Parental engagement refers to early years professionals and settings actively involving parents in supporting their children’s learning and development. It includes:
- Approaches that encourage parents to read and talk with their children at home or to participate in activities in the early years setting.
- Programs that focus directly on parents themselves, for example, providing training in parenting skills or adult numeracy and literacy support.
- Intensive programs for families experiencing disadvantage or in crisis, for example, through settings appointing a family liaison that works with parents through either home visits or other targeted approaches.
While ‘parents’ is the term commonly used in the research, we note that in this context, ‘parents’ refers to any family member or adult who has caring responsibilities for a child.
The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) version 2.0 recognises the importance of parental and family engagement, particularly for children’s sense of belonging and being. It is closely aligned with the Practice of ‘Continuity of learning and transitions’, and reflected throughout Learning Outcome 2: ‘Children are connected with and contribute to their world’.
Parental engagement approaches have, on average, a positive impact of five months’ additional progress. It is crucial to consider how to engage with all parents to avoid widening achievement gaps. There is extensive evidence on the positive impact of parental engagement approaches.
Positive effects have been detected for early reading outcomes as well as early language and number skills.
There is variation in the effectiveness of different approaches, and settings should take care when developing their parental engagement approaches, and plan for effective ongoing monitoring and evaluation.
Generally, interventions which target particular families or outcomes show greater progress.
Parental engagement in the early years is consistently associated with children’s subsequent academic success. On average, parental engagement programs evaluated to date have led to a positive impact of five additional months’ progress over the course of a year. However, there is some variation in effectiveness between approaches, suggesting that careful thought is needed when developing and introducing parental engagement approaches, and that ongoing monitoring and evaluation is essential.
Approaches that aim to increase general parental engagement, for example by encouraging parents to read with their children, can have a moderate positive impact for all children. Studies highlight the benefits of reading to children before they are able to read, and then of reading with children as soon as they are able to read. A number of studies have identified the positive impact of encouraging parents to talk with their children.
Approaches that focus on developing parents’ own skills, for example by providing structured training, can have a moderate positive impact on learning. In general, more intensive approaches, which target particular families or outcomes, are associated with higher learning gains.
Australasian evidence suggests that early childhood education providers use a range of methods to support parent-child relationships, and regularly communicate with parents regarding their child’s development, though interventions designed specifically to strengthen parent engagement appear to be lacking.
Similar impacts have been found for early literacy and mathematics outcomes (+ five months).
The majority of the studies examined reading and early literacy interventions. A smaller number of studies examined interventions that aimed to improve parenting skills.
Studies looking at the impact of parental engagement in early years have taken place across 22 countries.
Although there were not enough studies to explore the relationship between parental engagement and disadvantage systematically, studies suggest that the impact on families experiencing disadvantage tends to be lower.
It is crucial that settings consider how parental engagement strategies will engage with all parents, as these interventions have the risk of increasing achievement gaps if the parents that access parental engagement opportunities are primarily from more affluent backgrounds.
The key mechanism for parental engagement strategies is improving the quality and quantity of learning that takes place in the home learning environment. This is very challenging to implement in practice. Some key elements settings could consider implementing are:
- Providing simple guidance to parents about how they can support their child.
- Tailoring communications to encourage positive dialogue about learning and development.
- Regularly reviewing how well the setting is working with parents, identifying areas for improvement.
- Considering the specific needs of the families of your children and offering more sustained and intensive support where needed.
Parental engagement strategies need to consider potential barriers to parents engaging. For example, is there provision for parents with work or other childcare commitments to engage in short sessions with flexible times, or through remote engagement?
Overall, the median costs of implementing parental engagement approaches are estimated as low. Most costs arise from staff training and development, all of which are more likely to be up-front costs.
Whilst the median cost estimate for parental engagement is low, the costs of intensive support can be much higher (for example, if salary costs for a specialist community or home liaison worker is included).
These cost estimates assume that settings are already paying for technology for communication with parents and facilities to host any in person meetings. These are all pre-requisite costs of implementing parental engagement strategies, without which the cost is likely to be higher.
The security of the evidence around parental engagement in the early years is rated as extensive. 94 studies met the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. The topic lost one additional padlock because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers – typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.