Judy Kynaston, National Project Manager KidsMatter Early Childhood Australia

Talking to families about a specific concern can often be challenging for early childhood educators.  For example, families might have different views or perspectives from educators about the causes and nature of a child’s difficulty.  However, building collaborative partnerships with families can support communication between educators and families when there is a concern. Setting up an appropriate space for discussing concerns with parents and carers is also an important part of making everyone feel comfortable and open to sharing information. 


Dr Nicole Milburn,

Clinical Psychologist and Infant Mental Health Consultant

The partnership between early childhood professionals and families is particularly important when mental health problems are present in small children.  When the partnership has been set up well in the beginning with good communication, and a conversation about the child, and what the child needs and what's happening, mental health problems are then more easily brought up and communicated within the partnership.  Sometimes children come to a centre already having a diagnosis of a mental health problem.  And a very matter of fact approach by early childhood professionals in the beginning about "Tell us about your child.  What are their strengths?  Do they have any challenges?  Have they got any mental health problems that we need to talk about, we need to be aware of," can help families feel that this is a place where my child, with all their difficulties and strengths, can be understood and well cared for.


Janet Williams-Smith, Early Childhood Services Consultant

I think having a conversation about mental health with the family is really looking at maybe starting with the impact that it's having on the child because that's a safe place to start.  So if you notice that a child is displaying anxiety, or distress or depression in your service, we have a conversation with parents about those quickly because we're concerned.  And "What can we do to help you?  Why do you think this is happening?  Is there anything we can do to help?"  Invariably the first answer from parents will be "No, that's nothing, she's fine.  There's nothing wrong."  You have to keep having those conversations and say "Well, no, actually I think there is something wrong and we're here to help with that." 


Tahnee Jamieson, Coordinator Western Riverina Family Day Care Scheme

Strong relationships need to be built to be able to have those difficult conversations that need to be had at times, and there needs to be a mutual respect, first that the parent is respecting the fact that it is their child and that it is difficult for them to hear. But also, that the parent respect the educator, that they [the educator] know what they are saying and being able to bring up those difficult things that probably none of us like to hear. But they are not conversations that are had easily unless you have that strong relationship.


Janet Williams-Smith, Early Childhood Services Consultant

So getting behind some of the behaviours that children might present with in services, is also talking to families because I would imagine, and this has been my experience in the past that, if children are presenting with challenging behaviours in early years services and learning environments, it's very likely they're going to be doing the same at home, or there are things that are happening at home that might be tricky and difficult.  So engaging with parents about a strategy of "Why don't we all do the same things?  Why don't we all try the same things and see what happens over a period of time?"  Most parents will engage with that because they hear, first of all, that you're trying to help them.  They also hear that you value their child and you value, and you've noticed that something's not okay and you want to do something about it.  All of those things are really helpful.  And they are partnership builders with parents.


Dr Sophie Havinghurst, Clinical Child Psychologist

So sometimes you’ll have a parent coming to you saying “I’m really worried about my child.  I don’t know what to do.  Can you suggest something?”  Now sometimes you can feel like you’re put on the spot to have to come up with an answer and to be an expert, and in many ways you’re viewed as an expert of everything when you’re an early childhood educator.  Families will believe that you hold all the knowledge.  And that can be a really tricky expectation.  But at the same time, it means that you’re in a position where you can really engage the parents in the idea of getting some help, and you can actually try and look at what things might be barriers for them in getting help. 


Dr Luke Touhill, Early Childhood Consultant

I think it helps if we’re able to, in the first instance, just listen to what they’re saying and in a sense don’t just jump in straight away with, “Oh, yes. That’s exactly like this, or I’ve seen this before.”  I think it’s important to allow them to speak and to tell you what their concern is.  I think it’s important if you’re not confident with your answer, to say that, to say “Look I’m not really sure about that. Maybe I’d like to observe that a bit myself. Maybe I want to go and talk to someone else and find some more information.” 



I think we have to be careful that we’re not taking on the role of diagnosing things ourselves, particularly as educators.  We might have a lot of practical experience in things but we’re not usually qualified to give a diagnosis, so we have to be careful how we talk about things so that we are not putting ourselves into a different role to what we are and thinking about who we might suggest that people could talk to if they want to follow something through further.

Dr Sarah Mares, Consultant and Infant, Child and Family Psychiatrist

I think it’s very important that educators have support from their Manager and from their team, to work out the best way to address those issues of concern with the caregiver.  The best starting point is to assume that the caregiver, the people caring for the child, are also going to be very concerned about that.  I think that the way of starting those conversations is also to start from the assumption that the people caring for the child are the experts on that child.  And so perhaps to start off with something like, “We were just a bit surprised today when Mary really didn’t settle to sleep or she just seemed a lot more upset than usual, she seemed very much more scared or reluctant to play or very withdrawn today,” or whatever the concern is, “and we wondered whether you’d noticed that or whether you had any concerns about that.” And then to start a conversation starting from the point that the parent has the best interests of the child in mind.  

Tracey Simpson, Early Childhood Consultant

When an early childhood service has developed a relationship with all the families, one of the messages that should always be really clear is that, “We are here for you to connect with about whatever concerns you have around your child.”  It’s really important that that message is played out in all that we do so that if families feel they can connect on a daily basis, when it comes to a problem time, something that is concerning them, they’ve got enough trust in the early childhood educators to talk to them and ask questions, ask for support, ask for links to other services. But it really has to be a message about connecting right from the beginning so that when we come to times of trouble, it’s okay to do it.