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‘The Couch’

By: JANE JACKSON

Tuesday 11 February 2020

Against the backdrop of a wonderfully diverse modern Ireland, we are challenged to consider how we can ensure the meaningful participation of all parents and families in our ECEC settings. As the manager of a small sessional setting in a thriving multicultural and societally diverse Dublin suburb, I am acutely aware of the importance of strong, mutually respectful relationships with the families in our community. To achieve this, we must be flexible and receptive to new ideas. It is easy to assume that all families connect similarly with the setting. However, the reality is that this is not the case and while there are many similarities, this can look very different from one family to the next. Critical reflection supports the educator to identify ways to better understand the nature of these vital home-school connections and how the structure of the setting can either support or create imbalances in the opportunities afforded to parents. With the increasing awareness and recognition of the needs and rights of the contemporary family, it is essential that we connect with these lived experiences however they are represented. The context of the setting is an important part of the parental partnership process. If the culture of the setting is warm, open and welcoming the possibilities for meaningful relationships are realised. Settings are often more dependent on attitudinal factors than formal structures. However, utilisation of less conventional formal structures can prove very valuable.

The staff team at Tots of Fun considered “The couch” as one such structure with the potential power to break down barriers. The couch was a welcome addition to the setting some years ago and the impact it has had on relationships between children, staff and peers cannot be overemphasised. The couch has been moved around the setting several times according to the changing needs of the children and curriculum. It is more recently that we have begun to consider the potential impact of the couch in the context of parental engagement. We decided to locate the couch closer to the entrance of the setting and the importance of positioning was immediately evident. The couch, in this case, symbolises the value placed on the voice of the parents. The couch is important in and of itself, an object that speaks to us, a symbol of welcome, inviting us to sit.

We have always considered our setting to be inclusive, open and welcoming. Did we support warm and friendly relationships? Yes, we absolutely did. However, this viewpoint was from the perspective of the educators who in this case are from the majority culture with a presumption that all families connect similarly with the preschool. On deeper reflection we were compelled to consider the power boundaries underlying these interactions and relationships and the potential hidden barriers to meaningful relationships with parents. These barriers can manifest in several ways, such as the language we speak, cultural norms and expectations, personal experiences of childhood and the education system. Sharing of power and decision making can have a powerful impact on the lives of children and families and we as early years educators are perfectly positioned to provide essential support, but ultimately parents have a greater influence on their children’s attitude and inclination for learning in the early years, in my opinion.

Relationships with parents and families cannot be hurried; they require adequate space and time. The accessibility of the couch provides space for parents to spend time in the setting without feeling hurried or in the way, providing parents with an opportunity to see what takes place in the early years setting. We are also provided with an opportunity to discover ways in which parents and families can contribute to the setting. This process actively engages families, builds trust, and creates a much more welcoming environment. Our language and culture and the way we think, can make some factors visible to us and others easier to overlook or never see at all. This perspective provokes us to think about the elements of our settings that give the symbolic message ‘come on in’ or elements that may give the symbolic message ‘stay out, this is not a place for parents’.

 

Bio: 

Jane Jackson was born in Derry, Northern Ireland at the beginning of “the troubles” in 1969, her mother a catholic and father a protestant. She spent most of her childhood in Saudi Arabia, returning to live in Ireland in the early 90’s. Jane is owner/manager of Tots of Fun Preschool in Lucan, Co. Dublin which she opened in 1997. Jane has a BA in Early Childhood Teaching and Learning and is currently studying for a Masters in Education - Research in Practice in Maynooth University. Jane has 7 children of her own ranging from 24 years to 9 years. Two of Jane’s sons have Autism and she is a passionate advocate for inclusion of the child and family, herself having experienced the pain, isolation and confusion all too often associated with living with difference.

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