Helen Wheeler describes how the PEAL training programme helped
practitioners to develop parents' involvement in their children’s learning
Overview of the PEAL programme
The Parents, Early Years and Learning (PEAL) project was funded by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) for two years from April 2005 to April 2007 to gather and assess existing knowledge and best practice in working with parents to involve them in young children’s learning. A training programme was then designed to support and inspire practitioners working in children’s centres to increase parent partnership work.
Sixteen regional training events were held during 2006 and PEAL training was extended until April 2008 through the Workforce Development strand of the Early Learning Partnerships Programme. These events cascaded PEAL training beyond children’s centres to a wider range of early years settings and practitioners, including childminders.
The importance of parental involvement
The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) requires all those working with young children to engage in learning partnerships with parents. It includes commitment 2.2:
‘Parents are children’s first and most enduring educators. When parents and practitioners work together in early years settings, the results have a positive impact on children’s learning and development.’
It is known that what parents do at home with young children has the greatest impact on a child’s social, emotional and intellectual development. The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) report concludes: ‘What parents do is more important than who parents are.’
Social class, income, living conditions and parents’ own education levels are clearly related to child outcomes, but the quality of the ‘home learning environment’ is even more important. Parents may live in disadvantaged circumstances and may not have achieved well educationally, but if they regularly engage in activities which help to ‘stretch a child’s mind’ as part of everyday life at home, they can enhance their child’s progress and development. Children with strong home learning environments are already ahead in both social and intellectual development at the age of three. This advantage continues through to age seven, and the latest report concludes that the effect is maintained through to age 10 (Sylva et al, 2004; Sammons et al, 2007).
The impact is evident across all social classes and ethnic groups, and different levels of parental involvement have a greater impact on achievement in the primary age range than the variation in school quality. Children receive not just skills, knowledge and intellectual stimulation at home; they also absorb a positive attitude towards learning and a strong self-image as a successful learner (Desforges, 2003).
At home parents, carers and older siblings can provide more one-to-one attention; they can really listen to what a child is saying and focus a reply to extend thought. They can tap into a child’s immediate concerns, knowledge and experience, follow up individual interests and enthusiasms, and help a child make connections between one idea and another.
Working effectively with parents
As home has such a powerful effect on children’s learning the most effective early years settings – those that achieve the best social and intellectual outcomes for their children – work closely with parents. These settings share their educational aims clearly and encourage high levels of engagement. They work to build parent confidence in what they do already at home and they offer ideas to support and enhance this. Most significantly, they exchange information about children regularly on a weekly or monthly basis with parents. They listen to what parents have to say about their own child’s capabilities and interests, and make use of these observations for future planning, encouraging parents to be active in this planning process. They also support children’s learning at home directly with suggested activities and the loan of materials that complement what happens in the setting (Siraj-Blatchford et al, 2003; Sylva et al, 2004; Desforges, 2003).
Establishing respectful relationships
How can more early years settings work towards this level of parent partnership? The PEAL training helps practitioners reflect on this question and plan future action. A regular exchange of information and ideas between parents and practitioners involves more than termly parents’ meetings, regular letters and displays, more than curriculum workshops and invitations to parents to help in the setting. These are all valuable strategies, but something extra is needed if as many parents as possible are to be reached and encouraged to engage in regular two-way communication.
Evidence from both formal research studies and experience on the ground indicates that this level of partnership is best achieved when settings and practitioners work very hard at establishing respectful relationships with their families. They think through the quality of these relationships and avoid making assumptions about parents or assigning ‘group characteristics’ to any particular community. They listen to parents as individuals and spend time getting to know families well, showing interest in different perspectives, and building on a family’s strengths. Knowing quite a lot about their families enables them to offer a good range of ways to get involved in learning, well matched to attract engagement and attendance. Timings for events are carefully thought through to meet working or study patterns and childcare needs are taken into account.
If parents are asked to provide observations from home, a range of options are offered to help achieve this. Some parents will be encouraged to write but others will report back verbally or via camera or tape recorder. Interpretation and translation needs are known and provided for. Most importantly, all parents are made to feel that their efforts are welcomed and valued (Whalley, 2001; Draper and Duffy, 2007).
Working in this way needs strategic planning. Successful settings tend to have a key person system and a member of the senior management team who leads on parental involvement, offering clear supervisory support to practitioners in their work with parents. Attention is paid to developing staff confidence in talking with parents and extra training is sought where appropriate. Settling in procedures combined with home visits, are well thought through and time is structured into the day to allow more time to talk to parents; the latter is made a high priority.
PEAL training events
The central importance of relationships and communication was highlighted on the PEAL training day through a series of participative exercises. Participants were also introduced to a variety of inspiring practice examples contributed by settings and services nationally. These included many ideas to help encourage good relationship building and knowledge of families.
A few examples of these include:
- A treasure basket loan scheme for babies in Calderdale. Families borrow baskets filled with natural materials and everyday objects for their babies to explore at home. They are encouraged to observe their children and report on the baby’s response, verbally or through note form. Some parents have been inspired to make their own baskets leading to discussions between parents and key workers about the value of playing and talking with young babies and children.
- Story home visits have had a major impact in a setting in Ealing. Children choose a favourite story and accompanying 3D props, and their key person walks with the child from the setting to their home to read the story at a time convenient to their parents. The family share the story together and digital photographs are taken of the visit and journey. These are used to make a picture story book or display with the child the next day.
- Stop, Look and Listen, a project run in a number of settings in Camden, encourages parents to make regular, short observations of their children and exchange these ‘learning stories’ with practitioners. Parents are encouraged to stop everything, spend a short time observing their child when involved in play and actively listen to what their child has to say. Parents report back with notes, verbal feedback or a photograph.
Some of these practice examples were brought to life in a DVD on the PEAL training day; others were presented on easy-to-access cards, and included in a PEAL pack, which participants took away from the training. These could then be read in more depth and shared with colleagues. Sharing and celebrating experience in this way helps to build effective parental partnership work into mainstream practice.
It is hoped that practitioners now feel enthused and determined to do more to include parents in their children’s early learning and development.
Free PEAL training events took place nationally until March 2008. The training involved an initial preparatory day in which participants take the equivalent of a day in time to work through an ‘activities book’ in their own setting. There was then a follow-up training day in a regional location.
- Desforges, C (2003) The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: A Literature Review, Research Report RR433, London: DfES
- Draper, L and Duffy, B (2006) ‘Working with Parents’, p151-162 in Pugh, G (ed) Contemporary Issues in the Early Years (fourth edition), London: Sage Publications
- Sammons, P et al (2007) Summary Report: Influences on Children’s Attainment and Progress in Key Stage 2: Cognitive Outcomes in Year 5: Effective Pre-school and Primary Education 3-11 Project (EPPE 3-11), Research Report RR828, London: DfES
- Siraj-Blatchford, I et al (2003) EPPE Case Studies Technical Paper 10, London: University of London, Institute of Education, DfES
- Sylva, K et al (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Final Report, London: DfES and Institute of Education, University of London
- Whalley, M (2001) Involving Parents in their Children’s Learning, London: Paul Chapman Publishing