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Alternate Realities & Authentic Parental Participation

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

"Alternate Realities"

There is much movement towards professionalisation of the ECEC sector both nationally in Ireland and internationally in other countries such as Canada. Educators who work within the sector, along with policy makers, recognise the influence of ECEC on a broader societal level for quality outcomes for children as they start their lifelong learning journey and on issues such as workforce activation. The far-reaching effects of ECE for both children and parents alike were never felt more acutely than during the recent COVID19 pandemic. Yet, it would appear that there are still two “alternate realities” when it comes to the function of ECEC. Dependent on which stakeholder you are, child or parent, the reality of your lived experience of what the function of ECEC means to you can be considerably different. In this blog article I consider how we can inform a wider societal understanding of the true nature and professional function of ECEC as one that symbiotically provides both care and education so that a combined reality of the true nature of ECEC, as more than just facilitating childcare and workforce activation, becomes the accepted understanding of the sector in the universal social consciousness.

The Child’s Reality

The first of the two “alternate realities” in ECEC is that which is experienced by the child who is attending an ECEC setting to receive both care and education. Children are the centre of the early years setting and the curriculum and associated learning opportunities in a play based environment are facilitated by qualified educators based on the child’s emergent interests. Extensive research has informed this approach to delivering quality early childhood education to our youngest citizens, as they develop holistically in an environment conducive to their unique needs. We understand and acknowledge that children who experience quality ECEC exhibit better outcomes later in life and right through to adulthood. The legislative and best practice frameworks that are in place are highly effective to underpin the delivery of the child’s reality of quality ECEC.

The Parent’s Reality

The second “alternate reality” is experienced by another, and equally important ECEC stakeholder, the parent or primary carer. As much as parents probably love to hear about how their child is learning and developing through play, they also have another key factor which is hugely influential on their lived experience and reality of ECEC. For them, access to ECEC is intrinsically linked to the care of their children and their subsequent ability to engage in the workforce. Do parent’s want a warm, safe and caring environment for their child to be cared for while the go to work or do they want an early childhood education for their child? For those of us working within the ECEC sector, we know that both the care AND education of young children are symbiotic in nature and go hand in hand. However, does wider society really know and understand this too? Judging by the recent spotlight on the sector in news and current affairs, I would argue that perhaps not, or at the very least not enough.

The majority of exposure in the media around the ECEC sector tends to refer to “childcare” leaving the education element of the sector unacknowledged and unmentioned in most media coverage, unless an educator or provider is involved in the discussion. The focus of much media discourse is on childcare required for parents to work, not on early childhood education AND care, which would meet the needs of both the parent who must go to work and the child who experiences access to high quality early childhood education to promote their holistic development.

A Combined Reality

There is one stakeholder who continually refers to the provision of both education AND care as one “combined reality”, and that is the educator/provider. Instead of two “alternate realities”, as previous discussed, we must find an effective way to bring both together. Both “realities” must intersect in the public consciousness to form a new stream of consciousness on a wider societal level where both care AND education are acknowledged as intrinsically linked within ECEC to meet the needs of families – parents and children alike. Shout it from the roof tops, we are not the childcare sector we are the Early Childhood Education and Care sector!

The Difficult Part

So how do we change the discourse? Well, isn't that the million dollar question! My suggestion is based on an insight provided by a recent guest on the ECE Quality Ireland Podcast which I co-host with my colleague Celine Govern. We were chatting with Denise McCormilla who is the CEO of the National Childhood Network and she spoke to us about the need to encourage the parent’s voice in ECEC. We very much focus on the voice of the child and facilitating the child’s authentic participatory rights through consultation and action based on their voices and choices. But how often do we seek the voice of the parent/primary carer? Yes, we encourage “partnership with parents” but do we actually, authentically encourage and indeed facilitate it? Perhaps if we work on this, we could develop a greater understanding among parents and society as a whole, of the function of both the care and education elements of ECEC and how they are intrinsically linked.

The Voice of the Parent

The parent is the child’s primary educator and that is acknowledged and enshrined in the Irish Constitution. Therefore, their voice is a significant and important one when it comes to the ECEC of their children. If we reflect on how we provide a platform for a two way dialogue with parents to support them to better understand what it is we actually do when we are providing the care for their child while they work, then surely this would have a positive knock on effect for a wider societal understanding and acknowledgment of our sector as one that provides both care and education? Perhaps authentically inviting the voice of the parent into our setting is the missing link which can solidify a universal concept of the sector as early childhood education AND care. To begin to implement such an approach, we could look to the Lundy Model of Participation (Lundy, 2007) which, although initially intended for the realisation of the participatory rights of children, could be utilised as a model to encourage parental voice and participation. The elements of space, voice, audience and influence set out in the Lundy Model could just as equally be applied here, for example:

Space: Do we provide a safe space for parents to express their views? Beyond the dusty tokenistic suggestion box in the entrance of the setting, do we actively encourage parents in to our setting (outside of drop off and collection) and make them feel they can call, email or pop in at any time? Perhaps we could provide parents with a feedback form at the end of each term, this could even be provided for via Google Forms for example and anonymous feedback could be facilitated if required. Do parents know about the concept of “partnership with parents” that we are supposed to facilitate and nurture?

Voice: Do we engage parents in the decision-making process? For example, if we receive funding for a piece of outdoor equipment do we survey parents for their input or ideas on what to purchase? Or do we poll parents on the destination of the preschool tour? Are parents given the opportunity to be involved in the running of the setting, is there a voluntary board of management for example? Do we consider parents whose first language is not English when distributing the parents handbook? What about families where both parents live apart, do we distribute information to both of the child’s homes?

Audience: Are we actively listening to parents when they do express their voice? How do we ensure we are listening? Do we document and discuss parents suggestions or input as a team and actively find ways to act upon their voices, suggestions, input?

Influence: When parents provide us with their views are we acting upon them and are we supporting parents to see how their voices have been acted upon? Do we provide feedback to parents on the outcome of surveys for example? Do we communicate with parents via newsletter, website, email, text, apps as appropriate and share information on how the setting is run, policies and procedures, decisions made and ideas received? Do parents see evidence of their voice being heard and making an impact. If we decide against a suggestion provided by a parent, do we communicate the reasons why and do we ensure those reasons are objective and not based on unconscious biases or personal preferences?

Just the Beginning

These are just a few suggestions that spring to mind as I begin to consider this important stakeholder voice in a new way and the potential role that the authentic participation of parents and the facilitation of their voice might play in the journey towards professionalisation of our sector.

I think this is a really important element of our professional practice that we need to encourage within ECEC and one which may hold the key to support a wider understanding among broader society of our professional role and worth as educators while also improving the quality of our practice and the authentic development of respectful reciprocal relationships and authentic partnership with parents.

About the Author:

Paula Walshe is an ECEC trainer and placement assessor in the further education and training sector and a freelance writer. She currently holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and will complete her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC in 2022. Paula has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (, where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector. LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed / Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator

Paula has co-founded a Twitter community of practice page and podcast @ECEQualityIrl – focussing on sharing ideas and knowledge on all things quality, pedagogy and professional practice in ECEC in Ireland.

You can listen to the most recent ECE Quality Ireland podcast here.

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