• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Monday 29th September, 2014

Bridging the summer learning gap?

strong>It is generally accepted that when parents participate in their children’s education, their kids do better. Are there times when parent participation really matters? A randomized trial examining the effects of a parent engagement program on early learning and literacy may have some answers.Language and literacy skills established during early childhood are critical for later school success. Research indicates that a great deal of early language and social learning occurs when parents are engaged with their children. It is this idea that underpins Getting Ready, a parent-engagement intervention that promotes school readiness in young children and their families. Developed by the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families, and Schools, the Getting Ready intervention is focused on strengthening relationships between parents and their preschool children, and between parents and teachers. A randomized study of Getting Ready showed some interesting results about when parent engagement helps the most. In particular, promoting parent engagement among low-income families may be especially helpful in reducing the “summer slide” – a lack of learning during the summer that is among the reasons for the large gaps in achievement between low-income and middle-income children.Parents can play an important role in continuing their child’s development during those long, school-free summer months. In this study, intervention and control groups of children showed similar gains during the school years. But the groups diverged during the summer, with children whose teachers used the Getting Ready approach learning significantly more. About Getting Ready and the studyThe study was one of eight funded by the US federal government’s Interagency School Readiness Consortium to develop interventions that promote school readiness for young children at developmental risk. The Getting Ready study took place in 29 Head Start classrooms operated through a public school system in the American Midwest over the course of four years. In total, 217 children aged 3 and 4 years took part, along with their teachers and 211 of their parents. The Getting Ready intervention was an adaptation of standard Head Start practices. Normal routines already included four 60-minute home visits each academic year. The Getting Ready intervention substituted a different approach and structure to these visits. In other words, teachers were not being asked to devote extra time or resources. Rather, they were being coached to approach their current, agency-required home visits differently. The goal of the Getting Ready approach is to strengthen parent-child and parent-teacher relationships. Each home visit included at least one parent, the Head Start teacher, and the child. During the visits parents and teachers shared observations and knowledge of the child. They then identified developmental expectations for the child with a focus on his or her strengths and developmental needs. Parents and teachers shared ideas and brainstormed methods for helping the child meet expectations. Visits were also used to observe parent-child interactions and provide feedback, to monitor the child’s skill development, and to determine directions for continued growth. The study measured the children’s gains in language development and early literacy using both teacher-reported measures and direct assessments. Comparisons were made between children whose classrooms had been randomly assigned to receive Head Start services with the Getting Ready approach, and those who received the standard Head Start approach. Who benefited from parent engagement – and when?Both groups of Head Start children showed gains in their scores for language use, reading, and writing as reported by their teachers over the two-year study period. In fact, gains by the group receiving only Head Start services were generally consistent with those who also received the Getting Ready intervention throughout the first school year of the study.Interestingly, the two groups began to differ during the summer months when the Head Start programs were not in session. Children in the Getting Ready intervention continued to make gains over the summer, which, the researchers note, “is possibly due to parents’ continued engagement in learning experiences in the absence of a classroom program.” Parent engagement seemed to also make a difference when there were initial concerns about the child’s development and also when parents had at least a high school education (either a diploma or GED). When children’s expressive language was directly assessed, greater rates of improvement were found for both these sub-groups. Other groups that showed notable gains in teacher-reported language development under the Getting Ready program included children who did not speak English when they started preschool and children who resided with more than one adult in the home (compared to those in single adult households). Taken together, these results may indicate that Getting Ready is especially helpful in homes with parental resources, such as education and more than one adult in the home. It also appears to be most effective for children who start preschool at a disadvantage compared to their peers, either because they do not speak English or because there are concerns about their development.For further researchWhy did Getting Ready have the effects it did on summer learning and on particular sub-groups of children? This study doesn’t have the answer. It shows that teachers can, with training, change the way they interact with parents during home visits. These changes appear to promote parent-teacher and parent-child relationships that help to boost children’s learning. But more research will be needed to discover exactly how these relationships changed, and how parents and teachers actually acted.Other questions also remain to be addressed. How long will the effects of Getting Ready last? For instance, will preschool improvements in language use, reading, and writing translate into better school readiness? Finally, how large are the program effects, compared to the overall academic gap between low-income and middle-income children? While modest interventions like Getting Ready are very unlikely to close the gap, family-centered approaches may be a step in the right direction. *********Reference: Sheridan, S.M., Knoche, L.L., Kupzyk, K.A., Edwards, C.P., and Marvin, C.A. (2011). A randomized trial examining the effects of parent engagement on early language and literacy: The Getting Ready intervention. Journal of School Psychology, 49, 361-383.

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