Great parent partnerships are key in the early years. spark is software designed by early years educators to ensure parents too can ‘get it right’ for their child with the software and alongside the Educator’s support. Research clearly shows that children do much better when parents are interested and more so if they are actively involved in their child’s learning. spark aims to encourage families to take this active role in supporting and extending their child’s learning and development building upon what the child already knows and can do, alongside the setting. After all, it is at this time, before school when the brain is growing most rapidly. We want to encourage parents to be brain-builders too.
spark provides a range of tools to support good communication; to, with and from parents and carers. Some of these tools are included in sparkESSENTIAL and sparkPRO, such as Learning Journey Profile reports (plus Learning Journey presentations, and graphs and charts as appropriate), The Progress Check, sparkLINK (parent portal) and Learning Stories (shared on sparkLINK/spark@HOME). Additionally, sparkDIARY may be added and the parent’s and carer’s own software spark@HOME. spark@HOME is generally purchased by the family, this way they have ownership of their own child’s learning journey and build their own record alongside observations made by the setting.
sparkDIARY sends messages out from the whole setting, the child’s room and for the individual at a regular time or a time set for a particular child. It allows Practitioners to quickly record the physical care of babies and toddlers (naps, nappy changes, feeds etc) and for little ones sparkDIARY can be set to go out on each day of attendance at a time that suits the family. Alongside this information and for older children and where the setting uses sparkPRO the special activities the child has enjoyed can be shared with the parents too, encouraging conversations at home. Settings generally send out an older child’s sparkDIARY on the last day they attend in a week.
The relationship with and family involvement is an integral part of work in an early years setting. As educators ourselves; we firmly believe that we should differentiate practice to match parents’ needs, rather than provide a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Similarly, good practise does not deliver the curriculum to children in that way, either. Furthermore, as recent neuroscientific research and longitudinal studies show, there is a greater understanding of the importance of optimum brain growth before school and how this success impacts on future exam results, adult choices and overall quality of life.
Through our research, children do better where parents have truly engaged; a parallel and cohesive approach in facilitating the child’s learning and development. Our study showed parents who used their spark@HOME all demonstrated their children were doing much better than those who opted out. There could be a 10-month difference between children of the same chronological age in some examples. One example, child A and child B, both came from nuclear families. They both began simultaneously and only attended this one setting and for the same amount of sessions per week. Parents of child A had fully engaged and used their spark@HOME. Their child had the most significant improvements in Understanding the World and Communication and Language, over child B. Child A was significantly ahead in all other developmental areas too.
This study pushed us to act and gain feedback from our customers on the challenges that e what could be changed to increase engagement. Our surmise was that spark needed to encourage parents to log on. The outcome of talking to parents and other settings showed, time-starvation, parents fear of failing or not meeting the set expectations were the most prominent reasons for non-involvement with the software.
With all this in mind, in 2003, spark set about to create something genuinely innovative. Rather than just sharing lovely photos illustrating the child has been happy, and the setting has been doing something today, we have developed something better.
To that aim, additions are available, to complement and recognise that not every parent can, or want to, embrace our premium spark@HOME product. The commitment was perceived to be too great. Now, settings can encourage parent participation by providing various ways online to match parents aspirations and lifestyles. Once engaged, then there is the opportunity to scaffold them to become more and more involved with their child’s learning and development, until they are participating equally with the setting and vice versa by using spark@HOME.
In addition to the original reports that embrace a ‘low level’ of input by the parent or at the other end of the spectrum spark@HOME, we have introduced sparkLINK and Learning Stories within our standard packages (sparkESSENTIAL and sparkPRO) to further culture this connection.
Introducing new features has instigated improvements to the original parts, particularly with spark@HOME (parents own this software but it also ‘talks’ with the other standard packages sharing information both ways). Busy drop off and pick up times do not encourage lengthy conversations about everything that has happened at home or in the setting. Also, with many Key Children for the Educator to remember the detail of many messages. spark enables such information to flow and shared with the Key Person, team and seniors at a time that suits the family and in private.
At its most basic level, spark creates Learning Journey Profiles (plus possibly supplemented by learning journeys, charts and graphs). These prepared to share with families either via email or through printouts. They are quick, need minor quality checks by seniors, and include parents’ ideas to undertake at home, including ways to do them. These are chosen by the Key Person or Educator and generated by spark. An invitation is sent to parents and carers to give feedback on the software on the child’s progress. Likewise, with the statutory 2-3 Year Progress Check; again, all can be involved.
sparkLINK is the next step up and is an integral part of sparkESSENTIAL and sparkPRO. This feature is accessed online by secure passwords. The innovation in this is that it is a way to encourage involvement in cohesive learning between setting and home without overwhelming families or giving direct instruction. There are ideas and useful information that when used, pertinently guides parents’. In turn, this enhances planning in the setting around schemas, interests and home scenarios. Parents/Carers also receive some stage-appropriate suggestions in what they might like to help their child with at home. What’s most important is that parents can begin to identify what they have achieved with their child and gain extra satisfaction from that.
Part of the process is to enhance the conversation’s content between ‘formal educator’ and ‘primary educator’ and shared learning. We have designed ways to keep tabs on how often parents’ use their software. Hence, educators can influence and support them, to ensure features across sparkLINK and spark@HOME don’t become a ‘lip service partnership’ where there is no real benefit for the child. By measuring engagement, we enable educators to meet needs accordingly.
Every parent enjoys photos, but we wanted these to be more meaningful than a child’s snapshot with an activity. sparkLINK has the option of adding Learning Stories, designed to showcase the child learning a skill through a sequence of photographs. These can show that children are happy when they are settling in or moving into a new age-group. Parents receive these in real-time but need to click past the other features (ideas for progress and communication jotter). These ‘stories’ also encourage parents to look at sparkLINK and motivate their engagement with additional information. In the same way on spark@HOME.
In 2020, we improved spark@HOME to make it easier for parents to access on their mobile phones. We also extended the ways the app can encourage quality engagement at home, between parent and child, promote extended learning built upon the Learning Stories shared by the setting, and extend the child’s Communication and Language skills during shared experiences at home. Furthermore, to extend how spark@HOME joins up the adults and the setting with home, to support and generate feelings of well-being for both the child and parent. These also contributing to and promoting the child’s ongoing and future good mental health.
In summary, both sparkPRO and sparkESSENTIAL have a multi-faceted and differentiated approach to improving families’ involvement with their child’s learning alongside their early years setting.