ERIC Identifier: ED320661
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Powell, Douglas R.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Parent Education and Support Programs. ERIC Digests.
Today there are numerous signs that the task of rearing competent children is
becoming increasingly difficult. Dramatic changes in the structure and
lifestyles of families and growing societal pressure for children to possess
specific knowledge and skills at an early age are just two of the new and
challenging conditions of parenthood. Conflicting research information sometimes
results in conflicting advice for parents. Parents have always routinely sought
the advice and help of relatives, friends and professionals. However,
traditional sources of help--especially the extended family and
neighborhood--are less available today than they were in the past.
Teachers and other human service professionals have long recognized the need
to provide parents with child-rearing information and support. The formation of
partnerships between parents and teachers that will foster children's
development has been a persistent goal of most early childhood programs and
elementary schools. In recent years, this goal has taken on increased importance
as diverse segments of American society have recognized the need to help parents
deal with the multiple pressures of rearing children in today's complex world.
This digest describes current programmatic efforts to inform and support
parents, and briefly reviews the research evidence on the effectiveness of
parent education and support programs.
APPROACHES TO SUPPORTING PARENTS
The term "parent
education" typically evokes the image of an expert lecturing a group of mothers
about the ages and stages of child development. Yet a view of parent education
and support as a staff-directed, didactic activity is neither a complete nor
accurate portrayal of many programs of parent education and support. The concept
of the parent education field has broadened considerably in the past two
decades. At federal, state, and local levels, there are now a variety of
ambitious and diverse initiatives aimed at supporting families with young
An important federal effort is the recent Education of the Handicapped Act
Amendments (Public Law 99-457), which assist states in offering early
intervention services for infants and toddlers and their families. The
amendments call for a multidisciplinary team, which includes the parent or
guardian, to develop an individualized family service plan that includes a
statement of the family's strengths and needs in regards to enhancing the
child's development. Services are to be aimed at the family system, not the
child alone. This law strengthens the commitment to parent involvement set forth
in Public Law 94-142, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.
Another federal effort, Head Start, has been this country's most extensive
investment in the education of young children. Head Start has experimented with
innovative strategies for involving families in program activities since its
beginnings in 1965 (Zigler and Freedman, 1987).
State governments have been active in developing early childhood programs
focused on families. One of the oldest state efforts is Minnesota's Early
Childhood and Family Education Program. Founded in 1975, the program operates
through local school districts to provide parent discussion groups, home @[email protected]
visits, child development classes, and other approaches to enhancing and
supporting parental competence. State-level initiatives designed to support
families with young children have been established in a number of other states.
Local communities throughout the country have fostered the creation of a
rapidly growing number of parent-oriented programs. These efforts, many of which
have grassroots origins, range from drop-in center formats to peer self-help
group methods. The Family Resource Coalition, based in Chicago, was founded in
1981 by many diverse community-based programs as a national organization for
promoting the development of family resource programs.
THE EFFECTS OF PARENT EDUCATION AND SUPPORT
Research on the
effects of programs aimed at enhancing parents' child-rearing competence points
to some promising patterns. Evaluations of intensive parent- or family-oriented
early childhood programs serving low-income populations have found positive
short-term effects on child competence and maternal behaviors, and long-term
effects on such family characteristics as level of education, family size, and
financial self-support (Powell, 1989). Other data suggest that the magnitude of
program effects is associated with the number of program contacts with a family
(Heinicke, Beckwith and Thompson, 1988) and the range of services offered to the
Little is known about effects of programs employing modest approaches to
parent education and support, such as periodic lectures. Research on working-
and middle-class populations is especially sparse.
DIMENSIONS OF A HIGH-QUALITY PARENT PROGRAM
growth of parent education and support programs leads to questions about what
constitutes a high-quality program. Four program dimensions are proposed below
on the basis of existing research and theory (see Powell, 1989).
1. It can be argued that high-quality programs are characterized by
collaborative, equal relations between parents and program staff in which the
intent is to empower parents in their child-rearing roles (Powell, 1988). It is
increasingly suggested that program staff serve as facilitators of goals and
activities jointly determined by parents and program staff, and not as experts
who assume they know what is best for parents (Cochran, 1988). Illustrative of
this approach is open-ended discussion of parent-initiated topics as opposed to
a largely one-way flow of information from staff to parent. Collaborative
parent-staff ties provide a means for ensuring that program methods and content
are responsive to parents' needs.
2. Research data suggest that parent programs need to maintain a balanced
focus on the needs of both parent and child. The content of parent programs has
broadened in recent years to include significant attention to the social context
of parenthood. This substantive shift reflects an interest in the
interconnectedness of child, family, and community, and assumes that providing
parents with social support in the form of helpful interpersonal relationships
and material assistance (if needed) will enhance parent functioning and,
ultimately, child development. Program efforts toward this end include the @[email protected]
strengthening of parents' social networks, social support, and community ties as
a buffer against stressful life circumstances and transitions. The term "parent
support" is a reflection of the shift. While there are strong justifications for
the shift, there is the potential problem that parents' needs and interests may
overshadow program attention to the child. The literature on programs serving
high-risk populations, for instance, points to the tendency for program workers
to become heavily involved in crisis intervention regarding family matters
(Halpern and Larner, 1988).
3. A recent development in parent education and support has resulted in
programs being tailored to be responsive to the needs and characteristics of the
population being served. The idea that a particular program model can work with
almost any parent has given way to an interest in matching parents to different
types of programs. This interest is especially evident in efforts to design
programs that are responsive to cultural characteristics and values of ethnic
populations, and in programs serving parents living in low-income and high-risk
4. In high quality initiatives, a significant amount of program time is
devoted to open-ended parent-dominated discussion. Principles of adult education
recommend that programs include a strong experiential component. This is
critical, because parents are likely to process new information according to
existing beliefs about their child and child development. Discussion provides an
opportunity for parents to digest new insights in relation to existing ideas.
Programs of parent education and support offer
promising strategies for facilitating the education and development of young
children. It is crucial for educators and policymakers to find ways to alter
classroom practices, early childhood programs, and schools to promote the
family's contributions to early education and development.
Cochran, M. "Parental Empowerment in Family
Matters: Lessons Learned from a Research Program." In D.R. Powell (Ed.), PARENT
EDUCATION AS EARLY CHILDHOOD INTERVENTION (pp. 23-50). Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988.
Halpern, R., & Larner, M. "The Design of Family Support Programs in High
Risk Communities: Lessons Learned from the Child Survival/Fair Start
Initiative." In D.R. Powell (Ed.), PARENT EDUCATION AS EARLY CHILDHOOD
INTERVENTION (pp. 181-207). Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988.
Heinicke, C.M., Beckwith, L., & Thompson, A. "Early Intervention in the
Family System: A Framework and Review." INFANT MENTAL HEALTH JOURNAL 9 (1988):
Powell, D.R. FAMILIES AND EARLY CHILDHOOD PROGRAMS. Washington, DC: National
Association for the Education of Young Children, 1989.
Powell, D.R. (Ed.) PARENT EDUCATION AS EARLY CHILDHOOD INTERVENTION. Norwood,
NJ: Ablex, 1988.
Zigler, E.F., & Freedman, J. "Head Start: A Pioneer in Family Support."
In S.L. Kagan, D.R. Powell, B. Weissbourd, & E.F. Zigler (Eds.), AMERICA'S
FAMILY SUPPORT PROGRAMS: PERSPECTIVES AND PROSPECTS (pp. 57-76). New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 1987.