Early Childhood Education
Early childhood educators have long embraced the idea that families are the first and foremost educational and socialization influence on children. The prevalence of this view has led to the development of early childhood programs and practices that help families promote children’s well-being. Supportive assistance to families with young children historically has focused on parenting and the mother-child relationship. Since the 1980s, there has been growing interest in other types of family relationships, functions, and contexts.
Family Systems, Influences, and Contexts
Perspectives on families as contexts of early development have broadened to include more than the conventional focus on the mother-child relationship. Families are increasingly viewed as social systems because families typically are comprised of subsystems, including parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, relationships with extended family members, and marital or partner relationships. Change in one of these subsystems generally triggers a change in other systems. Marital discord, for example, is negatively associated with children’s well-being (Cummings and Davies, 2002). Families are also viewed as social systems because the roles and functions of all family members are interdependent (Parke and Buriel, 1998). For example, a child’s entry into an early childhood program is typically associated with shifts in the parent role, the parent-child relationship, and the child’s relations with a sibling (e.g., less available as a playmate at home).
The question of whether participation in early childhood programs in the early years of life diminishes family effects on children’s development has received considerable attention since the mid 1980s (Fein and Fox, 1988). Some early studies on this topic found that family factors were stronger predictors of children’s outcomes when children were not enrolled in child care in the first year of their lives (Howes, 1990). More recent research with larger samples has found that the influence of family factors on children’s outcomes is not weakened or altered by extensive participation in nonparental child care beginning in infancy (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1998).
Although families represent many different structural forms, including singleparent families, a common theme across varying family types is the role of extended family members as a support system for young children and their parents. In the United States, for example, nearly one-half of all grandparents with young grandchildren living nearby provide some type of child-care assistance to their adult children. Slightly more than one-half of grandmothers and nearly 40 percent of grandfathers are involved in child-care roles (Guzman, 2004). Research in Sweden, the United States, Wales, and West Germany indicates that grandparents are an important part of social networks that provide information plus emotional and material assistance to parents and their young children (Cochran et al., 1990).
In addition to social networks, studies point to characteristics of parents’ work environments, neighborhoods, and communities as well as socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity as key contributors to the quality of family child-rearing environments (Luster and Okagaki, 2005).
In most countries today, positive relationships between families and early childhood programs are considered to be a key element of program quality. Reasons for an emphasis on parent involvement, which vary by national histories and goals, include commitments to parental rights and responsibilities, interests in strengthening ties between families and communities, community development, employment for low-income parents, and empowering women to take more control of their lives (Cochran, 1993). The early childhood field has long functioned with the expectation that frequent, two-way communication in which parents and program staff share decision-making responsibilities for children’s care and development will strengthen continuity between family and program, yielding improved outcomes for young children (Powell, 2001).
Productive relationships between early childhood program staff and parents are an integral part of some program models. Many municipal early childhood programs in Italy (see Volume 4), for example, consider parental engagement to be central to their philosophy, practices, and success. The concept of parental engagement in Reggio Emilia calls for parents and citizens to become intimately involved in the educational enterprise through trusting and reciprocal relations carried out through advisory councils and meetings at individual, classroom and school-wide levels. Documentation of children’s behaviors and understandings also are a means of connecting with families. More generally in the United States, professional guidelines for developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs emphasize reciprocal relationships between families and programs.
Research on program-family relationships is limited. Studies conducted in the United States indicate that, overall, early childhood programs fall short of realizing frequent, two-way communications with parents (Powell, 2001). Research in other nations suggests that parents tend to desire an active role in programs (e.g., classroom aide or decision-making role on a preschool board) but that teachers tend to prefer a more passive role for parents (e.g., recipients of professional advice and guidance; Boocock and Larner, 1998).
Programs to Support Families
The early childhood field has a long history of providing programs of childrearing information and social support to families. Program models vary in the extent to which they give attention primarily to the parent or to both child and parent, and in whether the program content focuses on child development exclusively or also incorporates support for other family functions such as meeting basic needs (e.g., housing and food) and adult literacy. Programs also vary in the use of home visiting and/or groups for engaging parents.
Parenting education efforts are prominent among programs aimed at providing supportive assistance to families with young children. An example is the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program, which originated in Israel in the 1960s (Lombard, 1994) and has been implemented and evaluated in seven countries (Westheimer, 2003). The HIPPY curriculum emphasizes early literacy skills developed through parent-child educational interactions. Parents are trained by paraprofessionals from their own communities who use role-playing as the primary means of instruction.
The growing interest in family systems has led to the development of programs that focus on more than the mother-child relationship. Some programs address the marital or adult partner relationship as it impinges on parenting, for example, and other programs seek to strengthen parents’ own literacy skills while also giving attention to the parenting role and the quality of family connections with informal and formal supports in the community (Cowan, Powell, and Cowan, 1998).
Further Readings: Boocock, S. S., and M. B. Larner (1998). Long-term outcomes in other nations. In W. S. Barnett and S. S. Boocock, eds., Early care and education for children in poverty. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 45-76; Cochran, M. (1993). Public child care, culture, and society: Crosscutting themes. In M. Cochran, ed., International handbook of child care policies and programs. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 627-658; Cochran, M., M. Larner, D. Riley, L. Gunnarsson, and C. Henderson, Jr. (1990). Extending families: The social networks of parents and their children. Lon- don/New York: Cambridge University Press; Cowan, P. A., D. R. Powell, and C. P. Cowan, (1998). Parenting interventions: A family systems perspective. In W. Damon, ed., and I. E. Sigel and K. A. Renninger, vol eds., Handbook of child psychology. Vol. 4: Child psychology in practice. New York: Wiley, pp. 3-72; Cummings, E. M., and P. T. Davies (2002). Effects of marital conflict on children: Recent advances and emerging themes in process-oriented research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 43, 31-63; Fein, G. G., and N. Fox (1998). Infant day care: A special issue. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 3, 227-234; Guzman, L. (2004). Grandma and grandpa taking care of the kids: Patterns of involvement. Child Trends Research Brief 2004(17). Washington, DC: Child Trends; Howes, C. (1990). Can the age of entry into child care and the quality of child care predict adjustment in kindergarten? Developmental Psychology, 26, 292-303; Lombard, E. (1994). Success begins at home: The past, present and future of the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters. 2nd ed. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group; Luster, T., and L. Okagaki, eds. (2005). Parenting: An ecological perspective. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (1998). Relations between family predictors and child outcomes: Are they weaker for children in child care? Developmental Psychology 34, 1119-1128; Parke, R. D., and R. Buriel (1998). Socialization in the family: Ethnic and ecological perspectives. In W. Damon, ed., and N. Eisenberg, vol. ed., Handbook of child psychology. Vol. 3: Social, emotional, and personality development. 5th ed. New York: Wiley, pp. 463-552; Powell, D. R. (2001). Visions and realities of achieving partnership: Parent-teacher relationships at the turn of the century. In A. Goncu and E. Klein, eds., Children in play, story and school. New York: Guilford, pp. 333-57; Westheimer, M. (2003). Parents making a difference: International research on the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) Program. Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press.
Douglas R. Powell