ERIC Identifier: ED482880
Publication Date: 2003-12-00
Author: Mendoza, Jean
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood
Communicating with Parents. ERIC Digest.
Communication and the exchange of information are key components of the
relationships between parents of young children and the staff of programs
them. In order for information to be useful, however, parents must
be able to
comprehend it. Professionals who work with families are likely to be
when they are aware of how aspects of their own communication practices
parents' ability and willingness to engage with a program in the interests
children. Although little quantitative research exists on effective
strategies, this Digest discusses the limited research and literature
intellectual and physical access to information provided by programs
that serve young
INTELLECTUAL ACCESS TO INFORMATION
Intellectual access to information is a concern in information studies;
parents cannot use
information that they cannot understand. Access to information can
compromised by differences in reading level and home language, and
of jargon and vocabulary, among parents and program staff.
Reading Level. The reading level of written material can affect its
usefulness to readers.
Parents can readily understand easy-to-read materials; more difficult
confuse some readers or be ignored. Yet studies suggest that print
materials for parents of young children are often written at levels too
difficult for a significant part of their intended audience. Analysis of
107 sets of child safety seat instructions (Wegner & Girasek, 2003),
for example, revealed that all the instructions were written between 7th
and 12th-grade reading levels, which meant that parents with lower literacy
skills were less likely to fully understand them. Similarly, in a readability
evaluation of 33 sets of pediatric patient education materials for parents,
Klingbeil, Speece, and Schubiner
(1995) found that most of the materials examined had readability levels
of 9th grade or
higher, making them potentially inaccessible to parents with lower
literacy skills or to
second-language English speakers.
Home Language. Language differences may cut parents off from important
and prevent them from sharing their own knowledge with the professionals
involved with the family. For example, researchers in a British study
communication about asthma symptoms was challenging for doctors even
parents spoke English, because not all parents used the same terms
to describe their
children's breathing sounds. When parents and physicians communicated
translators, the situation became even more complicated because some
languages used by parents apparently had no equivalent for the term
"wheeze" (Cane, Ranganathan, & McKenzie, 2000).
In a 10-year ethnographic study of literacy practices in a Hispanic
community in a small coastal town in California, Delgado-Gaitan (1996)
recorded how Hispanic (primarily Mexican American) parents experienced
frustration over school-to-home
communications. As non-native speakers of English, they had difficulty
what teachers and school officials wanted of them. They responded to
the problem by
creating an organization to improve their access to information from
Jargon. Research in medicine and in education confirms the conventional
wisdom that when professionals use technical terms and jargon without sufficient
explanation, parents may not understand key information about their children. In
a longitudinal qualitative study of 36 low- to middle-income African American families
of young special education students, parents told the researchers that
professional jargon made it difficult to understand what was being said
about their children (Allen, Harry, &
McLaughlin, 1993). On the other hand, in a British study that used
a semi-structured interview with 95 parents of children with acute viral illnesses, a
majority reported that
although they did not want jargon, they also did not want the doctors
to omit technical information that would help them make sense of their children's condition
These findings suggest a need to give high priority to developing ways
to help parents move from one level of understanding to another when complex situations
call for complex explanations.
Vocabulary. Additional insight into the kinds of vocabulary challenges
that parents and
professionals may face during their interactions can be found in a
report by Serpell and
colleagues (1996) on the Cooperative Communication Project conducted
pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms in Baltimore. A preschool
involved in the study recounted being confronted by a mother who claimed
teacher had called her a "bad" name. The teacher had refused to let
the child go with
the sitter, saying that the mother was "adamant" about not releasing
the child without a
note from her. The sitter was not familiar with the word "adamant"
and told the mother
that the teacher used "a cuss word." Such reports suggest that professionals
need to be
mindful of their spoken vocabulary, as well as what they write, when
parents who may have lower levels of literacy.
PHYSICAL ACCESS TO INFORMATION
Distance and sensory or physical disabilities may impede access to information.
Programmatic factors such as scheduling may also interfere with people's
connect with information sources.
Geographic Factors. Sparse population and difficult terrain can make
difficult for programs to connect with parents in some rural areas
Appalachia) (Beeson & Strange, 2003). Distance between homes and
contributes to the challenges. In a report of their ethnographic study
Start/Public School Transition programs in six rural South Dakota towns,
colleagues noted that, although some of the sites could be considered
"the centers of
their communities" and a focal point of parental involvement, other
school sites were
not. Parents tended not to see schools as a focal point when children
had to be bused
to school in a neighboring community, when families in the community
mobile, or when a number of parents were employed outside the community
school was located (Allen, Thompson, & Drapeaux, 1996, p. 17).
In another publication based on the same study, the authors reported finding
that home visitors (family service coordinators) were viewed as important
links when children's programs were located in communities distant from
their homes (Allen et al., 1997).
Disability. The difficulties that people with disabilities face in gaining
information have been framed as aspects of "social exclusion" (Gleeson,
1998, in a
discussion of disability and technology in urban settings). Typical
written materials are
of little use to visually impaired people, and services or information
offered in spaces
without accommodations for wheelchairs or walkers may be inaccessible
with physical handicaps. It appears that, overall, information access
for parents with
disabilities has not received much attention in the research literature.
Hoffmeister (1985) notes, in a discussion and review of literature regarding
families with deaf parents, that technological advances have improved communication
between deaf and hearing people (pp. 125-126). On the other hand, as Gleeson
(1998) points out, assistive technology cannot completely overcome the
exclusion some parents are likely to experience from mainstream activities
Programmatic Factors. As suggested by the work of Powell (1989) and
Minish (1991), the structure of the day in an early childhood program
may limit contact
between parents and child care providers so that high priority is placed
on the exchange of information during transition times (i.e., when children
are dropped off and picked up). In cases when parents do not enter a facility
during transition times, they and the caregivers may not have access to
important information about children or the program.
Descriptions of some early childhood programs indicate that special
sometimes made to ensure that parents have access to information that
they need."Parent centers" and "family resource centers" are areas set aside
for parents to
facilitate their access to information and other resources. Parent
room activities in the
Chicago Child-Parent Centers, for example, include parent reading groups
inservice training sessions for parents in "child development, financial
cooking, and home economics" (Reynolds, 2000, p. 41). In case studies
programs with parent centers, Johnson (1994) describes what is offered
by one center, including visits from representatives of community agencies;
a bulletin board with job listings, courses, and contact information for
community agencies; and learning games created by teachers for parents
to take home with them. In interviews with parents who used the centers,
Johnson (1994, pp. 38-41) found that some parents reported that the centers
provided information and experiences that helped them better understand
how to take a more active role in their children's education.
As Internet access becomes more common among low-income families, some
problems related to physical access to information are likely to diminish.
The impact of Internet use on parent-program communications has yet to
be studied in depth.
Communication is an intrinsic part of any relationship, including relationships
parents of young children and the staff of programs that serve them.
The ideal is
two-way open and frequent communication between parents and the people
outside the family. This type of communication increases the likelihood
that the exchange of
information can be coordinated and provided in ways that have a direct
positive impact on children's development.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Allen, N. N., Harry, G. E., & McLaughlin, M. J. (1993). THE PARENT
PROFESSIONAL PARTNERSHIP: AFRICAN AMERICAN PARENTS' PARTICIPATION IN THE
SPECIAL EDUCATION PROCESS. Final report. Washington, DC: Department of
Education. ED 403 726.
Allen, S. M., Thompson, R., & Drapeaux, J. (1996, April). SCHOOLS
AS THE CENTER OF RURAL COMMUNITIES. Paper presented at the national meeting
of the American Educational Research Association, New York. ED 398 040.
Allen, S. M., Thompson, R. H., Hoadley, M., Engelking, J., & Drapeaux,
March). IMPROVING SCHOOL CLIMATE: CREATING A CIRCLE OF
COMMUNICATION BETWEEN EDUCATORS AND FAMILIES. Paper presented at the
annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.
Beeson, E., & Strange, M. (2003, February). WHY RURAL MATTERS 2003:
CONTINUING NEED FOR EVERY STATE TO TAKE ACTION ON RURAL
EDUCATION. A REPORT OF THE RURAL SCHOOL AND COMMUNITY TRUST POLICY
PROGRAM [Online]. Available: http://www.ruraledu.org/
Cane, R. S., Ranganathan, S. C., & McKenzie, S. A. (2000). What
do parents of wheezy children understand by "wheeze"? ARCHIVES OF DISEASE
IN CHILDHOOD, 82(4), 327-332.
Delgado-Gaitan, Concha. (1996). PROTEAN LITERACY: EXTENDING THE
DISCOURSE ON EMPOWERMENT. Washington, DC: Falmer Press.
Endsley, R. C., & Minish, P. A. (1991). Parent-staff communication
in day care centers during morning and afternoon transitions. EARLY CHILDHOOD
RESEARCH QUARTERLY, 6(2), 119-135. EJ 431 695.
Gleeson, B. (1998). A place on earth: Technology, space, and disability.
JOURNAL OF URBAN TECHNOLOGY, 5(1), 87-109.
Hoffmeister, R. J. (1985). Families with deaf parents: A functional
perspective. In S. K.Thurman (Ed.), CHILDREN OF HANDICAPPED PARENTS: RESEARCH
AND CLINICAL PERSPECTIVES (pp. 111-130). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Johnson, V. (1994). PARENT CENTERS IN URBAN SCHOOLS: FOUR CASE
STUDIES. Baltimore, MD: Center for Families, Communities,Schools,
Learning, Johns Hopkins University. ED 375 197.
Kai, J. (1996). Parents' difficulties and information needs in coping
with acute illness in
preschool children: A qualitative study. BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL, 313(7063),987-990.
Klingbeil, C., Speece, M. W., & Schubiner, H. (1995). Readability
of pediatric patient education materials: Current perspectives on an old
problem. CLINICAL PEDIATRICS, 34, 96-102.
Powell, D. R. (1989). FAMILIES AND EARLY CHILDHOOD PROGRAMS. Washington,
DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Reynolds, A. J. (2000). SUCCESS IN EARLY INTERVENTION: THE CHICAGO CHILD-PARENT
CENTERS. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ED 443 532
Serpell, R., Baker, L., Sonnenschein, S., Gorham, L., & Hill, S.
(1996). COOPERATIVE COMMUNICATION AMONG PARENTS AND TEACHERS ABOUT CHILDREN'S
EMERGENT LITERACY. FINAL PROJECT REPORT TO THE NATIONAL READING RESEARCH
CENTER. Baltimore, MD: National Reading Research Center. ED 414566.
Wegner, M. V., & Girasek, D. C. (2003). How readable are child safety
seat installation instructions? PEDIATRICS, 111, 588-591.