Volume 3 Number 2
©The Author(s) 2001
Building Equitable Staff-Parent Communication in Early Childhood Settings:
An Australian Case Study
International research has consistently found that good staff-parent relationships in early childhood centers benefit children, staff, and parents. Given these findings, the Australian federal government's Quality Improvement and Accreditation Scheme (QIAS) requires centers to involve parents in their programs. However, international research has also found that early childhood staff are anxious about their relationships with parents. This article describes a study in which early childhood staff in Australia were asked about their experiences with parent involvement. It draws on those interviews to consider communication strategies to create equitable relationships between staff and parents.
Background to the Study
Communication between parents and staff is an important part of the daily life of early childhood centers, and international research has shown that good staff-parent communication contributes significantly to the success of early childhood programs in several ways. Researchers have claimed that good communication between staff and parents (as well as good communication between staff) is a prerequisite for high-quality care and education of young children (Doherty-Derkowski, 1995); that it positively influences children's cognitive and social development, increasing their educational success (e.g., Laloumi-Vidali, 1997; Endsley, Minish, & Zhou, 1993; Studer, 1993/94); and that it contributes to good relations between children and between staff and children (e.g., Smith & Hubbard, 1988). Researchers have also claimed that parent involvement in their children's early education increases parents' understanding of appropriate educational practices and improves children's development (e.g., Gelfer, 1991); that it improves children's educational outcomes, especially literacy (e.g., Bryant, Peisner-Feinberg, & Miller-Johnson, 2000; Cooter, Mills-House, Marrin, Mathews, Campbell, & Baker, 1999; Baker, Allen, Shockley, Pellegrini, Galda, & Stahl, 1996); and that it improves parental commitment to schooling (Izzo, Weissberg, Kasprow, & Fendrich, 1999). Finally, researchers argue that parental involvement contributes to national development (e.g., Cone, 1993; Hannon, 1995; Cairney, 1997; Koralek & Collins, 1997); and that it benefits business by creating a more literate and, therefore, a more productive workforce (PFIE, 1997). Similar benefits have been claimed in studies of the effects of school-parent partnerships on children's learning and achievement levels (Booth & Dunn, 1996).
Despite the enthusiasm for greater parental involvement in early education (e.g., Studer, 1993/94; Swick, 1994; Johnson, Walker, & Rodriguez, 1996; Hepworth Berger, 1995), much of the burgeoning literature about the topic is concerned with its associated problems. Staff-parent communication has been seen as problematic in diverse countries, including Greece (Laloumi-Vidali, 1997), Australia (Ebbeck & Glover, 1998), the United Kingdom (Moore & Klass, 1995), the United States (Rescorla, 1991), Taiwan (Liu & Chien, 1998), Switzerland (Unteregger-Mattenberger, 1995), and Japan (Huira, 1996). The problems are diverse. For example, staff-parent relationships are often strained and not always meaningful (Kasting, 1994; Elliot, 1998), staff struggle to know how best to communicate with parents (Wright-Sexton, 1996) and are often anxious about it (Studer, 1993/94), and staff are often reluctant to talk to parents (Huira, 1996). The explanations of those problems include inadequate staff training in staff-parent communication (Laloumi-Vidali, 1997), disagreements between staff and parents about what is appropriate education for young children (Hyson, 1991; Rescorla, 1991; Stipek, Rosenblatt, & DiRocco, 1994; Unteregger-Mattenberger, 1995; Liu & Chien, 1998), cultural differences between staff and parents (Gonzalez-Mena, 1992; Espinosa, 1995; Coleman & Churchill, 1997; Ebbeck & Glover, 1998), and staff beliefs that parents need educating to improve their capacity to help children's learning (Gelfer, 1991; Stipek, Rosenblatt, & DiRocco, 1994; Moore & Klass, 1995; Laloumi-Vidali, 1997).
In Australia, parent involvement in early childhood education is a precondition of government funding to child care centers. The Australian federal government's Quality Improvement and Accreditation Scheme (QIAS) requires a center to involve parents in planning its programs, administering its services, and evaluating their quality; and QIAS specifies standards and conditions that child care centers must meet to be eligible for formal accreditation and government funding (National Childcare Accreditation Council, 1993). Before the QIAS was introduced, approaches to parent involvement varied considerably because Australian child care center staff decided for themselves how (and how much) to involve parents in program planning, service administration, and quality evaluation. For example, community-based services sought to empower parents by involving them in decision making and administration, while other services involved parents in quality assurance through formal and informal surveys of customer satisfaction (Broinowski, 1994). No formal evaluation of the QIAS has yet been published to ascertain if and how approaches to parent involvement have changed or how parent involvement is currently practiced. Such evaluation is timely: by August 2000, every child care center in Australia had joined the scheme and 94% had been accredited (National Childcare Accreditation Council, 2000).
The authors examined staff views on staff-parent relationships, using the model of knowledge-power relationships in staff-parent communication outlined by Hughes and MacNaughton (1999). In 2000, a small, exploratory, qualitative research study was undertaken with 15 early childhood staff members in 3 QIAS-accredited child care centers in Victoria, Australia. The study aimed to discover fresh dimensions (Kvale, 1996) of staff-parent relationships, and it addressed two questions:
- How do these early childhood staff members understand and practice parent involvement?
- How can these understandings be best theorized and related to the international field of early childhood education?
Three techniques were used to collect empirical data about how staff understand and practice parent involvement. First, in a structured confidential, self-completed questionnaire, participants described their preservice training and cultural background and gave their views about (1) involving parents, (2) communicating effectively with parents, (3) meeting QIAS standards of parent involvement, and (4) the goals of parent involvement. Second, a group discussion (audiotaped and transcribed) was held at each center. Each discussion was semi-structured and used open-ended questions and a "hypothetical" situation to investigate staff's experiences, channels, and practices of communication with parents. Participants were eager to share their views about the topic, and so the discussion leader simply posed the open-ended questions, outlined the "hypothetical" situation, and listened to participants' responses. (Such a "passive" role is not, of course, always possible [Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990].) Third, each participant in the group discussions was subsequently interviewed by telephone to counter three potential common problems of group discussions: one participant's domination, some participants' reluctance to participate fully, and "groupthink" (Minichiello, Aroni, Timewell, & Alexander, 1990). The telephone interviews allowed each participant to comment on whether, how, and to what extent their group discussion had included their particular views and practices. In the event, each participant said that they had been comfortable in their group discussion, that it had included their views, and that they had nothing to add.
The researchers invited three centers to participate in the research project, and all accepted. Each center operated a parent involvement program in line with QIAS requirements and consequently had achieved three-year accreditation status with QIAS. All staff at each centera total of 35were asked to participate as individuals, and 15 accepted. Each of the 15 was asked to complete a questionnaire to profile the participant. The centers were chosen using purposive sampling (Patton, 1990) to maximize differences in the demographic characteristics of their staff and parents. Each center reflected a specific set of staff-parent relationships:
- Center 1 is a rural, community-based service. Parents are primarily Anglo-Australian. Of the 14 staff, 5 participated in the study. All 5 were Anglo-Australian and had formal early childhood qualifications.
- Center 2 is a metropolitan service on a university campus. Parents are from a range of cultural and class backgrounds. Of the 10 staff, 7 participated in the study. Four of them were Anglo-Australian and had formal early childhood qualifications; 3 were from non-Anglo-Australian backgrounds and had no formal early childhood qualifications.
- Center 3 is an inner-urban, community-based service. Parents are primarily from an Anglo-Australian, middle-class background. Of the 9 staff, 3 participated in the study. All 3 were Anglo-Australian and had formal early childhood qualifications.
In summary, the 15 participants in the study were characterized as described in Table 1.
Center Type/ No. of Participants
|Formal Qualification||No Formal Qualification|
|Center 1: rural, community-based
|Center 2: metropolitan, university-based
|Center 3: urban, community-based
The centers and the participating staff did not represent centers and staff in Australia as a whole. In Australia, child care centers differ widely in location and in physical environment, as well as in the ethnicity and class of their staff and of the people who use them. Such diversity precludes generalizing data from a few centers to allor even mostof them, which is why the study sought qualitative rather than quantitative data. However, the study suggests themes and issues that could guide a broader and deeper study of parent involvement in Australia's QIAS centersespecially the extent of staff ambivalence about parent involvement.
This article draws primarily on transcriptions of the three audiotaped group discussions, because participants' responsesespecially to the "hypothetical" instance of parent involvementgenerated rich empirical data. The empirical data were analyzed in three stages. Stage 1 categorized participants' statements, stage 2 categorized the themes underlying them, and stage 3 was a metacategoryit collated the categories into four interpretive case studies. This staged process of data analysis drew on structural corroboration (Eisner, 1991), that is, data from individual participants were used to test the broad data generated through the first two stages and to generate a set of case studies exemplifying the study's key themes and issues.
Stage 1 detailed the discussions' manifest (visible) content, that is, the issues participants raised. Stage 2 detailed the discussions' latent content, that is, the themes underlying participants' comments. Techniques of knowledge-power analysis (Foucault, 1980) were used to examine how participants' identities as professionals and experts both constituted and were constituted by specific discourses (e.g., developmentally appropriate practice), specific texts (e.g., the QIAS principles and guidelines), and specific practices (e.g., staff-parent communication), and to examine the power effects of such mutual constitution. Stage 3 collated the results of the first two stages into four interpretive case studies of parent involvement. Each case study expressed the discussions' manifest and latent content as specific parent involvement strategies, and each case study included communication strategies that staff associated with good parent involvement.
Staff who participated in this study understood parent involvement in many different ways, each expressing particular relations between knowledge and power. To tease-out those relations, the authors generated a set of analytical questions arising from each case study, using the results of the third stage of the analysis. The questions explore whether and to what extent staffs' understandings and practices of parent involvement subordinated parental knowledge to professional knowledge and how equitable parent involvement might be created. Their purpose is to suggest new perspectives on the continuing "problem" of parent involvement by specifically focusing attention on how equitable the assumptions underpinning specific understandings and practices were in each case study.
The process of generating the analytical questions drew on the discussions by Hughes and MacNaughton (2000, 1999) of knowledge-power relationships. In summary, Hughes and MacNaughton (1999) examined 162 items published in the 1990s that focused on parent involvement and concluded that knowledge-power relations are at the core of staff-parent relationships. They found that staff-parent communication is generally problematic because staff assume that their expert knowledge of the child is "the (scientific) truth" and dismiss or ignore competing kinds of knowledge as unscientificanecdotal, unsystematic, and lacking a theoretical base. Thus, in much of the early childhood literature concerning parent involvement, parents' knowledge of the child is dismissed or ignored as inadequate, misguided, or just plain wrong. From this perspective, good staff-parent communication means experts imparting the truth about children to people who lack it, and good parent involvement requires parents to admit their ignorance. Hughes and MacNaughton (1999) suggest that staff can create new knowledge-power relations with parents through "communicative collaboration" that acknowledges, respects, and uses parental knowledge of the child:
Through such communicative collaboration, staff and parents can challenge the "traditional" view that expertise is neutral, independent, and "external" to social relations, as it were. In its place, they can "co-create" expertise as both the foundation and the outcome of social relations between themas both the starting point of communicative collaboration and its continuing product. (p. 31)
Participants in this exploratory study were ambivalent about involving parents in their programs. They dutifully expressed the prevailing belief that parent involvement was a good thing for parents, staff, and children (e.g., Cairney, 1997; Cone, 1993; Hannon, 1995; Kasting, 1994). However, participants knew that parent involvement was hard, because developing shared understandings with parents about their child's best interests is neither easy nor guaranteed.
Stage 1 Findings:
Manifest Issues in Staff Understandings and Practices of Parent Involvement
Four interrelated understandings were common to the three centers:
- Parent involvement is problematic and complex.
- Parent involvement is crucial to effective work with young children.
- Informal, verbal channels of communication are crucial in creating and maintaining parent involvement.
- The QIAS emphasis on formal and written channels of communication is (in the view of several staff members) irrelevant to the practicalities of building meaningful communication with parents and, hence, accountability to them.
Two interrelated practices were common to the three centers:
- The balance between formal and informal communication in parent involvement: All staff used both forms of communication, but to different extents. (The most common formal channels were parent conferences, parent meetings, and message books; the most common informal channel was conversation before and after sessions.)
- The balance between verbal and written communication in parent involvement: Staff used both, but to different extents.
Stage 2 Findings:
Latent Themes in Staff Understandings and Practices of Parent Involvement
Two latent themes were common to the three centers:
- Staff preferred informal communication with parents.
- Staff preference for informal communication was linked to their sense that parent involvement was essential but highly complex and problematic.
Stage 3 Findings:
Interpretive Case Studies of Good Parent Involvement
The results of stages 1 and 2 were collated into four interpretive case studies of good parent involvement as staff defined it. From each case study, the authors generated analytical questions (as discussed above) to suggest new perspectives on parent involvement.
Case Study 1: "Disclosing the Personal"
In each of the three groups, some staff understood parent involvement to mean parents disclosing personal information to them. For example:
2-8: (p10)1I think this year.lots of parents are really open and willing to talk in detail, they're comfortable enough to come in and sit down and chat about the children, and I find that.it helps me and my job and, yeah, makes life easier if I have an understanding of what's going on at home with the children, and can help the children during the day with me..
Many staff shared 2-8's views, feeling that they could not really understand a child unless parents disclosed personal information about that child. However, eliciting such personal information can pose ethical problems:
1-6: (p5) I guess it's a bit of a trust thing, too, where we're trusting them and they're trusting us as well, so that may be part of the building up of a relationship with us all too, just forming that element of trust, too. The parents are writing very personal understandings and beliefs about who they are as well, and so I think there is a respect element of, you know, privacy, too.. And I guess by introducing it in terms of it's an ownership for them and it's an ownership for us and an ownership for their children, they take on board that it is ownership and that's where it stops I guess. So, you know, they can share what they want to share.
The following are analytical questions about equitable communication:
- Do staff have a right to personal information about a family, even if it might help them to work more effectively with a child?
- Can staff build a strong sense of a child without such personal information?
- Can staff and parents build shared meanings about children's best interests without such personal information?
- Do parents withhold personal information from staff because they believe that staff can understand their child sufficiently without it?
- Do parents necessarily share staff beliefs on what they need to know about a child?
- Are meaningful relationships between anybody possible without sharing personal understandings and beliefs?
Case Study 2: "Understanding the Professional"
Some staff believed good parent involvement to mean parents understanding and respecting professionals' expert knowledge of the child. They felt that effective work with a child depended on parents understanding (automatically or after being told by staff) that staff decisions were based on their formal, professional knowledge about children. For example:
2-11: (pp3/4) You need to get across to the parents that what we do with the kids is based on observations and, you know, it's not just we're playing with them every day.. Jenny had a group of parents that we did a round-table discussion with, and there had been a few concerns and it was really interesting to see the light dawning on their facesthat, "Oh my God, they are doing things that are based on, you know, relevant observation." .Once, you know, they were explained to what the aims and objectives were and why things were happening as they were, it was good..
2-8: (p4) Every now and then they will say, "Oh well, you know, what have you been doing?" but we.also put that on our newsletters, like what the program is about and stuff..
However, "putting it in writing" doesn't guarantee shared understanding:
3-14: (p25) I don't think something written is ever effective, as effective as actually communicating verbally with parents. People can interpret something that is written, at least every one of us could read the same thing and get something totally different out of it. I think you really need to talk it out to be clear about it.
Several staff in Center 2 talked at length about the difficulties of creating shared understandings about children with their parents. They were uncertain whether parents understood the professional basis of their actions and, indeed, whether such understanding is possible. Do parents see staff explanations as excuses for poor practice? For example:
2-8: (pp7/8) I think sometimes we kind of, we feel self-conscious in the presence of parents for too long, so we can give the impression that we don't want them around, even though we know we ought to want them around, and sometimes we actually kind of enjoy having them around.. There should be nothing to hide, but you would just be...very self-conscious, and I don't think you'd do your job as well as you normally.. Isn't it partly that we're.not confident the parents will read the situation like we do?.. If they're reading into crying [that] he might be just spitting the dummy2 and they do that five times a day and we know that they need to actually get it out, but the parent in there might think, "Oh my goodness, they're just leaving him there to cry!"
2-9: (p8) Yeah, that's when I find it hard, when parents are hanging around..
2-10: (p8) You then have to explain why you are doing everything.
2-8: (p8) Yeah, I usually do, if they're there I usually will say, "Oh, if he does that, that's the thing he does." .While you're there you just explain to them, because they do look uncomfortable..
2-9: (p8) It makes sense to them though if you explain to them.. [pause] .Sometimes.
The following are analytical questions about equitable communication:
- Imparting professional knowledge to parents might help them to understand staff practices, but can it guarantee that parents will agree with them?
- Can staff work effectively if parents don't understand the basis of their actions with the children?
- Can staff guarantee that parents will understand their explanations of their actions?
- Will parents' discomfort with staff practices disappear merely because staff explain that those practices have sound professional foundations?
Case Study 3: "Revealing Ignorance"
Staff in Center 1 believed that it is valuable for staff and parents to exchange their uncertainties about children as well as their knowledge about them, and that they could build shared understandings of the child with parents by admitting their ignorance as much as their expertise. For example:
1-6: (p12) I guess by letting parents know that you are not sure about everything that there is about their culture, well we've learnt more into their culture and we have learnt more of her values and her understandings, and she has learnt that we are prepared to also get in there and take an interest in what they do.
Another staff member explained how this approach allowed parents' voices to be heard:
1-4: (pp20/21) When we open up spaces for parents to really have an input.[it] helps me be a better early childhood professional or a better person, because it makes me question my practices and question.the way I operate.. And I think that that helps the program of the service grow because it creates more equitable spaces for people, and the fringe-dwellers are the people that are silenced; they seem to get a bit more of a voice, sometimes.. I can't speak for the parents, but I think that some parents, they see that they can trust the service more because their ideas and beliefs and understandings are seen as valid, and important. They're not.[seen as].overreacting with things or insecure about something, or don't have the appropriate knowledge. I think some of the parents are starting to feel like what they have to say is important.
However, admitting ignorance implies relinquishing one's status as an expert who always knows what's best for parents and their children. As 1-4 explained:
1-4: (p21) I think parents seem to be more comfortable that we are going to talk about what we see as being true, and tackle issues that may or may not be difficult to talk about. Like at the moment in our room, there is a lot of aggression happening, and from that, I think parents are also not seeing us as all professionals who know it all, who they've got to compete with. I think they're opening up and feeling more comfortable about saying, "Well, we don't know what to do with it." And.[I feel].more comfortable saying, "Well, I really don't know what the answer is," you know, and "Have you got any strategies?" .I think it makes for a more honest relationship.. It's also problematic.[because if we].really are talking about parents really having a true voice, then it means that we have to start sharing some power and start questioning our own practice and our own identity.
To create real dialogue with parents, staff needed to know what to do if they disagreed with parents about a key issue. A long discussion about this topic concluded thus:
1-4: (p28) There is no answer. There are many possibilities.
1-7: (p28) I think, though, that there's got to be a bottom line at some stage.
1-4: (p28) But you take it, this is my summary, there'll be a bottom line at some stage, but you take everyone's ideas on board, try and understand where the parents are coming from with their beliefs and work with them on that. I'd imagine you try not to force the issue, but if you had to, then there would be a stand made. I think there'd be ongoing discussions about it, even once the policy was set, that there'd be ongoing dialogue with families to discuss it further.
For these staff, building shared understandings about the child required new ways to work that showed parents that their views were valued. Staff felt uncertain how to resolve differences of approach with parents if it meant relinquishing their status as experts.
The following are analytical questions about equitable communication:
- Does staff revealing their ignorance and encouraging parents' voices to be heard guarantee shared understandings?
- Indeed, are shared understandings of the child possible at all?
- What should staff do if they can't build shared understandings of the child?
Case Study 4: "Joining inthe Benefits and Costs"
Staff from Centers 1 and 3 believed strongly that parent involvement benefited children, staff, and parents, and that "good" parent involvement means parents "joining in" by offering the center, for example, cultural resources, technical expertise, and time. The benefits included extra resources"an extra pair of hands," a possible advocate for the program with other parents, and a sense that the parents cared what staff did. The costs derived from "difficult" parents who disagreed with staff views (e.g., about discipline) or who behaved extremely emotionally.
Two staff from Center 3 believed that "joining in" demonstrates good staff-parent relationships based on shared understandings:
3-14: (p20) [Parents joining in is] a wonderful support to staff.
3-13: (p20) It makes your job so much easier.
3-14: (p20) Well, it makes you feel good. They care enough to come in and be involved and supportive. A lot of parents will do things, take things away, like we put a sign up, you know, we need some new dolls clothes, or dress-ups or something, and "Oh, I can sew. What would you like?" And they get really affirmed by the fact that we're thrilled, and the children are using them, and we love it, because it's something that we just don't have time to do ourselves.
3-13: (p20) An extra pair of hands in the room.
However, they also said that when parents "join in," they can challenge staff practices and undermine any shared understanding about children. For example, 3-14 said that there is always a possibility that parents will discipline children inappropriately:
3-14: (p21) One of the problems I've had is parents coming in who have very strong personal philosophies about a particular issue. And when they're involved in the program with the children, a child may swear, a child may hit another child over the head with a block, parents react very differently.. If a child hits another child over the head with a block, we would step in and say, "That's a block. What do you use that for? To build with. That's right. Look at so and so. That really hurt. You need to build with the blocks." The parent will say, "Don't you hit him on the head with that. That's naughty." [Laughter]
Staff from Center 3 discussed times when parents who "joined in" had reacted emotionally to events that they disliked. They concluded:
3-14: (p22) It is better not to encourage, sometimes, some parents. That doesn't mean the opportunity is not there and if they avail themselves of it we won't support it wholeheartedly, but it might be that there are some parents that we would be overly, I wouldn't be assaulting them, assaulting is not the right word there. [laughter] . I wouldn't be encouraging them.as strongly as I would some other parents..
3-15: (p22) Yes.
3-14: (p22) .who I can see have a beautiful gift to share with the children.
3-15: (p22) That about covers it.
These weren't the only staff to recognize that they accepted parent involvement that didn't threaten their practices and self-image as a professional. A staff member from Center 1 was especially perceptive:
1-1: (p3) We've been trying to reflect on how we communicate with parents, and some of the questions that we have been looking at as a group have been.how we position parents and how our relationships with parents may reflect our relationships with children; and why we communicate in particular ways with some parents and not communicate with parents in other ways.. We collaborate if they fit within our framework, and when they step out of that, it becomes really difficult.
The following are analytical questions about equitable communication:
- Can parents "join in" on equal terms with staff when their philosophies of child management differ from those of the staff?
- How can and should staff respond when they believe that parents' actions in the classroom are inappropriate?
Implications of the Research Findings
Much of the research literature (and the QIAS requirements) implies that better formal communication (e.g., documents, formal meetings) will improve staff-parent relationships and staff accountability. The results of this study, while preliminary and provisional, show that such a "technical" solution is unlikely to succeed, because it ignores the competition between social groups (including early childhood staff and parents) to get their knowledge accepted as truththe politics of knowledge (Foucault, 1980). In three of the case studies, different kinds of knowledge competed for the status of "truth":
- Case study 1. Staff's professional need to know versus parents' right to privacy: Should parents have to disclose personal information "in the interests of the child," and should staff expect it? Who benefits from this disclosure? Does such disclosure qualify as equitable communication that helps to build shared meanings of the child?
- Case study 2. Staff's professional knowledge versus parents' knowledge: Should staff who explain to parents the professional knowledge informing their practices assume that parents will accept them? Who benefits from parents' acceptance, and does their acceptance qualify as an equitable communication that helps to build shared meanings of the child?
- Case study 4. Staff's professional practices versus parents' practices: Should parents be allowed to join in a center's activities only when they act in accordance with the center's philosophy? Who benefits from such selective permission for parents to join in, and does this approach qualify as equitable communication that helps to build shared meanings of the child?
The questions associated with each case study express the "local" politics of knowledge underlying parent involvement programs. They also express the broader politics of knowledge underlying early childhood education's attempts to privilege professional knowledge over parental knowledge (see Bridge, 2001). Those broader politics encourage staff to regard substantive parent involvement (as distinct from peripheral involvement such as "working bees," fund-raising, helping staff, and producing and/or distributing the center's newsletter) as direct challenges to their status as professionals and experts. This is because substantive parent involvement implies that parents' knowledge of their child is at least as valuable as professionals' knowledge. Consequently, substantive parent involvement is unlikely to emerge from "better staff-parent communication," especially if this communication emphasizes formal channels. Staff consistently preferred informal, verbal communication, because it allows them to negotiate shared meanings and understandings with parents about who their child is and how the child should be treated. Thus, substantive parent involvement requires centers to address the "local" politics of knowledge underlying staff-parent communication by giving parents a real voice without directly threatening staff's professional identity and expertise.
Models of how to approach this work could come from the history within Head Start programs of sharing power with parents as decision makers, policy makers, and teachers (Rinehardt, 2000; Ellsworth & Ames, 1998). We suggest that substantive parent involvement also means building an "interpretive community" (Fish, 1980) based on shared and equitable understandings of the child. Building such a community needs sufficient time for meaningful, face-to-face communication between staff and parents, and it needs ways to negotiate differences that work equally well for both sides and eschew exclusive claims to "truth." Case study 3 showed staff beginning to address these issues by considering whether and how best to reveal their uncertainties and the limits to their knowledge to parents. Would this approach necessarily give new voice to parents? Does it qualify as equitable communication that helps to build shared meanings of the child? Who benefits when professionals admit their uncertainties?
Staff and parents need time to explore these questions, and this need presents challenges for policy makers and staff alike. First, not all parents can and wish to spend their time being involved (see Driebe & Cochran, 1996). Second, when staff and parents are from different cultural and racial groups, stereotypes and cultural assumptions can undermine equitable communication and shared understandings of the child (Swadener, 2000). To help meet these challenges, future research could assess the extent to which this exploratory study's findings are relevant to the rest of the Australian early childhood field. If they are, then there is an urgent need for research into how best to turn staff members' ambivalence towards parent involvement into enthusiasm for it. Such research could assess strategies such as sharing life stories, discussing diversity, and critically reflectingstrategies that have been used to create alliances between staff and parents in Head Start programs (Chang, Muckelroy, Pulido-Tobiassen, & Dowell, 2000) and in Australian early childhood programs (Smith, 2001). This small, exploratory study indicates that identifying knowledge-power relationships between staff and parents and tracking their operation can significantly increase our understanding of the problematics of parent involvement consistently identified in the professional and research literature. Future research could explore how best to create staff-parent alliances that challenge inequitable knowledge-power relationships between staff and parents, creating high-quality programs with high-quality outcomes that benefit staff, parents, and children.
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Dr. Patrick Hughes is a lecturer in communications at Deakin University, Victoria. Dr. Hughes previously taught media studies and cultural studies at London University and at the Open University, and he has been a communications consultant to companies and governments in the United Kingdom and Australia. His current research concerns transnational communications corporations' influence on children's identities, staff-parent communication in early childhood services (in collaboration with Glenda MacNaughton), and professional communication around science. His work has been published as books, book chapters, and articles in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Dr. Patrick Hughes
School of Literary and Communication Studies
Deakin University, Geelong 3217
Telephone: 0352 272 701
Fax: 0352 272 484
Associate Professor Glenda MacNaughton has worked in the early childhood field for nearly 30 years. She is currently director for the Centre for Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood at the University of Melbourne. Her 30 years in early childhood have included work as a practitioner and a manager and as a senior policy advisor to government in the United Kingdom and Australia. Glenda has a passionate interest in social justice and equity issues in early childhood and has published nationally and internationally on these issues. She has recently completed a book on approaches to teaching in early childhood and is currently investigating how gender, class, and race intersect and construct young children's learning and staff-parent collaboration in early childhood services (with Dr. Patrick Hughes).
Associate Professor Glenda MacNaughton
Director, Centre for Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood
The University of Melbourne
Telephone: 613 83440985
Fax: 613 83440995