Friday, 6 January 2012

Parents and professionals can help children separately - or they can work together to the greater benefit of the children


Developing a respectful and effective partnership with the parents of young children is crucial to work in the early years. But I wonder: is this more talked about, than actually done? 

There is lots of pretty strong evidence to show that one of the biggest factors in children's early development and learning is the stimulation, care and conversation they receive at home - but how do we act on that research in a spirit of partnership with parents, and avoid promoting a kind of "ideal parent" model which is so off-putting to so many people (and rightly so)?

In 1990, Chris Athey wrote that "parents and professionals can help children separately, or they can work together to the greater benefit of the children." I don't think anyone has put it any better than that. 

This post consists of the notes I made before writing my keynote for the Learning Trust's 2012 Conference about parent partnerships, summarising some of the recent research. This includes: 

  • what EPPE says about parents and the home
  • notes from the research project "Warning: group ahead"
  • Todd Risely's research about early communication at home
  • the experiences of the parents of children involved in the pilot "Two Year Old Project"
I hope that these notes will be helpful to any early years practitioners and others who want to keep thinking, experimenting and developing practice in this important area.


ReferenceExtending Thought in Young Children: A Parent-Teacher Partnership


The EPPE Project (paper: "Effects of the Home Learning Environment and Preschool Center Experience upon Literacy and Numeracy Development in Early Primary School" opens as a PDF)
  • Home Learning Environment ("HLE") has the biggest single effect on children's progress, larger than social/economic status (SES), quality of early years education, or any other single factor. Though HLE is associated with SES, the research shows that there are low SES households with good or better HLE and those children make good progress in their learning.
  • HLE was measured through a semi-structured interview with parents (not an actual visit to homes).
  • The interview asked about 14 activities: playing with friends at home, playing with friends elsewhere, visiting relatives or friends, shopping with parent, watching TV, eating meals with the family, going to the library, playing with letters/numbers, painting or drawing, being read to, learning activities with the alphabet, numbers/shapes, and songs/poems/nursery rhymes, as well as having a regular bedtime.
  • The seven social/routine activities (play with friends at home, and elsewhere, visiting relatives/ friends, shopping, TV, eating meals with family, regular bedtime) were not significant for under- or over-achievement in literacy and numeracy at age 5.
  • Conversely, the seven activities providing clear learning opportunities (frequency read to, going to the library, playing with numbers, painting and drawing, being taught letters, being taught numbers, songs/poems/rhymes) had significant positive effects.
  • The effects of the home environment and parenting upon children’s development may partly be due to the teaching and learning of specific skills (e.g., letter-sound relationships). However, the multiplicity of learning opportunities included in the HLE suggests that the effects may be related to more generalized and motivational aspects of child development (e.g., learning to learn).
  • However, it is clear that parenting is influenced by poverty. For instance, NICHD ECCRN (2005) reported that families in chronic poverty have less stimulating home environments but that the home environment improves as families move out of poverty. Also, families exposed to transient poverty appear to manage to maintain adequate home stimulation despite restricted resources. Wachs and Camli (1991) noted that crowding, the number of people coming and going in the home, and noise level, may have adverse effects on parenting and child development via a reduction in maternal involvement, verbal stimulation, and maternal responsivity.



Warning - group ahead (research based on a small but carefully chosen sample of Bristol parents about their experiences of groups like Children's Centre Stay and Play/ Play and Learn sessions, both in Children's Centres and those run by voluntary/community groups)
  • Services should be geographically accessible, conveniently timed, culturally sympathetic, locally-linked and not patronising or stigmatising to parents (Ramey and Ramey 1998).
  • MacLeod and Nelson (2000) concluded that programmes to promote family wellness and prevent child maltreatment should: start early (preferably during pregnancy), be flexible and responsive to parents' needs, and be strengths-based rather than deficit-based, focusing on empowering parents, rather than being expert-driven.
A summary of factors which are important to parents, according to a review of the research:
  • Awareness that the group exists (Bertram and others 2002, Coe and others 2008)
  • Inclusion and stigma - perception that it is suitable for that particular parent and child, including men (Ghate and others 2000b, NESS 2007), working parents and some black and minority ethnic groups (NESS 2007), and younger parents (Barlow and others 2004). Also parents needed to fell the service was not stigmatising (Anning and Ball 2007, Avis and others 2007, Carpenter and others 2005, Lang and Senior 2004, NESS 2007, Sheppard and others 2008, Smith 1999)
  • Practical accessibility that time, cost, location and language spoken were acceptable (Anning and Ball 2007, Avis and others 2007, NESS 2007).
  • Relevance – that parents thought the service would be useful to themselves and their child (Penn and Gough 2002, Barlow and others 2004)
  • Social and psychological factors – parents lack of confidence could stop them attending a group (Avis and others 2007, Bertram and others 2002, Lang and Senior 2004, NESS 2007, Tunstill and Allnock 20070), as could their lack of trust in other members (Barlow and others 2004), or feeling marginalised by a clique of hard-core members (Sheppard and others 2008)
  • Organisational factors – the childs eligibility, availability of places, and relationships of parent/child with staff (Avis and others 2007, Barlow and others 2004, Dopson and others 2003, NESS 2007). Projects that empowered parents were more acceptable to them (Carpenter and others 2005).
  • Childcare – The availability of workers to look after their children was an attraction (NESS 2007), and some parents wanted to ensure their children would be safe (Avis and others 2007).
  • Timeliness – Parents wanted the group to be available when they were ready for it (Barlow and others 2004).
Personal contact/outreach much more effective than flyers, information boards, etc: "Nearly twice as many (80%) groups that parents were told about by people, were attended, compared to those they learned about from a letter, poster, leaflet or newsletter (43%)."
  • better-off mothers were more likely to attend groups.
  • how a mother found out about the early years group affected how often she went. Personal sources (friend, relative, health visitor) prompted much higher attendance than printed sources (poster, leaflet, newsletter or letter). Again, this echoes the importance of personal relationships in group attendance.
Many parents said they were put off by finding groups unfriendly; cliquey; made up of people from a different social class to them. Parents who are already vulnerable (e.g. living in poverty, mental health difficulties, multiple caring roles etc) are also the most likely to be put off by a single negative experience in a group:

"The level of discomfort could be considerably higher. Two mothers with much in common (large families, low self-esteem, experience of past abuse, living on state benefits, poor mental and physical health, overweight), both felt scorned by others in a group. One complained of being looked at as if she were a “piece of dirt while waiting in the corridor before the group started; she could not bring herself to cross the threshold and never tried another group (Mother 29:412). In 10 years of raising young children, the other mother had attended a group just once, where “dirty looks from the other mothers put her off all groups:  “It was terrible. I walked in and they all gave you dirty looks. Looked at I like you was down and out.” (Mother 28:440: attended once, worst group)

It would seem that few resources (educational, financial, mental health) balanced against high needs (large family, many problems) and an accumulation of abuse, stress and trauma can severely dent a mothers confidence, whereas warm encouragement, pleasant group experiences and appropriate help from workers can increase it."

Learning Points for those Running Early Years Groups

"Agencies or individuals running groups should remember that printed publicity alone is unlikely to prompt regular attendance. Word-of-mouth is far more effective, from known and trusted people such as health visitors, but particularly from friends and relatives.

The importance of peer factors, particularly the problems of mothers not knowing anyone at a group, groups being cliquey (these two often overlapped), and the need for parents to feel comfortable with the social class of other members, must be recognised.

To combat cliquiness, skilled facilitators are needed and "welcomers can help newcomers to integrate. Designing some groups to be short-term (six or eight sessions) allows less chance for a clique to form.

These measures were employed by Sure Start in the study area and, possibly as a result, fewer parents complained about Sure Start groups being cliquey compared to other types. Of 42 Sure Start groups that parents considered, only two (5%) were described as "cliquey, compared to 13 of the 55 (24%) other types of group.

An even bigger factor stopping mothers going to groups was not knowing anyone there (who they liked). The local Sure Start project tackled this by employing Family Link Workers to support parents struggling with difficult circumstances, one of whose tasks was to accompany them to groups the first few times. However, this did not always work. Some mothers struggling with the worst problems seemed to need one-to-one help in their own homes and may never have been able to attend groups. The psychological danger was just too great. The National Evaluation of Sure Start team called such parents “conditional users (Garbers and others 2006, Tunstill and others 2005).

Although they can be very helpful for many parents, early years groups are not a panacea. Indeed, a sizeable minority of mothers in this sample (eight of 30 – 27%) did not need early years groups at all and were doing fine without them."

Research on communication at home in early childhood (by the American researcher Todd Risley)
  • Todd Risley and Betty Hart found that by the age of three, some American children would already have heard over 33 million words said to them by their parents. Others would have heard only 10 million.
  • Some would have heard over 500 thousand positive statements in response to their actions from their parents. Others would have heard fewer than 60 thousand.
  • The number of times a young child expresses her or himself at home ranges from 600 times an hour to less than 200 times.
  • The most effective strategy working with parents was to build up their confidence to talk more. Teaching particular tips on how to talk with children was no effective. “Focusing on parenting style misdirects our efforts. We don't have to try to get parents to learn how to talk differently to their children. We just have to help them practise talking more.” 

Early Learning for Two Year Olds - parents' experiences and views
  • Outreach was found to be generally effective - parents did not find the forms too difficult and could get the help they needed.
  • Main reasons for parents to take up the place - overall 79% wanted the opportunity for their child to mix with others; 46% wanted their child to have the opportunity to learn new things and develop. But - amongst Asian families a different pattern - 69% for child to mix, 64% to learn new things. An interesting difference, I think.
  • Overall most parents were happy with the scheme, and 53% said they had no worries at all. Worries focussed on - the child being unhappy; the parent missing the child  (41%).
  • Overall most parents valued the place at the end of the year for the opportunities it had given their child to learn and develop; but looking at the most disadvantaged group, they valued the place for the respite/parenting support it offered them.
  • Where a parent was unhappy with the scheme and withdrew their child it was mainly because the child was unhappy or the nursery was not seen as of sufficient quality. Many of those parents who were unhappy with the scheme said they had no one to talk to about their concerns.
  • Where parents needed help and support during the year, most were satisfied with the help they received but parents of children with SEN/disabilities much less likely to be happy. 23% said they would have liked more support (compared to 12% of all others); 24% had concerns which were not resolved (compared to 13% of all others).
  • Overall parents were very positive about the staff, especially valuing their approachability, care and concern for the child as an individual, and their ability to manage difficult behaviour. Where parents were not positive it tended to be for the opposite reasons (staff not approachable, not caring enough, etc).
  • 20% of parents said they wished they had received more feedback about their child's development and progress. Overall, there was a close match of parents not getting feedback, and parents not being happy for other reasons. This matches interestingly to the finding in the C4EO report Grasping the Nettle that the most effective settings were characterised by " an ongoing weekly or monthly (rather than termly or annual) communication with parents".
  • Overall the scheme was found to be popular amongst parents, accessible, and parents were largely positive about it benefiting their children's social development, language and learning. However the research into children's outcomes found that overall there were no benefits to the scheme (though there were modest benefits for those children who attended the good quality settings). You could argue this puts a stark case for the fact that a service is popular with parents is not the same as it leading to improved outcomes for children...