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Some parents have little experience dealing with early childhood education centres and preschools. Perhaps such an option has not been available in their neighbourhood before. Or perhaps they have negative associations because they had unfortunate experiences in the past, that cause them to distrust any institution.
Whatever their previous experience, parents must place a lot of trust in a centre. They need to know they are making a responsible choice when placing their child in the care of another.
Gwynneth Hawes Cook
"The way it is today, it's their centre. I founded it but it belongs to the North End."
North End Children's Centre
Through a complicated series of events, Gwynneth Hawes Cook found herself with a house in the North End of Hamilton. As a Christian, she saw it as a challenge to do something worthwhile with it, so she started the North End Children's Centre in 1985.
She opened her doors and … nothing happened. "The need for the centre was obvious and I expected people to beat a path to the door. That didn't happen," she explains.
Although she had considerable experience in early childhood education, Hawes Cook admits she didn't know much about the attitudes of the neighbourhood in which she established the centre. "It's not like a middle class neighbourhood where people have a whole repository of experiences dealing with institutions," she explains. "They didn't know what the centre was supposed to do for them so they held back."
The solution was to meet the parents more than halfway. "I made home visits, took my forms and let people have a look at me, let them ask me questions."
One of the things she learned was that residents of the area expected children to be transported to a childcare setting. So, Hawes Cook provided transportation.
Many of the parents also required reassurance that the centre was really "on their side." "These are people who haven't always had pleasant experiences dealing with institutions. They needed to know who they were dealing with."
And when it came to building trust, honesty was the best policy. "A good example is evidence of abuse," she explains. "I have to report anything I see. So I told them that right upfront. And I also told them, 'but I'll be there for you'." (See "Supervised Access".)
"Recognition is important. If I talk with the parents and we all discover that we have struggled with the same problem, then we can look at one another and say, 'I've been through this and you've been through this. Well that's good news, it means we're normal, this is a normal problem and now we can deal with it.'"
Brokenhead Aboriginal Head Start Program
Reassurance was also a big issue for Penny Spence at Brokenhead Aboriginal Head Start Program in Scantenbury, Manitoba. She found that empowering parents was the key element to connecting with her parents in the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.
"When I was hired to work with Head Start, I had to build a lot of trust," says Spence. "People here had no trouble understanding the concept: they wanted their child to have a head start." The challenge was to make sure they felt comfortable with the program and the person running it. Members of the Nation have had a rough time with official programs and with authority in the past. "The attitude was often that we know better and we'll run this without involving parents," explains Spence. "There are even cases of parents not knowing that their children were being signed up for a program."
To change the relationship, Spence began by going door-to-door and meeting parents in their homes. She spoke to them not as an expert who was going to know better but as a parent who was looking for the best program for her children.
"And I did that because that is who I am," she emphasizes. "My children are in the program."
After the first round of visits, she went back again and further empowered parents by asking them to be part of the parent advisory committee. "That was a great thing because we had some really powerful parents come out and they contributed these great ideas." (See also "Connecting with parents".)
By building connections Spence now has an interesting new role. "People come to me not as an authority but as someone who will go along with them. You want to meet with someone in authority and you don't want to go alone: I'll go with you. You want to ask a question but you aren't comfortable doing it: I'll ask the question and then you can listen in on the answer. You want somebody to tell your problems to, who isn't going to use that as an excuse to tell you what to do: come to me." (See also "Building stronger parents".)
"Parents want the best for their children. We try to be a support, help parents recognize what their strengths are and build on those strengths."
Boys and Girls Club Ready, Set, Go Preschool
Beatrice Bennett at the Boys and Girls Club's Ready, Set, Go! Preschool in Calgary, Alberta, also connects with parents by being a resource for them. Following the registration session, parents are asked to attend an information night. The centre provides childcare during the session to make it as easy as possible for parents to attend.
During the information session, staff members explain to the parents their "learning through play" philosophy and the emotional literacy component of the program. They also provide details about the parent component of the program, which includes parent workshops, coffee sessions, and play groups for dads and kids. Parents are also given information about the extra services the program offers, such as the food cupboard, clothing exchange, and help at stressful times of the year, such as Christmas.
"We are very fortunate in that our program is set up right in the Boys and Girls Club," explains Bennett. "During the day, the club is not in use so our parents can come in any time they want and have access to our kitchen and to the main club area."
The centre is also looking for a commitment from parents, and Bennett also discusses that at the information night. That commitment consists mostly of working with the centre to help their children develop social and literacy skills. "Those two areas are the main focus of our early childhood education for the simple reason that that is the greatest need for the children here," explains Bennett.
"We know, for example, that many of our children spend a lot of time in front of the television. There is nothing necessarily evil about television but you can't develop social skills or literacy skills in front of a television."
"We spend a lot of time with our parents explaining how they could limit that time in front of the television and suggesting other things they could have their children do instead." The centre backs that up by providing take-home bags with reading materials and games the family can play together. The centre also provides workshops for parents on the value of play and on how to play with their children. These help parents understand the importance of interacting with their children in a positive and fun way.
"We always work from our parents' strengths," says Bennett. "We develop the relationship and show them what they are doing well and then help them figure out how that can be extended."
This isn't just a good way of building trust, it's also the basis of any effective program, adds Bennett. "From the very start, we know we're not going to make any big changes in these children's lives unless we work with the whole family," explains Bennett.
For Al Lawrence, building trust meant connecting with the Cowichan culture at Le'Lum'uy'l Daycare.
"I have been here 14 years; it's easy now," says Lawrence. "It was hard to begin with because it looked like we were doing the opposite of what the culture was told to do."
Traditional Cowichan culture was based on raising children at home under the direct supervision of parents, grandparents and community elders. Sending children to an institution was a hard thing to do - much harder for those members of the community with memories of time spent in residential schools, adds Lawrence. "This is something we have to be very sensitive of. We are in an institutional building and it shares certain things in common with all institutional buildings. For some people, that look and feel brings on nightmarish memories."
"Our elders are few and far between and the Cowichan language is almost lost here. Others are writing down our teachings and making a dictionary. We are working with the children of the community and I am optimistic we will succeed."
Duncan, British Columbia
Le'Lum'uy'l built bridges by effective communication. "We had to show people that we were not taking anything or anyone away. That we are here to support the parents and grandparents."
It took a while, but the heavy lifting is done now. Lawrence hopes to do more. The centre has an open door policy for parents, grandparents and elders. "People who don't feel comfortable coming here, we will visit in their homes; not all 141 of the kids and staff at the same time, mind you."
The centre also takes part in activities with elders in the community and has built a garden of plants traditionally used by the Cowichan people. The community has an elders' lunch three times a week. "We often, at least three times a month, are part of that luncheon. And sometimes the luncheon is held here."
Le'Lum'uy'l is also changing the look of the building. "We are doing things like taking down our fencing so it looks less like a residential, institutional building in their eyes," says Lawrence. "And it is going to be hard because licensing has strict rules. If we have to, we may have to go without a licence."
Hawes Cook finds a parallel in her area. "It's too easy just to say, 'This is your centre.' People have to believe it." After she took the initial steps to reach out to her parents, the response improved very quickly, but Hawes Cook still wasn't finished. "I wanted people to go a bit further, to become part of it so it would be their centre. So I started organizing things like picnics and zoo trips on the weekends and that enticed people." (See "Rainbow Festival".)
It worked. Today, the parents who originally brought their children in now bring their grandchildren.
"It's wonderful to see the three generations," says Hawes Cook.
At some level, this means sacrificing control, says Hawes Cook. But she quickly adds that this surrender brings rewards. "When people become part of something, you can just see their strengths grow and I love seeing that."