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Literature Review: Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood Education Programs
Coming soon: Project summary, tool kit, and best practices in action
By Kyle Snow, Ph.D.
Meaningful family engagement in children’s early learning supports school readiness and later academic success. Parental involvement is a critical element of high-quality early care and education. It has been mandated by the Head Start framework since Head Start’s inception in 1964, built into model programs like Abecedarian, outlined in Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP), and incorporated into NAEYC standards for programs serving young children.
A pair of recent studies underscores the importance of family involvement in early education experiences. The first study looks at how frequently families engage in certain activities at home that promote readiness skills in relation to their views about several readiness skills. The second study examines family home practices as they relate to child outcomes while enrolled in Head Start.
Families Expectations for Children at Kindergarten Entry Have Changed, but Their Home Practices Have Not
The first study, released in February, 2012 by the National Institute for Early Education Research, used two waves of data (1993 and 2007) from the School Readiness Supplement to the National Household Education Survey (NHES). The NHES collects data from a nationally representative sample of families with school-age children. The School Readiness Supplement collects data specifically about young children (age 3 and 4) and their families as the children approach school age.
The authors of this study examined the degree to which parental expectations for what children need to enter school have changed over time, and look at whether family practices related to child learning also may have changed. They found that compared to families of young children in 1993, parents in 2007 indicated greater awareness of several “essential” competencies for children when they enter kindergarten (e.g., knowing letters, using pencils, counting to 20, and taking turns). Parents in 2007, compared with those in 1993, also reported higher levels of child cognitive skills and abilities (e.g., identifying colors, recognizing letters, counting beyond 20, writing their name, reading written words and reading storybooks), but no change in the children’s self-regulation. At the same time, the frequency of specific family activities that contribute to children’s readiness were lower or unchanged between 1993 and 2007 (Although there was an increase in the percentage of parents reading daily to their 4-year-olds and a reduction in hours per day that the children spent watching television.).
These findings produce a paradox: Between 1993 and 2007, parent expectations for what skills children need for kindergarten rose dramatically, and parents in 2007 reported greater levels of skills among their 3- and 4-years-olds than did parents in 1993, but there were few changes in the use of family activities to support those skills. The authors suggest that the dramatic increase in availability and use of preschool and prekindergarten programs may account for this. They suggest that some parents are “outsourcing” formal early learning activities to early childhood programs. Certainly, since 1993, expectations that programs support early childhood development have risen dramatically, which in turn has increased demands for program accountability.
Head Start Children Benefit from Increased Family Engagement and Activities in the Home
A second study, released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in December 2011, explores how family activities in the home contribute to children’s development while they are attending Head Start programs. This study applied complex econometric modeling to data from the Head Start Impact Study to examine changes in families’ tendencies to engage in a broad range of activities that support child development. It sought determine how changes in family activities relate to Head Start program elements and evidence of child growth indicated through assessment scores.
The central findings suggest that families increase their home activities to support child development during the time their children are enrolled in Head Start, and they continue with these activities even after enrollment ends. This is not terribly surprising, given the emphasis Head Start has long placed on the role of families in program success, including codifying it within Head Start regulations. Another important finding is that some program governance procedures and structures used by Head Start, such as parent councils, do not relate strongly to family practices at home. While such approaches do engage families in the program, allowing them to participate and exert a degree of local ownership and investment, they do not affect home activities. Instead, what the analyses suggest is that as programs develop and demonstrate children’s skills, family activities to support children also increase. Clearly demonstrating an improvement in child skills reinforces parenting educational and education-related activities in the home.
What Do These Studies Mean for Early Childhood Programs Today?
Together, these studies suggest several important considerations for early childhood programs and professionals.
First, it is important to recognize that parents have expectations for what skills children need for kindergarten entry. These expectations change over time, and there are important differences across families in what are perceived as necessary readiness skills. Many parents look to early education programs to instill those skills. In that role, programs are positioned to enhance family understanding of what children need to best be prepared for school entry.
Parent engagement through involvement in program governance is part of Head Start program design and a tenet of NAEYC’s Code of Ethical Conduct (see Section II). Beyond formal structures for program governance, programs should regularly involve families in informal decisions that affect the classroom and their children’s experiences within it. Regular communication between families and programs and between individual teachers and families reinforces the complementary roles that families and early childhood programs play in supporting children’s development.
Teachers can engage parents in early learning when they share children’s progress and growth using best assessment practices. Regular updates on children’s growth can encourage families to engage in more learning-related activities at home. An analysis of NAEYC data revealed that accredited programs are more likely than nonaccredited programs to communicate children’s assessment results to families as part of their programmatic activities, and also suggested that bringing families into the assessment process is among the hardest criteria for programs to meet.
When children’s progress can be tied to classroom activities and home activities, development and learning are strongly reinforced and further family involvement is inspired. Discussing changes in a child’s readiness skills can open a dialogue about the child’s strengths and any areas of potential concern for families or teachers. Then families and teachers can work in partnership to ensure that children continue to receive appropriate instruction and related experiences to further their development.
The NAEYC Center for Applied Research is dedicated to strengthening the connections between early childhood research, practice, and policy. One of the primary goals of the center is to encourage and support communication about research in early childhood development and education. To support teachers, policy makers, early education students, and others in the field in becoming critical consumers of information, the center helps them access and interpret research to inform their day-to-day work.