What To Do When Family Collaboration Is As Challenging As The Child's Behavior

Our job as early childhood educators goes beyond the children and is, of course, to support the children's families, as well.

I was doing a training last week with teachers and when I asked them about the behavioral challenges they faced they certainly had some stories to share.

But when I asked them about the challenges they faced in collaborating with families the energy of the room went up about 10 decibels (can you measure energy in decibels?). There was a collective, "oh yes - let me tell you...!" The frustration was palpable.


Family Collaboration - Early Childhood


Amanda's grandma says, "she doesn't do that at home."

Dante's mom doesn't think he needs to be evaluated for speech-language services even though he is 4 and speaks in 1-2 word utterances.

Maya's parents just split up and there's no consistent schedule of which parent's apartment she is sleeping at on any given day and sometimes grandma or uncle comes to pick her up without Maya or her teachers expecting it and she seems stressed out and upset almost all the time, especially at drop off (I purposely wrote that as a run-on sentence so you could feel the stress we all felt hearing about this).

And then there were multiple stories of parents who do a super quick drop off saying, "it's been a rough morning - sorry!" or something similar as they quickly run out the door.

Ok, first.

Your job is hard.

Like, really really hard. And under-appreciated.

For what its worth I know that you are doing hard hard work (and I think I'm not the only one). I see you. I am not sure if that actually helps you to hear me say that. But I want you to know that I know.

Now, here's the thing. When I ask teachers who are frustrated with families, "do you think the families are themselves struggling? Do you think that family is going through a crisis of sorts? Do you serve a high need or under-resourced population? Do you think the child or parent(s) have experience trauma?"

They almost always answer YES.

Even for teachers who serve children and families who are not struggling financially they often answer the question by reporting that a family or families they work with are struggling with a death in the family, a move, a restructuring of household members, working long hours, marital conflict, or just plain acknowledgement that the child's primary caregiver is not the best communicator or lacks social skills!

What if we were to assume that parents and families are doing the best they can with what they have available to them?

What if we take a stance of compassion and curiosity towards families?

A lot of time we can get into a space of "well I can't help this child because the parent is not following through at home" Or, "mom doesn't set limits" Or, "... they won't collaborate with me to support the child, I've tried!" (ugh, I mean it IS so frustrating). Or...

"His mom is not supporting what we're working on with him."

Hold up!!!

Here's the thing.

It's our job as early childhood educators to support families, not vice versa.

We're the professionals.

I mean ideally it would be a mutually supportive relationship but just like when we are working with children the only hope we have of supporting the child to behave differently is if we first accept where they are and start with that.

So, if a parent or family member is not ready to take your advice I urge you to accept that. Not give up on supporting them to take action. But maybe back off if they aren't taking your suggestions right now.

Refocus on building that relationship with them. Ask yourself if you need to shift your thinking to be more strengths and compassion based with them? Maybe stop trying to get them to do anything. (And then maybe down the road when some trust is built they will want to take your suggestions!)

If you're honest with yourself what kind of energy are you coming at some families with?

Are you feeling judgmental about what they are or aren't doing for their child? Are you focused on trying to get them to do something?

What if this year you decided to support parents and families and accepted that they are unable or unwilling to take action even when they are infuriating you and making you want to pull your hair out?

What if you decided to stop trying to get families to do anything (well except sign all the forms and bring in extra underwear) and focused instead on building a trusting relationship so that over time they might ask for your advice and be more open to your suggestions?

Yes, you need to recommend a referral if you think that's called for. But honestly 9 times out of 10 they are not going to do it on the first time you suggest it. The denial is normal. To be expected.

Make your suggestions periodically and then refocus on, "how was work today?" "Annalee used glue for the first time today!" "where did you get your hair done?" "any fun plans for the weekend?" "Jeremiah made a house out of legos today." Just ask them about them. Tell them something positive (or neutral!) that the child did at school.

Now, you may already be doing everything I'm recommending here.

You may be super positive about and supportive of families. 

In fact, I'm sure that most of the time you are.

But if anything here resonated or if occasionally you catch yourself saying,

"The reason Xavier throws toys and won't come to circle is because he's allowed to do whatever he wants at home. I've tried talking to his parents but they don't follow through."

Could you FLIP IT? Do a re-frame? Create an intention of working with this family a little bit differently?

Something like...

"I'm working on building a relationship with Xavier's parents. I'm learning about their parenting style and I can see that they either don't believe in setting limits or they struggle to do so successfully. I'm going to keep modeling limit-setting and building trust with them. Every so often I will provide parenting resources if they seem open to it."


You might find that you breathe a sigh of relief if you focus solely on what you can control.

You might feel more confident by stepping into a new approach.

Then we have to get you some easy-to-implement strategies to help you with Xavier's behavior, because even if his parents start setting limits at home there is probably more that you can do to help him (and save your sanity!) at school. I'll work to get you some of those strategies in emails and blogposts over the next few weeks. 

Thank you for all that you do.

If you decide to re-frame your thinking a bit in how you approach family collaboration let me know. Comment below and let me know your thoughts!