Early Childhood Education
Parenting education refers to the process of increasing adult knowledge and skills about the development of parents and of children so as to enhance childrearing practices and strengthen the parent-child relationship. It works on the assumption that parents can change and become better parents, and that parenting styles and practices can be modified to benefit children, parents, and families. The goals of parenting education are multiple, including improving parenting skills, the prevention of child abuse and neglect, the promotion of children’s health and school readiness, and the personal growth of parents. Because research shows that racial and socioeconomic differences in parenting practices impact differences in children’s cognitive development, parenting education is also proposed as a strategy to address the achievement gap.
The many parenting books, magazines, television shows, and Internet sites indicate the strong interest parents have for information and support. A national survey of American adults conducted in 2000 reported that one third of adults felt very unprepared and another third only “somewhat prepared” for parenthood (DYG, Inc., 2000). In addition, the survey revealed significant gaps among parents and other adults in their knowledge of the development of children newborn to age six. Better educated parents and those with higher incomes are more knowledgeable of current child development theories than those who are less well educated and have lower incomes; and fathers are less well informed than mothers. Although most parents turn to other family members for information and support on parenting, parenting education is typically available through community-based programs.
Parenting education in the United States has a long history that can be traced back to the seventeenth century. During the colonial period, much of the available practical advice on infant and child care focused on the moral and religious upbringing of children. The next two hundred years witnessed an increase in the number of American authors publishing parenting education materials; a shift to content that was both developmental and spiritual in nature; and the creation of mothers’ groups as a mode of conveying information and advice.
With the growth of industrialization and immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social reformers became concerned about childrearing and “mothering,” particularly in poor families. Their efforts took various forms, including visits to families by social workers and the development of settlement houses that offered multiple services to immigrant families. This period also saw the establishment of various parent education organizations, including the National Congress of Mothers in 1897 (today called the PTA). Mass media outlets began to carry materials for parents including publications like Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal (Schlossman, 1976). In the 1960s War on Poverty, a new wave of parenting education programs flourished. By the mid-1970s, a number of individuals and groups initiated programs with many of the characteristics associated with contemporary family support and parenting education. These characteristics include a goal-oriented framework for parenting education, sustained and comprehensive support to young families, referrals to other services, child development services, and a climate that engages parents to share and explore child-rearing beliefs and practices.
As was the case with historical attempts to change parenting practices, contemporary parenting education and support programs rest on the assumptions that early childhood is a critical period in the development and that the home is a critical context in which development takes place. By providing parents of young children with information about and support for child rearing, programs increasingly reject the notion of parens patriae—that either the state or the family alone are accountable for children—and embrace the idea that fostering children’s development is the mutual responsibility of the family, the state, and the broader community.
Studies of the family and child development confirm the need for parenting education and support. For example, it is widely recognized that warm, reciprocal parent-child relationships foster children’s cognitive development and social competence. Hart and Risley (1995), for example, found that parenting from birth to age three is especially critical to children’s language development and their future academic performance. However, of great concern to policy makers are findings from such research about the impact of poverty on parenting and child outcomes. By having parents who talked to them more often, children from professional families showed dramatically greater rates of vocabulary growth and also richer forms of language use and interaction than children from welfare families. The implication of studies such as these is that, by the time poor children enter preschool, they are already disadvantaged compared with their middle-class peers.
The timing of poverty in children’s lives appears as one important dimension with long-lasting effects—and significant implications for parenting education. Being poor during the preschool years correlates with low rates of high school completion, as compared with poverty during the childhood and adolescent years. The home environment in particular mediates the effects of poverty on children. Income instability and the chronic stresses of poverty are associated with maternal depression, which, in turn, is related to more punitive and less nurturing parenting behaviors, and, subsequently, preschool children’s lower levels of cognitive development and increased behavioral problems (McLoyd, 1995). In response to these findings, it has been suggested that parenting education focus on reading to children and providing them with stimulating learning experiences in order to improve children’s cognitive development; to reduce children’s behavioral problems, parenting programs should focus on parenting skills and improving parents’ psychological well-being; and to promote children’s healthy development in multiple domains, comprehensive social supports be offered to families (Yeung, Linver and Brooks-Gunn, 2002).
Certain community factors may counteract the negative outcomes of poverty and other life stressors. Parents’ social networks buffer negative parenting as friends, neighbors and kin provide emotional, informational and parenting support as well as role modeling. Parents who receive more emotional support and have a heterogeneous social network exhibit more warmth and responsiveness, offer a more stimulating cognitive home environment and feel more effective as parents than their counterparts with fewer and more homogenous social networks. Children who overcome adversity come from families that are caring and supportive, maintain high expectations, and provide opportunities for meaningful participation in the family (Benard, 1991). For parents to create these environments families must exist in supportive communities. The notion that “it takes a village to raise a child” situates parenting education in a broader ecological framework of community-based support and social service system change.
Parenting education is best represented as a series of overlapping approaches and strategies. Programs might range from intensive interventions focused on highly specific objectives over several months to multiyear initiatives that provide a range of services over a longer period of time. Cultural characteristics such as family communication styles, routines, and parenting practices also carry implications for parenting programs. Parenting programs are charged with the task of aligning with family cultural styles and material circumstances, while simultaneously conveying middle-class practices that are associated with children’s cognitive and socioemotional development. To do this effectively, programs define their own underlying values as well as build on the characteristics, constraints and opportunities of specific groups including immigrant populations, parents of children with special needs and fathers.
Parenting education programs can be classified into three general models: those that provide parenting and other supports solely to parents; those that provide services to parents through their involvement in educational services offered to their children; and those that unite these two components. A large part of what we know about parent education programs comes from evaluations of intervention programs based on each of these models.
Parenting support models rely on professional or paraprofessional staff to provide information and support about parenting and child development. Meetings may take place within the home environment (home visiting) or in other settings. In this model the focus is on helping parents fulfill their role as parents and educators of their children.
Parent involvement models are usually center-based and primarily provide an educational curriculum to preschoolers or infants and toddlers. Recognizing the sustained effects of parent involvement in early education, these programs include parent support groups, offer parenting classes and conduct parent meetings. Often the content of this model focuses on children’s educational development.
The “two-generation” approach combines services for parents with child-focused curricula. Some of these programs provide integrated and comprehensive services for poor families. They combine work experiences and job training, social services, parenting education and child care.
Are parenting education and support programs effective? Several evaluations point to mixed and conditional results. Evaluations of six major home visiting programs point to some benefits in parenting and the lack of large and consistent benefits in child development. Most of these programs, however, struggled to implement services according to the program design and to engage families. Failure to deliver the intended number of home visits and substantial attrition rates likely affected program outcomes (Gomby, Culross, and Behrman, 1999). Home visiting in poor families is also more likely to help those who are well-functioning rather than those with severe, multiple problems (Larner et al., 1992).
Head Start is the most well-known example of the parent involvement model. Quasi-experimental studies reveal short and long-term effects on cognitive ability and school performance. However, the specific impact of Head Start’s family involvement and parenting education programs is less well studied. Another example of the parent involvement model, the Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC), is a comprehensive preschool program for low-income children in Chicago. Results of a longitudinal study showed that children who participated in CPC had more years of completed education, and that parent involvement was the most important program predictor of children’s early and later school related outcomes (Clements, Reynolds, and Hickey, 2004).
Two-generation programs tend to be the most successful in promoting longterm developmental gains for children from low-income families (Yoshikawa, 1995). Early Head Start, one example of this approach, provides parent education and educational child care, and is implemented in center-based and home-based settings. A longitudinal randomized evaluation finds positive child outcomes in cognitive, language, and social emotional development. Early Head Start parents showed increased support for children’s language development and learning and had lower rates of punitive discipline practices (Raikes, Love and Chazan-Cohen, 2004).
Although much research has focused on outcome evaluation, it is equally important to understand program characteristics and the process by which an intervention brings about its various outcomes. A synthesis of process evaluations of various home visiting programs found variation in program success by who delivered the services (e.g., professional vs. paraprofessional staff) and the connections between those workers and the families they visit. In the Early Head Start evaluation, experimental effects were greatest in the sites rated with the highest level of implementation (Love et al. 2002).
Parenting education assumes that parents can and should change the ways they rear their children. While parenting is malleable it is also very difficult to change. Although the outcomes of parenting education and support programs tend to be modest, stronger outcomes are observed with programs are characterized by previously described best practices (McCartney and Dearing 2002). This finding provides good reason for society to invest in well-designed programs and to fund them at levels that ensure quality implementation. Changing parenting is also complex and value-laden, and influenced by social and cultural contexts that lie beyond the purview of parenting education programs. This suggests the need of a comprehensive national family policy of which parenting education is an important part. Such a policy would encompass workplace changes to meet the needs of parents of young children, parental leave policies, parenting education, quality early childhood education, and affordable health care. For all those concerned about healthy parenting and child well-being, the road ahead lies in building the political will to effect this policy transformation. See also Parents and Parent Involvement; Peers and Friends.
Further Readings: Clements, M. A., A. J. Reynolds, and E. Hickey (2004). Site-level predictors of children’s school and social competence in the Chicago Child-Parent Centers. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 19, 273-296; DYG, Inc. (2000). What grown-ups understand about child development: A national benchmark study. Washington, DC: Zero to Three. Available online athttp://www.zerotothree.org; Gomby, D. S., P. L. Culross, and R. E. Behrman(1999). Home visiting: Analysis and recommendations. The Future of Children: Home Visiting: Recent Program Evaluation 9(1), 4-26; Hart, B., and T. R. Risely (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company; Larner, M., R. Halpern, and O. Harkavy, eds. (1992). Fair startfor children: lessons learned from seven demonstration projects. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Love, J. M., E. Eliason-Kinker, C. M. Ross, P. Z. Schochet, J. Brooks-Gunn, and D. Paulsell (2002). Making a difference in the lives of infants and toddlers and their families: The impacts of Early Head Start. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Commissioners Office of Research and Evaluation, Administration or Children Youth and Families; McCartney, K., and E. Dearing (2002). Evaluating effect sizes in the policy arena. The Evaluation Exchange: Family Support 8(1), 4,7. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project; McLoyd, V. C. (1995); Poverty, parenting and policy: Meeting the support needs of poor parents. In H. E. Fitzgerald, B. M. Lester, and B. S. Zuckerman, eds., Children of poverty: Research, health, and policy issues. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 269-303; Raikes, H., J. Love, and R. Chazan-Cohen (2004). Infant-toddler intervention on the road to school readiness: Lessons from Early Head Start. The Evaluation exchange: Early childhood programs and evaluation issue. Vol. 10. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project, pp. 22-23; Schlossman, S. L. (1976). Before home start: Notes toward a history of parent education in America, 1897-1929. Harvard Educational Review 46(3), 436-466; Yeung, W. J., M. R. Linver, and J. Brooks-Gunn (2002). How money matters for young children’s development: Parental investment and family processes. Child Development 73, 1861-1879; Yoshikawa, H. (1995). Long-term effects of early childhood programs on social outcomes and delinquency. The Future of Children: Long-Term Outcomes of Early Childhood Programs 5(3), 51-75.
M. Elena Lopez and Margaret Caspe