that many people reading this article will strongly disagree that some or all of those examples are unprofessional. While I respect that view, I must disagree with it. While being friends with families may seem innocent, and actually beneficial, on first thought, it is in fact fraught with ethical and professional issues.

When we communicate with families, they are judging our professionalism as work with young children. Receiving official emails from people employed to lead a team of educators working with young children that discusses social lives and includes “xxoo” would lead many families to believe that that person does not take their job seriously.

Meeting socially with some parents you have met through your work can also seem harmless – but how would that look to a parent not involved in that group? They may reasonably assume that those families, and their children, will receive special treatment. What if you have to discuss a serious issue regarding a child with one of those families? Would you still feel professionally capable if you were hoping to be their friend?

While social media is becoming ubiquitous, as professionals we need to be very, very careful about engaging with families we meet through our jobs outside of work. There are any number of stories out there in the media on the pitfalls of Facebook and the like, and again – we need to think about how that relationship outside the centre will affect the partnership within it.

For me, what this all boils down to is a classic and well-founded rule. Professional and personal considerations must be kept separate. To me, it is crystal clear that forming friendships with families can affect our work as educators, which affects the whole early education sector. There is a difference between being a friend to some, and friendly and welcoming to all.

At the end of the day, we are paid to do our work as professionals. If your primary motivation to be working with young children is not to support children’s learning and wellbeing, but to add to your Facebook friend count, it might be time to reconsider your role.

This article originally appeared in Every Child Vol 22. No. 3 and is republished here with gracious permission of Early Childhood Australia

By Liam McNicholas

I am an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, I have advocated for children's human rights; the need for investment in early childhood education; and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care.

I am available to be commissioned for freelance writing, editing, event speaking and consulting work.

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