Recent Analysis Downplaying the Importance of Family Engagement Doesn’t Consider Early Childhood
By Kyle Snow and Susan Friedman
In a recent New York Times article, researchers Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris put forth that, “Parental Involvement is Overrated.” They base their conclusion on analyses of data related to parent involvement among families with children in kindergarten through high school.
The authors note, parent involvement (or, as it’s more commonly called in early childhood, family engagement) is thought to be a critical aspect of children’s success and also a possible means of closing the achievement gap. They argue that it’s not.
In early childhood, family engagement is generally seen as a central element of high quality programs, and important in supporting child development and learning. So is family engagement as important as we early childhood educators think it is? The answer is Yes! Family Engagement is still important and here’s why.
The researchers did not focus on early childhood
A scan of the sources of data on which the authors base their conclusion reveals that the data they refer to primarily involves families with children above 3rd grade. The authors do not source studies involving families with children in grades below kindergarten, and even kindergartenthrough 3rd grade is not deeply represented. Most of the research data they look at is about older children.
'Parent involvement' has many meanings
From the data they analyze, the authors found that most forms of “ traditional” parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, being involved with the PTA, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework - do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.
They find that the above-mentioned types of parental involvement bring about no benefit to children’s test scores or grades, regardless of the families’ racial or ethnic background or socioeconomic standing.
When involvement did benefit kids academically it was difficult to categorize, as it was very dependent on the specifics of the child’s grade, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic background of the family, and the academic outcome. This shouldn’t be a surprise - the kinds of involvement that would benefit any individual child must reflect the child's need, and his social and cultural context.
Demonstrating effects of family involvement is complicated
Measuring family involvement is not straightforward, and looking across numerous studies it is possible to find dozens of definitions and variables being used. For example: PTA participation is only relevant where there is a PTA program. “Helping with homework” is defined differently by researchers, schools, and families alike.
Another complication is that we assume that if families are involved, then students do better. But some families become involved specifically because their children are not doing well in school and in these cases, involvement would not be related to doing well in school.
In other cases, engaging families as partners – helping them to understand what a child is learning, and what activities can support that learning in the home, is clearly related to improved child learning. In this case, there would be a positive relationship between involvement and learning.
There are differences in how families are involved with young and older children
In the authors' work on the downfalls of helping with homework highlighted in the Atlantic article, "Don’t Help Your Kids with Their Homework," the focus is on the pitfalls of helping older children with assignments like advanced math in high school. This is NOT the same thing as counting apples as a way to expose children to numbers in the early years, reading aloud every day and the many other ways early childhood educators suggest families support their children’s early learning.
Family involvement is very different for families of young children than for families of high school children. Engaging families as partners – helping them to understand what a child is learning, and what activities at home can support that learning (like reading aloud), is clearly related to improving child learning.
What can we learn from this?
The authors make two points about the nature of family involvement.
First, one type of typical involvement – participating in PTA, visiting classes, and so on - does not appear to have much effect on student achievement. Rather, valuing education, discussing the child’s activities in school, and requesting specific teachers, seem to have greater effects.
An analysis of Head Start data reported in 2011 came to a similar conclusion – children who benefited from Head Start maintained their advantage most when families were active participants in their child’s learning and experiences in school – and not when more traditional forms of involvement – like sitting on parent boards and observing classes – were considered.
Second the authors suggest that schools need to find ways of involving families that are not limited to the conventional model – join the PTA, chaperone a field trip, and so on. These roles may have value to the schools, families, and communities, but not necessarily the child. Schools (and teachers) can find ways of bringing families into their child’s learning in more authentic and dynamic ways. This is where early educators can provide examples and possibly leadership.
- NAEYC’s Engaging Diverse Families tool-kit contains lots of ideas for family engagement beyond joining the PTA
- Family Engagement and Early Childhood Education – a blog post from NAEYC that highlights other recent research on family engagement
- Family Involvement Makes a Difference, a report from the Harvard Family research project
- Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood Education Programs: An Integrated Review of the Literature - summarizes research on family engagement in early childhood
- Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework - Head Start Approach to School Readiness is an important element of the Strengthening Families model used in many early childhood programs
- The NAEYC For Families website offers ideas and tips to help families supporting children's learning at home