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Parental engagement: rethinking support for families with children with learning differences

Parents and carers who do not engage with services are often referred to as ‘hard to reach’. Though the term is not intended as judgemental, it does imply that these families are ‘difficult customers’. Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in the London Borough of Newham decided to put this notion to question.

Julian Grenier, Headteacher of Sheringham, tells us, “We noticed that most of the families of children with SEND were staying away from our Children’s Centre. They only came into contact with us when their child was due to start nursery or reception. We had to think about what we were offering. Perhaps it was our services that were ‘hard to reach’? If you have a young child with SEND, you might not want to come to Stay and Play because it’s too busy or distressing for your child. It could also be that you’re fearful of how other parents or professionals might respond to you?”

Some children were starting at Sheringham with a high level of need and developmental delay. Opportunities for early assessment and support were being missed. The families that would most benefit from early help services were slipping through the net.

‘Buttercup Group’ came about as an intervention aimed at addressing this problem. Its entire focus is to provide a setting that is suited to the individual child: being able to fit in or not fit in does not feature.

(The term parents is used in its broadest sense throughout, referring to the child’s main care-givers.)


Getting started

The Buttercup team is led by Sue Cox, former head of a children’s centre.  Althea Dove is the Speech and Language therapist and Marie Da Silva and Hazra Patel are the Family Support workers from the Children’s Centre team.

The group functions in partnership with parents: this underlines all their work. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) reported in 2018: ‘parents play a crucial role in supporting their children’s learning, and levels of parental engagement are consistently associated with better academic outcomes. Evidence suggests that effective parental engagement can lead to learning gains of +3 months over the course of a year’.

Where there is a language barrier other staff or family members are asked to translate, or an interpreter is booked. The parents are encouraged to enrol on classes to learn English (ESOL) when their children start their nursery placement.

Initial discussions with parents made it clear that they needed a quieter group with appropriate equipment. They also wanted access to a specialist who could give them support and advice.

Thus, Buttercup evolved as a small Stay and Play session, catering for just six children and running on a six-weekly programme. Sue points out, “A time-limited programme ensures that no-one is on a waiting list for more than a few weeks. We use our professional judgement to decide if longer participation would be helpful.”




Work preliminary to attending the group

Home visiting is the first thing. Sue explains, We use this time to listen to what the family says about their child’s needs. This includes any cultural or religious perceptions of special needs and disabilities.” It is an important time to start nurturing a trusting relationship with the child and family.   

The EEF recommends that schools and early years providers should ‘consider offering regular home visits for younger children with greater needs. This can be an effective approach for parents that struggle to attend meetings in settings, and for building relationships.’ This works with Buttercup as every family visited has engaged with the programme.

The next step is to collaborate with the family on outlining the child’s priorities and needs.  These are addressed using an Early Help Record (EHR). This is written with the family, and focuses on family strengths and needs in relation to supporting the child’s health, early learning and emotional wellbeing.

The EHR includes practical strategies that the family can try at home. The Family Support Workers follow these up regularly and offer additional support if needed. Further support is also offered through home visits.


The group sessions

The primary focus of the group is on children’s communication. The partnership with the Speech and Language Therapy service is, therefore, critical. For the large majority of children, difficulties in communication lead to additional difficulties in learning and distressed behaviours. The latter is usually the most pressing difficulty that parents identify and want help with.




The room is welcoming and relaxing. Activities are organised around the three prime areas of learning and development in the EYFS. They are all adapted to meet the needs of the individual children. A variety of play activities helps to engage the children and encourage parents to join in. Adult chairs are located at all activity tables and the staff model interactions with the children. Toys and activities are kept simple so that families can replicate them at home. For example, demonstrating how to make play dough, playing with cars, trains, and variety of construction toys and mark-making with crayons and pencils. 

The type of development that each activity promotes is explained to the parent. There are a few specialised pieces of equipment, as recommended by Althea, the Speech and Language therapist, to engage the child’s interest and increase their attention span. Parents are supported by staff to use these with their child.   

During the sessions the staff help parents to develop their confidence as well as understand their child’s needs. “This helps them to support their children in all areas, including emotional wellbeing and managing behaviour,” says Sue.

‘Attention Bucket’ is the last activity, drawing on the work of Gina Davies. The lead adult has a collection of exciting resources in their ‘bucket’ and takes out one object at a time. They play with the object briefly in a fun and engaging way. Parents and children sit together, with the adults modelling anticipation as each object is brought out. This helps children develop joint-attention with an adult, which is fundamental to developing early play and communication.




The session ends with bubble machine with the children leaving on a fun note.




Assessments and reviews

Althea develops individual plans for each child. “Initial assessments are done in a relaxed environment,” comments Althea. “I take case histories from parents and model helpful strategies and tasks that could be useful at home. We then check in with parents on a weekly basis to see how useful they have been. So, progress is constantly and consistently monitored and reviewed”.

Althea also does assessments and makes early referrals to other services and agencies. She comments, “My participation means that parents don’t have to attend a health centre. All assessments take place in Sheringham’s Children’s Centre.”

Althea also directs parents to high-quality online resources. The ICAN website has guides for parents about language development and how to support it. Althea works with parents to assess their child’s level of development and consider what would be the most appropriate input for their child.

Tip Sheets from the Triple P Parenting Programme are also used. Triple P is an evidence-based programme that parents can access at Sheringham. Triple P or Triple P Stepping Stones (an adapted version for families with a child who has SEND) are both on offer.

The four most commonly used Tip Sheets are:

·         Tantrums

·         Hurting Others

·         Bedtime Problems

·         Toilet Training



The staff asked parents the open question, “What has changed for your child?” as a means of assessing the impact of Buttercup group. Included in the replies are:

-       “Before these sessions he would never respond to his name, but this has improved. He was afraid of going out if there would be new people around – now it’s not a problem.”

-       “She is now using more words and better eye contact.”

-       “He is more confident, and his speech has improved. He has started using a lot more words.”

-       “She interacts with many more people now. At first she was very reserved but now engages with lots of others. Her communication skills have improved so much.”

-       “My child wouldn’t play with toys and explore – now she likes to. She wasn’t babbling but now she’s trying to make sounds. She enjoyed every session. Everything was brilliant!”

-       “It has changed my son. He plays with others and eats by himself”.



Research highlights the multiple disadvantages faced by families and by young children with SEND. The Study of Early Education and Development (SEED): Impact Study on Early Education Use and Child Outcomes up to age five years says that, ‘children with an SEN are less likely to use formal ECEC [Early Childhood Education and Care] and are likely to have on average poorer cognitive and educational outcomes.’ (Melhuish and Gardiner 2020, p. 27). 

It also says that accessing high-quality ECEC is beneficial to children living with disadvantage.



Educational outcomes for children with SEND are concerning in England. The Education Policy Institute reports that children with SEND are 10 to 15 months behind in their development. This is a huge gap for children who are only 5-years old.

Sue Cox states, “We no longer see the families as ‘hard to reach’. Instead, we see that services are difficult to access for the family of a child with SEND. Our children and their families now receive the early support they need during that sensitive period of time”.

We can draw from this that Children’s services need to be pro-active in reaching out to families where access to regular services is not happening. Many more adapted groups like Buttercup are needed in order to reduce barriers to engagement.


(Find out more: read the full report [PDF] about Buttercup Group)

Caroline Vollans
Having taught in primary schools for fifteen years, Caroline Vollans trained as a psychoanalyst. She now works as an author and freelance writer.

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