As a preschool teacher I made a point of warning new parents (and regularly reminding old ones) that their child will at some point be hit by another child and would likewise, at some point, also be the aggressor. It’s something one can predict like the sunrise. I cautioned them that they would be outraged when their child was the victim and mortified when their child was the perpetrator. As a child care professional, I assured them that I was capable of “handling it,” but that there is no way to ensure that it won’t happen again, and again . . . and maybe even again. Most children move out of their hitting phase fairly quickly, but it takes longer for others, sometimes months. Yet, even so, it’s not typically a sign of anything other than normal development.
Preschools are often the first community a child knows beyond their own family. It’s here that they make their first friends, resolve their first conflicts, and come to understand that their individual needs must be balanced with the needs of others. What’s wonderful about child-based communities is that everything happens out in the open. Children have not yet learned to hide their emotions, to disguise their intent behind passive-aggressive behavior, or to hide ulterior motives. When a child is sad, we usually know why they are sad. When a child feels that something is unfair, we all know it. This might not make it easier to solve the problems, but it certainly means that we don’t have to waste a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of things, which is in striking contrast to most adult communities.
While helping children through their challenges tends to be fairly straight-forward, the parents of the children we care for are also part of every preschool community, often a neglected part until things go awry. And one of the times when things most often go awry is when parents are in the throes of feeling outraged or mortified by things going on in their child’s classroom. There is a tendency to point fingers, to assign blame, and, perhaps most challenging, to attempt to recruit allies to their point of view. There are few things more destructive to the harmony of a community.
Transparency and communication are among the hallmarks of a strong community. While they are easily achieved amongst children, creating a climate of openness is often more difficult when adults are involved. For one thing, much of what happens in your classroom happens off the parents’ rader, meaning that most of what they know comes through their children, who may or may not be reliable narrators. Here are some tips that I’ve found useful for creating the kinds of transparency and communication that can form the foundation of a thriving, supportive wider community:
As I mentioned before, make sure parents know up-front that while many wonderful things happen every day, occasional unpleasantness is also a classroom reality. Make sure they know that conflict of all sorts is developmentally normal and that the trial and error learning of young children can sometimes look messy (even ugly). Let them know how you view conflict, how you intend to handle it, and then give them the opportunity to ask questions and provide insight into their own child. I like to think of this as an opportunity to lay the foundation for dialog about emotional topics before they become emotional.
Communicate more good than bad
As a teacher, it’s tempting to just share the good news with parents, but it’s also important to share a child’s challenges as well, keeping in mind that it’s only human nature to ignore the positives to focus on the negatives. When I have bad news to deliver (such as their child either hitting or being hit) I like to think of it as a kind of sandwich in which you start by sharing three or four charming details before, “by the way,” mentioning the bad news, then follow that up with three or four other charming details. The taste will still be bitter, but at least you’ve mitigated it a bit. Earning the reputation as fair and reliable will go along way toward earning a parent’s trust and will give them a clearer picture of how their child’s day went.
Make time to listen to parent concerns
Try to find time at the beginning or end of each day to be available for parents. Most parents are concerned about something and they often just need someone to listen. Often they don’t need any words of advice or wisdom, just the knowledge that someone has heard them. You are one of the most important people in their child’s life, and by extension, theirs. You are in many respects a member of the family. As Mister Rogers said, “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
Consider hosting regular parent meetings
I find it useful to have regular opportunities for the parents of the children I teach to meet with one another, without the children. Not every parent is willing or able to do this, but a one hour meeting, one evening a month, not only gives parents a chance to get to know one another, but it gives you the opportunity to get everyone on the same page when it comes to things like discipline and curriculum.
Create an email policy
If you haven’t noticed it by now, I’m a big fan of face-to-face communication, especially when it comes to challenging or difficult topics. Email is a horrible way to discuss emotional issues and group emails are even worse. As an educator, my policy is that email should be used exclusively for sharing information, asking questions, and offering congratulations. Discussions about behavior, complaints, and other matters are better left to face-to-face discussions where there is less room for misunderstanding.
This is hard, emotional work for both children and parents, and there is no way to avoid unpleasantness, but being prepared, proactive, and transparent goes a long way toward smoothing the way for everyone.