Parents Vs Providers – When Opinions Differ On The Best Way To Care For Children Conflict Can And Should Be Avoided
Sometimes families and providers clash, and in these cases it’s better for all involved to part ways
Entrusting an early years setting to take care of a child is a big step for parents. For many, it’s the first time they’ve used any form of conventional childcare; for some the first time their child has spent time with anybody that isn’t family.
Until this point, the parents have likely had control over every element of their child’s day. It’s understandable, therefore, that situations arise where mums and dads are unhappy with aspects of their child’s care in your setting – differences of opinion aren’t just possible, they’re unavoidable.
From a childcare perspective, it’s difficult to juggle best practice, safety concerns, the needs of other children in your care and the opinions and wants of different parents. The difficult truth is that compromises must be made. At times, it can feel as if parents don’t respect the knowledge and experience of staff, and if not carefully managed, the situation can very quickly become uncomfortable and even unworkable.
Is there an effective way to handle these situations? I believe there is, most of the time. Sometimes families and providers clash, and in these cases it’s better for all involved to part ways. But it’s possible to dramatically reduce the chance of this happening, and the key is in forward planning and preparation. First, though, let’s explore the differing goals of early years settings and parents, as understanding these plays a huge role in preventing sticky situations from developing and resolving them when they do.
Underpinning almost all differences of opinion in childcare between parents and early years settings is the contrast between short-term and long-term goals. Both parents and providers are primarily focused ‘in the moment’ – that is ensuring the child’s safety and happiness from day to day.
These short-term goals may include keeping the child well-fed, clean and safe; helping them to learn, explore and grow, both physically and psychologically; and meeting milestones and expectations. Another goal considers the safety of others. For parents this may be siblings, while for childcare settings, it will be other children in their care.
The phrase ‘short-term goal’ here sounds a little flippant, because of course while ensuring these ‘in the moment’ goals are met, providers are also mindful of the individual the child will grow to be in the coming months and years. However, there is no denying that in childcare most goals are short-term, focused on days, weeks, months and a few years.
Parents on the other hand, must balance these short-term ‘in the moment’ goals with the long-term goals they hold for their children. They are concerned with how childcare will influence who their children will grow into in 20 or 30 years’ time.
These long-term goals are often at odds with short-term ones, and parents struggle with this outside of childcare: often the easiest way to address a child’s difficult behaviour and restore calm in the short term is detrimental to their emotional development in the long term; actions parents may have to take to keep another child safe, may not be in the best interests of their child over the coming years. The tension that can exist around balancing short- and long-term goals, however, is perhaps most problematic when considering parental wishes, beliefs and hopes for the future versus a setting’s policies and procedures. This clash of goals, I believe, is the cause of most differences of opinion between parents and practitioners.
Plan and prepare
So, how can you avoid these clashes becoming serious issues? Perhaps the best preparation that both parents and professionals can carry out is to ascertain if a setting is a good match for a family and vice versa.
Sometimes they simply aren’t, and it’s better for all involved if this conclusion is reached before the children start. Encourage parents to ask as many questions as possible when visiting, perhaps by giving them a sheet with questions as a prompt, and don’t be afraid to ask questions in return.
One of the most useful preparation tools you can use is to ask parents to write a childcare plan and discuss their beliefs and requests in a special meeting before the child starts. Think of this plan rather like a birth plan: a special list of wishes that parents complete while pregnant, ready for their child’s birth. You could have a pro forma document that you distribute to new parents and ask them to complete. The following would be important sections to include:
- What are your beliefs around discipline? What methods do you use at home and why? What methods do you not use at home and why? Are there any methods you would really like us to not use when your child is with us?
- What are your beliefs around child sleep? If your child still naps, where do they do this and how do they get to sleep? Are there any methods that you disagree with when it comes to sleep training? Is there anything you would like us to do to help your child to sleep and anything that you do not want us to do?
- What are your beliefs around eating? Do you take a certain approach to eating at home? Would you like us to help your child with feeding, or do you prefer them to be independent? What would you like us to do if your child refuses to eat, or doesn’t eat much when with us?
- What are your beliefs around communication? Are there any words that you avoid using at home and want us to avoid? Are you happy if we verbally praise your child?
Formulating and, most importantly, discussing a childcare plan with parents before the child starts with you can almost entirely remove any chances of differing opinions further down the line, and crucially will help parents to really trust you with the care of their child.
Preparation is again key when, despite your best efforts, differences of opinion do arise. Agree on a standard approach to handling them that’s respectful, calm and focused on moving forward. Following the five-step plan (left) can produce productive conversations that help parents to feel heard. Really, this all boils down to good communication: communication well in advance of the child starting with you and during their time with you!
Defuse the tension
When disagreements with home arise, follow these five pointers to resolve your issues…
- Listen – always start by getting the parent’s thoughts; encourage them to explain: “Can you tell me why you feel that?”
- Understand – actively listening will help you to understand the parent’s position, while helping the parent to feel understood.
- Explain – now it’s time to explain your position. Is there a specific reason why your setting is, or isn’t, doing something, that the parent isn’t aware of?
- Discuss – with both parties more informed, you should really discuss both positions, as well of course as considering the child’s needs and feelings.
- Compromise – your goal is to reach a position where both you and the parent are happy: what small things can you change? What can they change?
Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a parenting expert, author and mother of four.