Ready for Relationships: Expanding the meaning of school readiness

Emily To some, being “ready for kindergarten” conjures the image of a young child with an eager expression and pencil poised, ear tipped towards the teacher in order to hear whatever instruction comes next. To others, it may describe a young child who can’t wait to ride the bus, play with new kids, and finally get to see what is behind the doors of her local school. To others, “school readiness” means being able to recite the alphabet, name colors, and even know your address. And yet, as different as these descriptions are – each focuses on how well the child is prepared.

In the article Children Are Ready to Learn, but Are We? (ZERO TO THREE, September, 2012) authors Mona M. Abo-Zena and Rebecca Staples New discuss how the school readiness movement, originally focused on the child’s abilities or disabilities, has since evolved by considering the roles of the school, the family and the community roles in preparing young children for school success. And yet, the authors note that the movement has lacked an acknowledgement of the powerful effect of building and supporting relationships with parents in order to pave the way for mutual understanding of the child’s strengths, challenges, and Mary need for support. In short, a more comprehensive approach to school readiness includes support for the connections between educators and parents. But in order to make a real impact on school readiness in young children, the authors note that educators must go beyond simple parent communication efforts to create “more respectful and reciprocal relationships” with parents.

If respectful reciprocal relationships between educators and parents are understood as a vehicle for creating greater school success in young children, teacher professional training in building relationships with parents must be seen in a new light. Abo-Zena and New describe a constellation of inter-related areas of professional development, including an educator’s understanding of the importance of culture in potentially divisive topics such as what defines a “good parent” or “normal” child development. The authors also stress the importance of constructive negotiation skills, and a willingness to engage parents in meaningful participation in the classroom and school. While it acknowledges these areas as elements of a significant paradigm shift, the article does not provide insight on where educators can start in making such a transformation.

Because of its base in a relational approach, infant mental health practices may shed light on how to support these skills. Infant mental health practices promote the necessity of understanding one’s own beliefs regarding relationships in order to grow in the ability to cultivate relationships. Self-reflection, shared reflection, and perspective-taking are acknowledged as effective tools for examining one’s beliefs, considering the experiences of others, and imagining how multiple views effect the meaning of such essential relational elements as respect and reciprocity . Any effort to strengthen educators’ ability to develop authentic relationships with parents must provide a focus on these skills, but the investment does not stop there. Self-reflection, shared reflection and perspective-taking are referred to as “practices” because they require time and space in the educators’ professional development and daily schedule. Only then can these practices become tools in the cultivation of the skills necessary in order to make true connections with parents that are in the best interest of the child’s present and future success. With this in mind, the paradigm shift may not only need to occur in the professional development of the teacher, but in the culture of the school and the focus of teacher supervision as well.

Emily Potts Callejas is the Connected Beginnings Training Institute Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health Content Manager at the Aspire Institute. In this role, Emily supports the development, adaptation, and delivery of the Institute’s trainings across early childhood and family service settings. Emily’s career has focused on working with administrators, parents, and children in culturally and geographically diverse educational environments to improve educational opportunities. Emily holds an Ed.M. in Risk and Prevention from Harvard University Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in History from Barnard College. Prior to her work at Connected Beginnings, Emily served as a mental health consultant and materials development coordinator for Family Connections at Boston Children’s Hospital . In this role she worked with both children and adults to address depression and related adversities in Head Start programs. Emily is the co-author of several publications including the Tell Me A Story Materials for Working with Families (Callejas, Beardslee, Ayoub, and Avery) and the Tell Me A Story Materials (Avery, Beardslee, Ayoub, Callejas & Watts).

Mary Watson Avery, M.S, is the Program Manager of the Connected Beginnings Training Institute at Aspire. Mary’s career has focused on work with children birth to 6 years, parent support, and early childhood practitioner professional development. Her special interests include infant mental health practices; the play of typical and traumatized children; therapeutic parent education; coaching practices in early childhood settings; and the mentoring of early childhood trainers. She has been a teacher, administrator and consultant in several urban early childhood programs in New York City and the greater Boston area. Her experience as an early childhood educator has focused on protective childcare as an element of family preservation efforts. Mary has also served on the faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Risk & Prevention Program; and was the Director of Family Connections , a community mental health outreach program targeting parental depression, based at Boston Children’s Hospital .