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Partnerships with parents to support children's communication development

In a world of increasing pressures from daily life, now more than ever, we need to work with parents of young children to ensure they are confident in supporting their child’s speech and language development.

Babies and young children are naturally inclined to seek out interactions with those close to them and the responses adults give helps to shape and develop pathways in the brain. We often use the phrase 'working in partnership' but let’s look at what this means in reality and what we can do to make this successful.

Developing communication skills

We know from research that there are a number of main factors in a child's home environment that are central to developing communication skills (the Effective Provision of pre School Education Project, 2004 known as EPPE, and Roulstone et al, 2011). The EPPE home learning factors are:

  • The amount of talking and the responsiveness of parents when children try to communicate with them. This is paramount to a child’s learning. Children will imitate and copy the actions and sounds of their parent. Even if they can’t yet form words or a sentence, they are still learning.
  • Hearing nursery rhymes. Songs and music in general can have a positive impact on their language skills. Hearing words and benefitting from repetition in many nursery rhymes will embed that knowledge for a child to develop.
  • Having access to books. Being read to and having frequent library trips can aid their language development. Many parents already know this and have an instinctive way of responding to their child. They can follow their interests and give them language models intuitively. They know when their child is fascinated by seeing a cat on the street and stop to make time for their child to look, listen and touch. Then they might say “that is a cat. It says 'meow'”

Pressures for parents

However, there are lots of competing demands in the modern world - work, shopping for and cooking food, getting children to school on time and picking them up may mean that sometimes opportunities for communication can get lost in the busy-ness of everyday life.

For children who have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) it's often these opportunities that allow them to practice learning to talk and to communicate with more confidence. Early years professionals can appreciate these pressures and help parents to take small steps to support their child. This could be as small as offering choices at meal times to talking about the pictures in books rather than just looking at them.

Identifying when support is needed

The challenge for us as Early years professionals is noticing when parents might benefit from support and then finding the best way of offering it. This is where the partnership aspect truly comes into its own: the right support at the right time can make a huge difference. It is our relationships with parents and carers that make the difference in them trusting and accepting our support. These relationships are built day by day from the minute they trust their children into our care.

Having additional information from external sources can support what you're saying and parents are more likely to understand your suggestions when they are backed up by evidence or concrete examples. There are lots of useful websites you can download information from for example, the Talking Point website. There are useful links about children’s development milestones as well as activity sheets and FAQs to download for free. A good one to start with is Tips for Early Language Development.

We don’t need to do everything at once. Adding techniques progressively and giving children lots of time to get used to different approaches is more likely to succeed than suddenly introducing a whole raft of different approaches.

Reflecting on practice

You may already be aware and are using many of these supportive techniques. However, it's often useful to reflect on what works for different parents at different times. As Early years professionals you have a lot of information about how children develop and how parents can support their development. It's often tricky getting a balance between 'telling' and 'sharing information'.

Think about and reflect on these questions:

  • What does ‘working in partnership with parents’ and ‘partnership’ mean in your everyday work?
  • Do you share information about children's communication with parents? Do you have newsletters that include Top Tips or links to useful websites?
  • Is there shared information about how children learn to communicate? If parents have this information do they know what to expect and see how their child's doing?
  • Is there room to support parents who you think are struggling to balance their work and home commitments by supporting their children’s development?
  • Is there advice or information from someone that made a difference? What made you want to accept the advice and not feel criticised? Do you use the same approaches in your professional practice?

As early years professionals we're perfectly placed to support parents and give them and their children a helping hand. However, this isn't always as easy as it sounds and developing relationships with parents are key to working in partnership. There is lots of information about how parents can support communication and you can share this with parents you work with through displays, handouts or newsletters.

For more information on speech and language development visit Talking Point and see I CAN resource available in PACEY’s online shop.

About the author

Jon Gilmartin is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Speech and Language Advisor for I CAN, he delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. He also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. You can contact Jon directly on I CAN’s Enquiry Service by calling 0207 843 2544 or sending an email to 

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