Dr Ba Akhlagh: Collaborative relationships with families is central to quality outcomes for children

Having worked as an educator in both Australia and Iran, Dr Somayeh Ba Akhlagh is now a lecturer in early childhood education at the University of New England.

Image: Dr Ba Akhlagh is a Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of New England

We sat down with Dr Ba Akhlagh to talk about her experiences working as an educator and her research on Quality Area 6 – Collaborative partnerships with families and communities. A core focus of the discussion was how this quality area interacts with and influences all other quality areas, as establishing supportive relationships and collaborative partnerships with families and communities is critical to quality early education and care.

Dr Ba Akhlagh is passionate about educating diverse groups of children—including those living with developmental challenges and other special needs.

Quality family involvement

Through her work as an educator and now as a lecturer, Dr Ba Akhlagh understands the importance of services engaging meaningfully with children and their families.

“Every child and their family must feel accepted, respected and included within our early childhood education and care services,” Dr Ba Akhlagh said.

“This involves educators continually thinking about the child within the context of their family and home life, and having regular conversations with parents around what their priorities for their children are and about their child’s interests and feelings.

“Family involvement is about understanding what families do at home and inviting them to be involved, for example by sharing drawings, pictures, stories, and cuisines to show how many different lived experiences there are between children in one classroom,” she said.

Dr Ba Akhlagh shared that services can build supportive relationships with families by being honest and having trustful relationships, which will only occur if families feel welcomed and see their children receiving responsive education and care.

"As an educator I worked with a number of children with special needs such as Down Syndrome, autism and attention deficits and hyperactivity disorders.

“My ongoing interactions with their families established great partnerships and friendships, which created a positive, welcoming environment for them to be open during our regular conversations.

“I also ensured I was flexible in my planning and programming, to incorporate information and activities relevant to the child’s interests and needs. For example if they had visited the zoo during the weekend, I would change my plan to extend that child’s learning about the zoo.

“I would also learn from their child and family’s engagement with allied health professionals, such as the child’s occupational therapist or psychologist as they attended the service. I could then replicate some of those important exercises and activities in my day-to-day program.

“This strong connection was very important for me, particularly to support the children with additional needs and their families during the transition to school,” she said.

Creating inclusive environments

Dr Ba Akhlagh shared her experience and research about creating inclusive and flexible early education and care environments, which support children and their families and promote respect for diversity.

“Inclusive learning is about considering the individuality of each child and their families and creating a positive environment that, again, is about building a trustful relationship,” Dr Ba Akhlagh said.

As noted within the Early Years Learning Framework, services should create learning environments that support children’s diversity, which involves families actively participating in this process (Element 6.1.2 Parents’ views are respected).

“It’s important to know each child individually, not assuming their abilities, knowing both them and their family’s interests, and preparing the classroom environment suitably,” she said.

Dr Ba Akhlagh noted that educators can assist children in learning and respecting different cultures by carefully setting up the classroom environment so it is inclusive for all.

"Educators should be working with families to incorporate children’s preferences from their home.

“It is important to select representative classroom resources, such as books or posters, without any labelling that classifies them as different and ensure spaces include diverse cultural expression. For example, dramatic play spaces; areas for self-portrait exploration through drawing, painting and crafts; or a designated space for cultural artefacts that celebrate diversity.”

Within Dr Ba Akhlagh’s PhD study comparing the early childhood national educational frameworks and teachers' beliefs about creativity of Australia and Iran, she found that the fostering of creativity in early childhood education is firmly embedded in culture.

“Within their practices and curriculum practice, educators must also reflect and value individual culture, and honour the histories, culture, language, traditions, child-rearing practices and lifestyle choices of all families.

“My study found there was limited acknowledgement of and support for the link between creativity and children from diverse cultural backgrounds, and I found that many Australian early childhood educators were unprepared or unsure how to support and incorporate cultural difference in the classroom, which can have a lifelong impact on children and their cultural awareness.

“Greater development and confidence amongst educators is needed to promote inclusion programs and celebrate cultural expression in the classroom.

“Educators, working in partnership with their families, should be planning experiences and providing resources that broaden children’s perspectives and encourage appreciation of other cultures.

“We know that a child’s social and cultural environment, both at home and their ECEC service, influences their learning and development, and early childhood is the time to promote and celebrate difference, and teach diversity.”

Key tips for educators to engage with all families and communities

  • Take time to reflect on your own attitudes toward diversity and differences; think about equity and social justice all the time.
  • Know the children and families. Know their interests/priorities for life; have regular, respectful relationships with the children and families; be guided by their cues (some families might not like to have regular conversations); celebrate their cultural events; and encourage families to engage in your plan and programming. For example, every week in my son’s preschool families were invited to share what they had been doing at home or in the community.
  • Use positive language and celebrate differences, work as a team and share responsibilities for all children and families, including those with additional needs.
  • Be open and honest to children’s questions. Challenge ideas and viewpoints that are biased and discriminatory, and offer alternatives that support and respect diversity.
  • Discuss with families how they wish to engage and communicate. It may be a varied combination of digital and face-to-face communication, such as email, phone, Zoom and chatting at the gate.
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