We all have opinions about children and what’s good for them, and our parents and communities have their own beliefs, too. As educators, how do we communicate effectively to families who may have misconceptions about how children learn and grow? This post is all about positive and meaningful communication with families. At the bottom you’ll find links to free resources that will be amazingly helpful to you.
This is episode 7 and today I’m speaking to Megan Keyes about the gap that exists between early childhood educators and the general public regarding what we understand about child development and care, why it matters, and what we can do to align those understandings.
Megan works for the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children’s Hospital and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.
You can find links to free resources below and I can’t emphasize enough how much help these resources will be for any educator who communicates with parents about how children learn and grow.
Now to the interview.
Megan Keyes, welcome to The Early Childhood Research Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for having me.
We need the public behind us to gain government support
The Centre for Community Child Health has put a ton of time, money and effort into working out how best to communicate with the public about early childhood development and care. Why have you done this?
The Centre for Community Child Health has been looking at how to improve outcomes for children and families for over 20 years now. What we know from over 2 decades of work is that if we’re going to make a difference for children and children’s outcomes governments need to make a much greater investment in early childhood development. I’m talking about the very early years from conception onwards.
Prevention is better than cure
However, at the moment the biggest government investment goes into intervention or treatment. Of course, intervention and treatment are necessary but if we just continue down that path of pumping more and more money into the back end rather than the front end we’re never going to be able to turn things around for children. And the cost of our health system will become completely unsustainable.
But we’ve known all this for a really long time now and despite a lot of advocacy work from across the early years sector we haven’t really been able to make the big changes that we need to make. What we’ve come to realise is that if we’re going to change the way governments invest in children and families we need the general public to push for this, to get behind the advocacy efforts of the early years sector.
Up until now we haven’t been seeing a high level of public support for early childhood development, and we weren’t really sure why because the science seems so compelling to us. We couldn’t understand why it wasn’t so compelling for everyone else. Then we came across a strategic communications organization called The Frameworks Institute who are based in Washington.
Gaps between expert and public knowledge
After doing some work with Frameworks we realized that actually the problem was us. And when I say ‘us’ I mean the whole early years sector. We weren’t communicating about the science of early childhood effectively. We didn’t know our target audience well enough to know what kind of messaging would work and what wouldn’t. So that’s why we’ve invested the money and the time and effort and we did the research so that we could find out how to make our communications more effective.
So you’re saying that what we understand about early childhood is not the same as what the general public understand about early childhood.
Yes, that’s right. We found throughout the research that there are a number of gaps between what the experts know about early childhood and what the general public thinks.
Childcare centres are developing our children
Your research with over 4000 Australians showed that there are some big differences between what experts believe about early childhood and what the average person on the street believes. For eg, most Australians think of childcare as a place to put children so they’ll be safe while their parents are at work. But experts see childcare as a place where children develop. For an early childcare centre, what difference could it make to them if their families started thinking about child development as the primary reason they’re there, rather than just safety?
If families saw childcare centres as being primarily about child development it would make a huge difference to the ability of childcare settings to work with children and families to optimize children’s development. Because if you really understand how development happens in the very early years and how much brain development happens during this period, you would want the very best people around your child and supporting your child at this time. You would want those people to be highly trained and skilled in their jobs so that they can provide the support and development that your child needs.
Unfortunately, we know that many Australians don’t quite understand the processes behind how children develop and how the brain develops and so their primary concern is about keeping their child safe. This is perfectly understandable and safety is important, but it ultimately doesn’t benefit children for that to be considered the sole purpose of childcare. That’s really been the benefit of this research because now that we know what the gaps are between what the experts know and what the general public thinks we can start to address those gaps.
We can break down the science so it becomes more accessible to the average person. If we do that well families will come to understand why it’s so important to be focusing on development rather than just safety in those very early years.
Children develop through interaction
When thinking about how children learn experts say that it’s through interaction, a constant back and forth between a child and the people and environment around them, whereas the public think of children as sponges that just soak up whatever’s around them. What’s wrong with seeing children in that way?
To understand the problem we need to understand how children develop. Children actually develop through their relationships with the people around them. There’s a saying I really like that says “children use adults’ brains to develop their own.” While we know that children are born primed to learn that doesn’t mean that they learn automatically or regardless. They need the adults around them to be guiding their learning and offering new challenges and extending their thinking and their interests.
Learning is not automatic
Right now in Australia we know that 1 in 5 children are starting school developmentally vulnerable and that means that by the time they get to school they’re already behind their peers. We’re seeing some particularly big discrepancies in children’s language development. What we need to support these children, to bring these children up to the level of their peers, is high quality interactions between the children and the adults around them. That means adults getting down on the floor with them, reading, singing, telling stories and nursery rhymes, encouraging the development of their fine and gross motor skills. All of these things that we know doesn’t happen automatically.
And this goes back to what you were saying before that the government needs to intercede on the front end rather than at the back end.
That’s right, because if we wait the problems have already arisen and then it’s more costly. Even from a moral sense we don’t want to wait until there are problems with children, we want to intervene beforehand so that those problems don’t arise in the first place.
Metaphors give meaning
Child Mental Health: The Table Metaphor
To help educate the public a number of metaphors have been developed that educators can use when talking about child wellbeing. For eg, you refer to child mental health as being like a table. That table can have a level base, or it can be a little wobbly or it can be on such a slope that hardly anything can sit on it without sliding off.
What does this metaphor tell us?
This is a really useful metaphor to talk about children’s mental health or wellbeing. Most of the public don’t tend to think about mental health when it comes to children. They tend to think it’s something that happens later on in the teenage years or when people reach adulthood. If they do think about mental health they generally default fairly quickly to mental illness and that gets them thinking about diagnosis and medication and that’s not a path we want people to go down because it’s really hard to pull them back from there.
The first thing we’re conveying with the table metaphor is that children do, in fact, have different mental states. The second thing we’re saying is that there are things that can throw children off balance, that can affect their mental state.
There’s a number of ways we can demonstrate that with the table metaphor. We can talk about what happens when you remove one of the table’s legs so it becomes wobbly and less functional. We can liken that to how children’s mental states can become off balance when they don’t have the support they need, and how that can make it harder for them to function whether that’s focusing on tasks or may make them act out behaviourally in a number of ways.
Then we can use the metaphor to talk about how a table can become less functional if the floor beneath it isn’t solid. Likewise, if children don’t have solid foundations like stable housing or relationships with consistent caregivers this can also affect a child’s mental wellbeing.
Then the final thing I like is that we know that a broken table can’t fix itself. Likewise, a child experiencing mental health problems or mental distress of some kind can’t fix him or herself. He or she will need support.
What we try and do here, and what we try and do with all the metaphors we use, is that we take something that is familiar and that people can easily visualize and we use it to explain something that’s not familiar and that can be difficult to visualize or understand.
I like this metaphor because I agree that sometimes we don’t take children’s stress seriously. We think they’ll get over it, they’ll grow out of it, they’ll forget about it by tomorrow.
Yes, that’s right. Some stress is fine and it’s part of their development but when it’s a chronic level of stress or something is really bothering them, that’s when we need to give them support.
Difficult questions that parents often ask
On your website there are currently 9 metaphors that anyone can download for free. They have brief descriptions and examples of how and when they can be used effectively. Some even have animated videos to go with them. But another free resource that I find helpful is a FAQ section. You take common questions educators often hear and demonstrate how to answer them most effectively. For eg, one that I’ve often heard is that nearly anyone can babysit 0-3 year-olds so why do we need highly skilled, highly trained people to do it? Can you give us a brief example of a less effective way to answer that question, and then gives us a more effective answer, and then tell us why it’s more effective?
Sure! Let’s start with a less effective answer. One thing we see a lot in communications about complex issues is that people tend to jump straight into answering the key part of the questions… so why you need highly skilled, highly trained people. That’s logical, of course, but what it means is that we’re missing out on an opportunity to set up our answer properly and to tap into some of the common values that will get people interested in what we have to say.
To avoid this we recommend that people start off by exclaiming to the listener what’s at stake for them if we don’t have trained and qualified early learning staff. We call this leading with a value.
Appeal to common values
We might say something like, ‘Australia’s children are our future citizens, workforce and leaders. Investing in their healthy development outcomes is critical to our nation’s future prosperity. The best way to ensure a good return on that investment is to build the highest quality childcare programs we can.’ Then you answer, ‘a key component of that quality is the training and skills of the educators and staff who run them.’
So you start off by appealing to those values, and then you jump into talking about the ‘how,’ because we can’t assume that the public knows how children’s development works. This is then a good time to use one of the metaphors to help explain one of those concepts.
You might use the brain architecture metaphor to explain how brains develop. Or you might use the amplifier metaphor to talk about how early learning centres amplify children’s development.
Avoid the word ‘science’
This is a really good way to talk about the science without actually referring to science because we know that the Australian public has a little bit of an unhealthy relationship with science when it comes to early childhood development. The research showed us that they tend to see it as contributing to problems rather than helping find solutions. So we try and avoid the use of that word.
When you’ve explained how children’s development works you can then talk about why we need qualified early educators to be working with children. Rather than doing this first, it’s actually about the third thing you’re speaking on after you’ve set up your answer.
Then at the end, a lot of answers would simply end there, but we suggest that a more effective way of ending your response is to return to the value that you talked about in the beginning. You would reiterate that it has important implications for all Australians and for the country’s future prosperity. This helps remind people what’s at stake for them.
Focus on the bigger picture
So you’re trying to make it a bigger issue, a whole society issue.
One of the things we find is that people always tend to come back to the individual and that isn’t an effective thing for people to be thinking about. We want to broaden people’s views to the collective, and see why this is good for the collective good. So we keep trying to broaden it out to the collective rather than people trying to come back to their individual situations.
Understand your community before you communicate
The metaphors you’ve developed are considered relevant to Australians, and from what I’ve read most of them match research coming out of the US and the UK fairly well. Can these metaphors be used anywhere? For eg, currently, the country with the highest number of listeners to this podcast is China. What should an educator or administrator in China think about before using one of these metaphors? Or should they even use them at all?
The metaphors that were developed through research in Australia were all tested with the Australian public. The problem with using untested metaphors is that you don’t really know if the metaphor is going to make sense to people in a different country. The way that metaphors work is very dependent on language and culture. So I wouldn’t advise, and I know the Frameworks Institute that conducted the research for us, wouldn’t advise using them in a country where they hadn’t been tested. Particularly in a country where the language and culture might be quite different.
It’s important to note, though, that metaphors are only one of a number of strategic framing elements that you can use to help your communications become more effective.
What motivates your community?
I mentioned earlier that it’s a good idea at the beginning and end to refer to common values. In Australia the research found that the value that produced the most support for early childhood policy change was one of collective future prosperity. But that’s not the same value that works in the UK.
The value that produced the most support in the UK was something like compassion or empathy. The idea that we should support certain policies because we should be compassionate towards other people or have empathy towards them.
There’s a real danger in appealing to the wrong value because it can have the effect of turning people against your message. So that’s where we have to be really careful and where doing the research in a particular country becomes important
So you have to understand what motivates people in your community the most before you start telling them stories about how early childhood works?
Yes, that’s right. All the values they tested in Australia did produce some support, some more than others. But some of the values they tested in the USA suppressed support for certain policies.
So in your work here you can create metaphors for use in Australia but you can’t necessarily take all those metaphors and ask American educators to use them. You have to do a lot more thinking about it before you venture that way.
I think you’d want at least some preliminary testing. It can be difficult to do the in-depth research that we did, but you’d certainly want to test with a broad spectrum of the population to make sure that they make sense and that they were culturally relevant. That they had the effect you wanted them to have.
Be careful with misconceptions
What I like about what you’re saying is that even if educators who are listening are not Australian, when they’re talking to their parents and community about early childcare, they really need to think about what the misconceptions are and how they can slowly work to change those misconceptions.
Yes, without understanding the community, you can’t know how to communicate effectively with them.
Because we want people to come with us, we don’t want to challenge people but bring them along with us.
This is very important because sometimes challenging people can have the opposite effect, it can backfire. If there’s a misconception out there we try not to even use that language in our communications. For eg, the idea that early child educators are just babysitters: We wouldn’t even bring that up in our communications. We wouldn’t say, ‘childcare educators aren’t babysitters because…’ we wouldn’t go there. Because the more you reinforce something that someone already believes, even when stating it as something that’s not correct. We know from research that people will remember that, it will reinforce their view of being correct. It’s a trap you want to avoid.
Use consistent, meaningful language
So when we’re communicating with our parents we need to sit and think very carefully. If we’re putting articles about childhood development in our newsletters we need to think about what we’re saying. That’s such a good point. Don’t say what you’re not!
If you sit down and think about what you want your families to understand and you all talk about those things in a consistent language it doesn’t matter whether you’re using the metaphors. As long as you’re using consistent language, and not challenging other people’s beliefs. You make it clear as to why you’re working with kids in a specific way, what the processes are and what the benefits are for the children.
Parents want the best for their children
Let’s pretend you’re running an early childhood centre in Melbourne in a middle class area with both Australian and immigrant, non-English speaking families. You know many of your families will hold ideas about early childhood that are not scientifically accurate. What would you do, as a centre manager, to educate your families over the long-term, about early childhood development and care.
I would start from the position that no matter what people understand about early childhood development the vast majority of families just want the very best for their children.
Good communication helps with misunderstandings
The second point is that people can come to have a different understanding of things if we communicate in the right way, and if we take the time to explain about how processes work.
So if I was the manager of a childcare centre I would take every opportunity that I could to make the science accessible in my communications with families. Whether that’s verbally or through the use of pictures if that’s more helpful. It helps if all staff in a centre are talking in a consistent way, using the same language to describe what they’re doing with each child and how that’s making a difference.
Everyday, conversational communication
As an example, say you’re speaking to a parent who has a baby in the babies room. You might say something like, ‘Ayesha and I were having such a good little talk today, I would look at her and say a few sounds, then I’d wait and she’d try and make those sounds back and we were doing this for about 15 minutes. We have a name for this, we call it the Serve and Return Interaction because it reminds us a bit of a tennis match and it’s such a good way of developing her speech sounds and she really seems to love it.’
Of course, you’d tailor this to the situation and family, but it’s a way of bringing in a metaphor to teach a little about childhood development.
I like that it’s a natural conversation, you’re not trying to preach to them.
Yes, or sit down and give them a bit of a lecture.
Developing in all areas: The Weaving Skills Rope Metaphor
The other one I really like is the Weaving Skills Rope metaphor. It can be really good if families don’t understand that children need to develop across a number of domains, or if they’re primarily focused on developing one domain, for eg, the cognitive domain.
It talks about how a rope is made up of three strands that are woven together and that all three strands are necessary to make that rope strong. The three strands represent the cognitive, social and emotional skills development and it helps families understand why children need to develop equally in all three strands. For the rope to be strong they need all three.
Once they’re familiar with the metaphor you can then use it in examples. You might say, ‘here’s what we did today to work on the cognitive strand on the rope.’ Or ‘we’ve noticed that Alex has been having trouble lately in being able to bounce back when things don’t go his way. We want his emotional skills to be as strong as his cognitive and social skills, so we’re going to work with him on developing that for the next little while.’
I can picture that in my own head, so if parents are used to the metaphors and if staff are using the same language, parents can instantly understand what you’re getting at.
Yes, and early learning centres have their own frameworks such as the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), so if you can tie this language and these metaphors into that framework that parents might already be familiar with then that could work even better.
Megan, this has been a very interesting topic and I’m sure many educators that are listening will download those metaphors so they can start making use of them in their own practice. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for having me. And if anyone needs any help in using the metaphors or wants further explanation about any of the resources I’m more than happy for people to get in touch with me.
Links: to free metaphor message cards
Centre for Community Child Health: This page has many links to follow including to the toolkit below, to a special LinkedIn group you’re welcome to join, to research and recommendations. I also recommend signing up for the quarterly CCCH newsletter that you’ll find on their side bar.
Framing Child Development and Care in Australia – A Toolkit: click on this link, then scroll down the page till you find the message cards (metaphors), FAQs and other resources. Scroll down even further for metaphor animations you can use.
If you wish to contact Megan Keyes you can find her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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