Carole Farrar starts a series on communicating with parents by looking at what makes effective communication.

I would like to share an apocryphal tale that has been passed down through generations: In the heat of battle, a senior army officer sent a message back to headquarters saying ‘Send reinforcements – we’re going to advance.’ Due to poor communication, however, by the time the message was received, it had become ‘Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.’ Not quite what was intended!

Effective communication

Effective communication is one of the greatest influences on success. However, there are times when all of us have failed to communicate as well as we would have liked. It might have been in a social situation or at work, with a friend, family member or a complete stranger. No doubt we can all recall how it felt to get it wrong and what the consequences were for our own and others’ feelings, and on subsequent behaviours.
Getting communication with parents in early years settings right is one of the most important aspects of working with young children. If it is done well, then children, their families and the organisation will flourish. Get it wrong and dissatisfaction, conflict and offence will be the likely result. But it is worth starting by exploring just what ‘communication’ is.

Communication – what is it?

Many complex theories abound, but at its most simple, communication is the process of sending a message or idea to someone else that will usually require a response from the receiver. We can communicate with each other in very many ways – through speech, text message, letter, email, on the telephone or just through a look or gesture. Even when we are saying or doing nothing, we might still be sending a message to someone else!

Audience, purpose and method

It is useful to consider audience characteristics and the purpose of any communications, as these will influence the method of communication that you will choose to use, so that maximum impact and intended outcomes are achieved. Do you intend to give information, get information, make a request, advise, persuade, instruct, praise, warn or prevent, influence, motivate, consult, discuss, negotiate or make a decision? Once you know this you can decide on the best method of communication.

For example, if you are hoping to motivate parents to get involved in a fund-raising activity, this is probably best done through posters and letters. However, if you want to find out how effective your induction procedures have been, one-to-one interviews with willing parents could be more appropriate. Information about the early years curriculum might be best communicated through open sessions and workshops rather than lengthy leaflets.

Whatever the method chosen, it should be remembered that the very best communication is usually a two-way process, so you will also have to think about how your parents can respond. Include this information in your original message: ‘We will be having an informal meeting at 4pm on Tuesday 17th March to share our views.’ or ‘Please complete the enclosed reply slip and leave it in the box outside the office.’

The best person for the job

It is important to choose the best member of your team to get a message across, as the skills of the communicator can have a profound impact on the recipient.

We all have different skills and talents – some of us are strong oral communicators on a one-to-one basis but might be less confident when speaking to a group. Others may relish performing and be happy to lead a workshop session. Quieter staff members may be talented written communicators, able to design simple questionnaires or information leaflets written in good, plain English. Some colleagues might have good empathy skills that will be appreciated by troubled parents. Others may be skilled negotiators, able to achieve compromise in difficult situations.

Find out what strengths you can call on from within your organisation and also where there may be weaknesses, so that colleagues’ skills can be improved through appropriate professional development activity.

Making assumptions

Communication can fail for many reasons – most frequently because either the sender or receiver of a message has made an assumption that turns out to be false.

For example, a setting may send out an information sheet about healthy eating. This might be gratefully received by Parent A, but Parent B might be deeply insulted to think that the setting could even contemplate that s/he would not be offering healthy foods at home!

The setting will have sent out the sheet with the best of intentions, assuming that parents would recognise this. With hindsight, however, a clear statement at the start of the letter acknowledging that parents will already be doing much of what is advised, might have prevented the offended parent from assuming that the setting thinks s/he might be getting it wrong. From personal experience, I know that when I get things wrong, it has usually been because I have made an assumption. As a colleague once advised me: ‘Never assume – it makes an ass of u and me’!

Setting the tone

Finally, early years settings need to build a climate that will foster effective communication with parents. Many settings say they have an ‘open door’ policy and that parents are welcome to see staff at any appropriate time. However, in reality, some parents may not approach unless they feel they have a substantive reason – usually a complaint! It is vital therefore to create relaxed and natural opportunities for open, two-way communication, so that parents do not feel that they need to create specific opportunities to speak to staff. This also helps develop good relationships which benefit children, parents and the setting as a whole.