Family involvement matters for young children’s cognitive and social development. But what do effective involvement processes look like, and how do they occur? This research brief summarizes the latest evidence base on effective involvement—that is, the research studies that link family involvement in early childhood to outcomes and programs that have been evaluated to show what works. The conceptual framework guiding this research review is complementary learning.
Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) believes that for children and youth to be successful from birth through adolescence, there must be an array of learning supports around them. These learning supports include families, early childhood programs, schools, outof-school time programs and activities, higher education, health and social service agencies, businesses, libraries, museums, and other community-based institutions. HFRP calls this network of supports complementary learning.
Complementary learning is characterized by discrete linkages that work together to encourage consistent learning and developmental outcomes for children. These linkages are continuously in place from birth through adolescence, but the composition and functions of this network changes over time as children mature. 2 Family Involvement Makes a Difference is a set of research briefs that examines one set of complementary learning linkages: family involvement in the home and school.
As the first in the series, this brief focuses on the linkages among the family, early childhood education settings, and schools. Future papers will examine family involvement in elementary school, middle school, and high school settings.
Taken together, these briefs make the case that family involvement predicts attitudes and practices, and early childhood programs’ expectations and support of family involvement. The evidence base currently suggests three family involvement processes aid in creating this match and promoting healthy outcomes: parenting, home–school relationships, and responsibility for learning outcomes. (See Figure on page 2. ) Parenting refers to the attitudes, values, and practices of parents in raising young children. Home–school relationships are the formal and informal connections between the family and educational setting.
Responsibility for learning is an aspect of parenting that places emphasis on activities in the home and community that promote learning skills in the young child. Substantial research supports family involvement, and a growing body of intervention evaluations demonstrates that family involvement can be strengthened with positive results for young children and their school readiness. children’s academic achievement and social development as they progress from early childhood programs through K–2 schools and into higher education.
FAMILY INVOLVEMENT PROCESSES IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
Substantial research supports family involvement, and a growing body of intervention evaluations demonstrates that family involvement can be strengthened with positive results for young children and their school readiness. To achieve these results, it is necessary to match children’s developmental needs, parents’ –– These processes do not represent all the ways in which families support their children’s education. For example, participation in home visitation programs, parent leadership, community organizing, and participation in school decision making are not represented in this review.
Readers must therefore keep in mind that family involvement covers other processes beyond those described in this set of briefs. The sources of this research brief primarily come from the field of human development and psychology. A detailed explanation of the methods for this brief can be found in Appendix I. Figure 1. Processes of family involvement and young children’s outcomes Parenting • Parent–child relationship • Participation in childcentered activities Home–School Relationships • Communication • Participation Responsibility for Learning Outcomes • Reading in the home • Parent–child conversations.
Child Outcomes • Social competence • Cognitive development • Communication skills • Literacy development • Vocabulary growth • Expressive language • Comprehension skills • Positive engagement with peers, adults, and learning development. 7 Children who play at home and whose parents understand the importance of play in development are likely to demonstrate prosocial and independent behavior in the classroom. 8 In addition, parent participation with their children in activities such as arts and crafts is associated with children’s literacy development.
9 However, parenting is embedded in social and cultural contexts that influence parenting styles. Poverty is related to access to fewer social parenting supports, which in turn is associated with maternal depression and less nurturing parenting behavior. 0 Moreover, parent–child activities are culturally influenced such that activities that are characteristic of one ethnic group might not be characteristic of another. For example, teaching letters, words, songs, and music is more characteristic of Black non-Hispanic groups, while reading and telling stories is more typical of White non-Hispanic groups.
2 HOME–SCHOOL RELATIONSHIPS FAMILY INVOLVEMENT MATTERS FOR YOUNG CHILDREN’S DEVELOPMENT Young children benefit most from their school years if they enter kindergarten ready to succeed. Not all children, however, come to kindergarten equally prepared. Too many low-income students of color start school far behind their economically advantaged White peers. Early childhood programs now recognize that they alone cannot prepare children for kindergarten. Instead, they need the support of families and communities.
To acquire this support, they need to encourage the family involvement processes that research has shown to be effective in encouraging children’s learning and socio-emotional development. Early childhood—in this case, defined as the period from birth to age 5—is a time of life during which significant transformations take place. The newborn infant, equipped with basic reflexes, develops into an active, curious child capable of walking, talking, and pretending. Children’s vocabulary increases rapidly, and they acquire the ability to remember experiences, sustain attention, count, and recognize letters.
Through interactions with adults and peers, young children develop self-concepts and self-esteem, improve emotional self-regulation, and form their first friendships. 3 In short, the early years are important because they are the period during which children acquire the basic skills that serve as the foundation for later learning. Moreover, these years are the time when parents’ beliefs about their children’s abilities are shaped and when children’s own academic self-concepts begin to form. 4 PARENTING IN EARLY CHILDHOOD.
Parenting is the family involvement process that includes the attitudes, values, and practices of parents in raising young children. Nurturing, warm, and responsive parent–child relationships and parental participation in child-centered activities relate to positive learning outcomes in early childhood. Nurturing relationships provide an emotional refuge for children, fostering the development of a healthy sense of belonging, self-esteem, and well-being. When parents are sensitive and responsive to children’s emotions, children are more likely to become socially competent and show better communication skills.
5 Warm, reciprocal parent–child interactions and fewer life stresses in the home facilitate children’s prosocial behavior and ability to concentrate. 6 Parent participation in child-centered activities, specifically play, is also important for children’s social and emotional –2– In the early childhood years, the home– school relationship refers to the formal and informal connections between families and their young children’s educational settings. 5 Both participation in preschoolbased activities and regular communication between families and teachers are related to young children’s outcomes.
Parent participation practices can include attending parent–teacher conferences, participating in extended class visits, and helping with class activities. Such participation is associated with child language, self-help, social, motor, adaptive, and basic school skills. 6 Maintaining relationships with fathers is important too. In a study of low-income African American fathers, involvement in Head Start was associated with higher levels of children’s emotion regulation. 7 The frequency of parent–teacher contact and involvement at the early childhood education site is also associated with preschool performance.
8 Parents who maintain direct and regular contact with the early educational setting and experience fewer barriers to involvement have children who demonstrate positive engagement with peers, adults, and learning. 9 In addition, teachers’ perceptions of positive parental attitudes and beliefs about preschool are associated with fewer behavior problems and higher language and math skills among children. 20 Not only do strong home–school relationships matter for children’s outcomes during the early childhood years, but the benefits persist over time.
For example, family involvement activities such as keeping in touch with a teacher, volunteering in the classroom and attending school activities were related to children’s promotion after kindergarten into the first grade. 2 More frequent parental engagement in school activities is important— probably because it contributes to parents’ greater knowledge of the school program and familiarity with school experiences. Moreover, parental presence in school may model for the child the importance of schooling. The home–school relationship buffers the negative impacts of poverty on the academic and
behavioral outcomes of poor children. For example, children of low-income parents who participated in Chicago Child–Parent Centers (CPC) were more prepared for kindergarten, were less likely to be referred to special education, and later had higher rates of eighth grade reading achievement and high school completion and lower rates of grade retention. 22 (See text box. ) Why do the benefits of home–school relationships sustain over time? One possible answer is that family involvement in early childhood sets the stage for involvement in future school settings.
For instance, family involvement in the CPC program during the early years was associated with greater parent involvement in the elementary school years, which in turn was related with positive youth outcomes in high school. 23 Thus, early positive patterns in a home–school relationship bridge children’s experiences over time and across educational settings. Because of the importance of linkages across settings over time, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers recently have begun to focus their attention on the period of transition from preschool to formal schooling.
Although research in this area has not focused on which transition practices relate to specific child outcomes, there is growing consensus that both early childhood settings and elementary schools have a responsibility to support families and help them to sustain their family involvement trajectories. Unfortunately, as children transition to kindergarten, teacher and family contact decreases, and there is a shift away from parent-initiated communication. 24 Logistical barriers (e. g. , schools generating kindergarten class lists late in the summer, no summer salary for teachers, little teacher training in this area, etc.
) hinder ideal transition practices. 25 Yet schools that provide more opportunities for family involvement and occasions for nontraditional contact—such as home visits, parent discussion groups, parent resource rooms, and home lending libraries—enjoy increased levels of family participation. 26 RESPONSIbILITY FOR LEARNING OUTCOMES Responsibility for learning outcomes refers to an aspect of parenting that involves placing emphasis on educational activities that promote school success.
In early childhood, this family involvement process tends to focus on how parents can support children’s language and literacy. For example, children whose parents read to them at home recognize letters of the alphabet and write their names sooner.
29 Direct parent-teaching activities—such as showing children how to write words—are linked to children’s ability to identify letters and connect letters to speech sounds. 30 Mothers who use more complex sentences and a wider range of different words in their everyday conversations have children with richer expressive language and higher scores on literacy-related tasks in kindergarten.
3 In addition, children of parents who emphasize problem solving and curiosity for learning develop long-term individual interests and the ability to attend to tasks for longer periods of time. 32 Families, however, differ in the extent to which they expose their children to language. In their seminal research, Hart and Risley (995) found that children from professional families show significantly greater rates of vocabulary growth than children from welfare families and demonstrate richer forms of language use and interaction.
They conclude that the achievement gap begins even before preschool, in the home environments of children from birth to age 3, and they recommend that poor parents receive the parenting supports that can promote the literacy development of their children.
33 In fact, responsibility for learning activities, such as reading to children, and providing complementary learning experiences, such as making library visits, going on trips to the zoo, having picnics and attend-SUPPORTING HOME–SCHOOL RELATIONSHIPS OVER TIME Chicago Child—Parent Centers (CPC) have been administered by the Chicago public schools since 1967 and funded through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
One of the programs cited most frequently by policymakers and researchers building the argument for universal pre-K, the CPC program provides preschool education for low-income children from age 3 through third grade, as well as a variety of family support services inside and outside the centers.
Although home visitation is provided, most family support activities are directed toward enhancing involvement in children’s education at home and in school. Involvement may include a wide variety of activities, such as parents volunteering as classroom aides, interacting with other parents in the center’s parent resource room, participating in educational workshops and courses, attending school events, accompanying classes on field trips, and attending parent–teacher meetings. This involvement strengthens parenting skills, vocational skills, and social supports.
Studies have indicated that CPC is effective in promoting both family and child development outcomes. Relative to a matched control group of children, CPC preschool participation was associated with greater parent involvement in and satisfaction with children’s schooling and higher expectations for children’s educational attainment. 27 Both preschool participation and preschool plus school-age participation were associated with greater school achievement and lower rates of school remediation services.
Moreover, preschool participation was consistently associated with higher rates of high school completion and lower rates of official juvenile arrest for violent and nonviolent offenses. 28 www. aecf. org/publications/advocasey/spring2002/chicago. htm –3– ing and participating in sporting events, has the power to alter the influence of poverty on children’s language and literacy development. 34 Responsibility for learning might be the family involvement process that is most important for young children’s outcomes.
Fantuzzo and his colleagues (2004) recently showed that practices associated with responsibility for learning (e. g. , providing a place for educational activities, asking a child about school, reading to a child), above and beyond aspects of the home–school relationship, are related to children’s motivation to learn, attention, task persistence, and receptive vocabulary and to fewer conduct problems. 35 IMPLICATIONS practitioners, and researchers can advance the practice of family involvement and strengthen the linkages among early childhood programs, schools, community-based organizations, and families.
These suggestions are based upon the three family involvement processes that are included in the review and have been shown to be effective by empirical research. This research brief began with the idea that family involvement in early education is connected to the concept of complementary learning. Complementary learning emphasizes the linkages—such as those among the home, early childhood setting, and school—that work toward consistent learning and developmental outcomes for children.
In line with the concept of complementary learning, this review suggests several ways that policymakers, For policy •? Invest in projects that increase the family involvement processes. This review points to the importance of three family involvement processes for young children’s outcomes. Early childhood initiatives can emphasize outreach to families and invest in projects that increase family involvement in children’s learning and development.
They can promote training and professional development efforts, including higher education and community partnerships, that demonstrate how early childhood and elementary school teachers can create multiple avenues for parent participation in their children’s learning. For example, the Incredible Years program has developed training modules for parents as well as for parents and teachers together to promote both parenting and home–school relationships. (See text box. ) •? Support early childhood programs in the community.
Family involvement in the early years can have long-term effects for children, such that policymakers and local funders would be well-served to encourage family involvement in early childhood. The more a community recognizes the importance of what goes on in families during children’s earliest years and the amount of support parents require, the more resources can get mobilized to accomplish it. Moreover, early childhood and elementary school settings can work together to promote opportunities for family involvement within the community.
For example, the Raising a Reader program, originally a local initiative, has spread to libraries, child care centers, and visiting nurse programs nationally and internationally. (See text box on page 6. ) •? Advance best practices for family involvement in early childhood. Early childhood programs that engage in best practices around family involvement regard family involvement as a continuous process and as a result, create smooth transitions for families and children. Policy can develop systems and mechanisms that ensure that these best practices are realized.
For example, standards can be put into place to guarantee that early childhood teachers are well paid and trained so that they have the ability and time to invite parents’ participation and the knowledge to provide parents with clear strategies for rich relationships with their children. Moreover, policy can mandate that employers in the community allow parents of young children time off from work to participate in their children’s learning environments and transition activities. •? Sponsor dialogue about research on family involvement in early childhood.
Several federal and state early childhood policy initiatives with research and evaluation components already exist. Policymakers and funders can bring together these researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to form communities of practice to discuss emerging research findings, specifically as they relate to families, as well as to address issues such as translating the learning about family involvement into curriculum, guidelines for practice, and usable evaluation tools at the program level. These communities of practice can also advance new direc-
PUTTING PARENTING RESEARCH TO PRACTICE The Incredible Years Program developed by Carolyn Webster-Stratton applies research-proven parenting and teaching practices to strengthen young children’s social competence and problem-solving abilities and reduce aggression at home and school. Incredible Years is a comprehensive program; it incorporates parenting components with teacher- and child-focused intervention strategies. Comprehensive programs like Incredible Years are likely to be the most effective strategy to promote positive child outcomes.
13 Thus, the Incredible Years Program is presented in four distinct formats: • Parenting group sessions that focus on basic parenting skills, parental communication and anger management, and promoting children’s academic skills • A teacher classroom management series • Two-hour weekly small therapy sessions for children • Classroom lesson plans that can be delivered one to three times a week for teachers Incredible Years has been tested with 3- to 8-year-old children with conduct problems as well as with 2- to 6-year-old children who are at high risk by virtue of living in poverty.
The child program promotes children’s social competence and reduces conduct problems; the parent program helps parents strengthen parenting skills and become more involved in their children’s school activities; and the teachers’ program strengthens classroom management skills, reduces classroom aggression, and improves teachers’ ability to focus on students’ social, emotional, and academic competence. 14 www. incredibleyears. com –4– tions for research.
For example, research on family involvement in early childhood can begin to look more closely at how family involvement in early childhood and at points of transition, relates to children’s outcomes over time. In addition, as more young children are born to ethnically and economically diverse families, research will begin to unpack what family involvement practices work, under what conditions, at what points in development, and for what groups.
PROMOTING READING IN THE HOME THROUGH FAMILY LITERACY PROGRAMS Family literacy programs today are widely recognized as one way to help parents take an active role in their children’s literacy development. One new initiative, the Early Authors Program, promotes early bilingual literacy in preschool children by providing early childhood educators with an example of how children’s literacy, identity, and self-esteem can be supported while respecting their families’ funds of knowledge and home languages.
Inspired by the work of Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy with school-age children, the Early Authors Program was developed, piloted, and evaluated in Miami-Dade County, Florida, by Judith Bernhard. Family and center-based child care settings are provided with a digital camera, color printer, computer, and laminating equipment, and together children, parents, and educators author books in both English and the home languages of the children. The books are based on family histories, the children’s lives, and the children’s interests, and family photographs and children’s drawings are used to illustrate the books.
Through the program, parents have opportunities to talk with teachers and bring home new ideas, resources, and techniques for incorporating literacy into their everyday home activities. The program has been evaluated with 800 families using a pretest/posttest randomized experimental design. The intervention was effective in increasing literacy practices in child care centers and increasing language and literacy scores of 3 and 4 year olds. 36 www. ryerson. ca/~bernhard/early. html For practice •? Approach family involvement in multiple ways.
The three family involvement processes described in this brief are important for children’s success. Therefore, early childhood practitioners can and should approach family involvement in overlapping and multiple ways. For example, early childhood practitioners can help promote warm and nurturing parenting through workshops, trainings, and parent–child groups. To develop home–school relationships, teachers can communicate with parents frequently about their young children’s learning patterns and provide opportunities for parents to visit the classroom.
Moreover, early childhood practitioners can help parents take responsibility for their children’s learning outcomes by providing materials and ideas for activities that parents can do at home and in the community with their children. •? Think about family involvement as a continuum. Teachers must recognize that families often enter their classrooms with histories of parenting experience and memories of prior relationships with child care providers and early childhood educators.
Teachers must actively reach out to and invite parents to share both their child’s and their own experiences in a previous setting, as well as how they would like to be involved in the present. In particular, kindergarten teachers can actively reach out to early childhood programs in the community, while early childhood programs can form relationships with the elementary schools where children will be enrolled. •? Create mechanisms for smooth transitions. Families are often the most consistent context in children’s lives and provide a natural link between the early childhood and elementary school learning environ-
ments. Early childhood practitioners must provide and sustain the kind of support and modeling needed to reduce stress for parents and give them clear strategies for positive interactions and relationships with their children. Pamphlets and flyers can offer useful information but are not enough. Parents need real opportunities to interact with providers.School administrators can also alleviate logistical obstacles to transition practices by generating class lists early, providing professional development to kindergarten teachers regarding the importance of transition, and creating opportunities for parents and early childhood professionals to visit kindergarten classrooms in the spring and summer.
•? Respect diversity. This review also points to the diversity of families and family practices. Teachers must be aware of and sensitive to differences in home culture and practices while at the same time helping parents to understand the features of family involvement that are related to positive outcomes for children.
Programs such as Early Authors build on parents’ strengths and benefit children by giving parents a prominent role as their children’s literacy teachers. (See text box. ) •? Partner with the community. Early childhood and elementary school settings can work together to promote opportunities for family involvement within the community. For example, classes and programs can take place in libraries, museums, zoos, and other community facilitates. By connecting to resources in their communities early in their child’s development, families can develop a broad network that can serve as a resource later in their child’s life.
For example, the Raising a Reader Program, which is often conducted in libraries, increases both the amount of time parents spend reading with their children and the number of visits parents and children make to the library. (See text box). For research •? Devote time to longitudinal studies that examine the impact of family involvement in early childhood over time. More than ever, we now know that families make a difference in the lives of young children. It is important for researchers to continue to examine how family involvement in early childhood relates to children’s outcomes both in the early years and over time.
Research of this nature can go a long way in helping practitioners and policymakers bolster their arguments for well-funded, high-quality early childhood programs across the country. For example, over 30 years of research on the Chicago Child– Parent Centers has shown that children of –5– low-income parents who got involved in their children’s education in the early years had higher rates of eighth grade reading achievement and high school completion. 37 (See text box on page 3. ) •? Trace the relationships between transition practices and child outcomes.
Studies can begin to associate how the relationships among early childhood programs, schools, and families at points of transition relate to children’s outcomes both in kindergarten and later in their education. Researchers might consider outcomes for children beyond traditional measures like developmental scores. For example, positive transitions might result in lower rates of special education referrals. Research can also begin to identify the complex relationships between transition practice and child outcomes.
It is possible that best transition practices increase parents’ sense of connectedness to the elementary school and shift the tone away from formal contacts between teachers and the family. Consequently, parent–teacher relationships might become more focused on problem-solving and more collaborative, in turn creating better child outcomes. •? Build a culturally responsive knowledge base.
The educational agenda for the 2st century must account for the fact that a growing number of children entering U. S. schools are from ethnically and culturally diverse families. Research on family involvement can respond to these trends by respecting, responding to, and building on the culturally grounded resources of families.
Research can develop from the “ground up” a -more finely tuned understanding of what family involvement practices work, under what conditions, and for what groups. It is unclear how well many of the recommended strategies for parental involvement fit with the life rhythms and demand of non-White and poor families.
Research can also test the utility and feasibility of the frequently proposed models of parent involvement. •? Connect research to policy and practice. Researchers can support policymakers and practitioners who are charged with developing programs and policy for young children and families grounded in evidence by translating complex research into quick and easy-to-read summaries. These research snapshots can reach the field through online networks, listservs, conferences and/or practitioner publications.
Moreover, researchers might begin to develop a community of practice around family involvement in early childhood to share findings and new ideas for how to translate well-designed research into practice. Heather Weiss, Founder and Director Margaret Caspe, Consultant M. Elena Lopez, Senior Consultant APPENDIx I: METHOD GOING TO SCALE: PROMOTING RESPONSIbILITY FOR LEARNING OUTCOMES THROUGH A FOUNDATION INITIATIVE Raising a Reader is a nonprofit and supporting organization of Peninsula Community Foundation, a community association located in San Mateo, California.
The Raising a Reader mission is to foster healthy brain development, parent–child bonding, and early literacy skills critical for school success by engaging parents in a routine of daily “book cuddling” with their children from birth through age 5. Raising a Reader is based on the premise that when parents establish a reading routine with their children, family bonding time increases, as do children’s vocabulary and preliteracy skills.
Raising a Reader fosters a reading routine whereby children carry bright red bags filled with high-quality picture books into their homes each week. The books feature artwork, age-appropriate language, and multicultural themes. During Literacy Nights, parents are taught read-aloud strategies anchored to language development research and storytelling. Raising a Reader has spread to libraries, child care centers, Head Start programs, teen mother programs, and home visiting nurse programs in 72 communities, 24 states, Mexico, Botswana, and Malaysia.
Six independent evaluations show that Raising a Reader significantly improves family reading behavior and kindergarten readiness, especially for low-income, non-English speaking families. Raising a Reader has been shown to increase the amount of time parents spend reading with their children, the number of visits parents and children take to the library, and an increase in kindergarten readiness skills of book knowledge, story comprehension, and print knowledge. www. pcf. org/raising_reader/research. html This research brief examines the family involvement proc.
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