Family Engagement in Pre-K and Child Development Affects Student Academic and Social Outcomes

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Research shows that family and adult engagement on early childhood education, specifically pre-K, significantly impacts child development and student academic and social outcomes over time—and contributes to the long-term impacts of high-quality education.

Family engagement helps children feel connected to their caregivers, families, and communities. Children who are connected feel safe, secure, supported, and are ready to learn. Family engagement helps parents and caregivers feel connected and tuned in to their children and communities as well.

According to the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), with more than 80,000 children enrolled in Georgia Pre-K and more than 11,000 early care and learning settings in Georgia, the factors related to family engagement are critical. Administrators and programs need support from families to facilitate this engagement.

Georgia is one of 17 states that require pre-K to include family engagement activities, and one of 18 states that has a designated representative to oversee family engagement activities at the state level. Family engagement during early childhood education—and in Georgia the first engagement—often occurs during pre-K. This sets the stage for meaningful and long-lasting family engagement throughout a child’s school career.

Why Family Engagement Matters

Parents and caregivers—their children’s first teachers—together with early childhood programs, out-of-school-time programs, social service agencies, businesses, libraries, museums, and other institutions are key to successful child development and reducing disparities. Greater parent-teacher contact and family engagement in early childhood education is associated with improved social and academic skills. When children’s developmental needs, parents’ attitudes and practices, and early childhood programs, expectations, and parent engagement are all aligned, children experience the greatest positive development and outcomes.

Most parent engagement programs focus on parents of children birth to age 3, but it’s imperative that these programs continue in preschool. Family engagement is essential for healthy physical, cognitive, academic, and social-emotional development. By supporting and building home-based parenting practices like reading and learning activities, families can help to improve preschool children’s attention and language skills, reduce problem behaviors, and increase cooperation in school and positive peer relationships.

Development during the first five years is significant with transformations that impact interactions with adults and peers and are the foundation for later learning. These years also can set parent and child beliefs about abilities and academic self-concepts. Nurturing and responsive relationships are related to positive learning outcomes and foster a healthy sense of belonging, self-esteem, well-being, and better, more socially competent communication skills.

While low-income families often face challenges accessing high-quality early childhood education programs, parent engagement can help close achievement gaps. Full engagement and the greatest impacts occur when families are involved in all decision-making that affect their families and children.

Family engagement is critical at the system level—state and local government, across community systems, and at the program and service level—and includes all key adults in a child’s life, not just parents. Children from low-income families demonstrate the greatest achievements when parents increase engagement with early learning and school.

Trusting relationships between staff and families are critical, which require:

  • mutual respect,
  • shared authority,
  • two-way communication, and
  • a commitment to a common vision, and
  • shared goals for the child and family.

These relationships can impact both child development and adult well-being for teachers and parents. They also can improve child-teacher relationships and promote positive relationships in school and families.

According to an issue brief by The Pennsylvania State University with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, titled Parent Engagement Practices Improve Outcomes for Preschool Children, previous research has shown that among state funded pre-K programs, 85% have parents involved in school activities, 79% offer parent teacher conferences or home visits, and 51% offer parenting support or training programs.

Family engagement that honors families lived experiences and provides opportunities for teachers and staff to learn about children and families’ interests provide key learning opportunities and collaboration that benefit everyone over time. This can contribute to parents’ knowledge of the program, familiarity with the school, and changes in educational perceptions.

Key Components of Family Engagement

Parent engagement is most effective at promoting healthy outcomes when it includes home-school relationships, parenting, and shared responsibility for learning outcomes. Family engagement includes both at-home activities and parent-teacher and program activities that consist of knowledge and skills building:

  • Provide home learning activities and demonstrate teaching strategies through home visits and school-based parent meetings where parents receive learning materials to use with their children, enrich home materials, and improve quality of parent-child interactions and coaching for parents.
  • Provide families with knowledge about nutrition and physical activity, parenting skills and strategies, and home environment supports to help facilitate healthier children and better outcomes.
  • Promote positive parenting practices and positive parent-child relationships to improve social competence and behaviors, reduce parent-child conflict and negative parenting practices, and increase positive interactions.
  • While increasing parent knowledge and resources is vital, it is also critical to honor family perspectives and lived experiences to provide mutual learning and prepare educators and families to work together to address academic and social-emotional challenges.
  • Provide individualized child progress feedback during regular engagements between teachers and parents, combined with a tailored curriculum to support families at home.
  • Ensure that parents know about community resources and how organizational and political structures work—and provide connections necessary to support families.

Parent engagement involves parents, caregivers, and family members working with schools to improve child learning, development, and health. Each family is unique, and staff and teachers must use mechanisms that provide opportunity to build mutual respect and appreciation, creating space that allows parents to express preferences, languages, and cultural practices view them as partners in their children’s education. Activities should be conducted with structures and methods of engagement that include:

  • respectful bi-directional communication and collaboration between parents and social-emotional skill development;
  • communication and collaboration between teachers, staff, community organizations, and parents;
  • providing training for teachers on building strong relationships with parents to strengthen parent-teacher partnerships;
  • including connection and collaboration opportunities throughout the year to maintain bi-directional relationships with families;
  • using family friendly mechanisms that include online videos, family-to-family networking, in-person workshops, and hands-on learning opportunities that provide families a variety of ways to engage, learn, and support their child development and education; and
  • providing staff with enough time to build relationships and trust with each family.

Factors in Fostering and Supporting Family Engagement

Higher-income families have higher participation rates than low-income families, so pre-K efforts need to work to increase parent engagement among low-income families. This is particularly critical given the opportunities to reduce achievement gaps when low-income families are engaged. It’s critical for programs to build on family strengths and foster empowerment among families to have the greatest impact.

Lower-income families often don’t participate in parent engagement activities for a variety of reasons, including access to child care, inflexible work schedules, transportation barriers, and language and cultural reasons. Families living in poverty also face significant challenges and disproportionate burdens that impair and limit parent engagement that include overcrowded and unsafe living conditions, low education levels, physical and mental health challenges, and fewer resources. To truly engage families and achieve significant gains, teachers must intentionally reach out to low-income families and provide them with a range of opportunities and methods to participate.

Staff and teachers need to take a more intensive and different approach that’s more inclusive and targeted if they hope to reach and engage at-risk families that are struggling. This is vital based on the research demonstrating that engaging these families has the greatest impact on closing student achievement gaps over time. Culturally responsive methods are necessary to focus on building relationships, trust, and connections with hard-to-reach families. Ongoing direct and regular contact with teachers and staff is related to fewer barriers to involvement, more positive engagement with others and learning, and more positive teacher perceptions of parental attitudes with beliefs.

Self-assessments to gauge agency and staff attitudes, beliefs, and readiness to work with families as equal partners provide direction for professional development and policies, and family engagement metrics and indicators need to be included in evaluation and monitoring systems.

By utilizing data-driven improvement processes, intensive professional development, and training and support for diverse family groups, programs can work collaboratively to improve outcomes for children and reduce disparities. Professional development opportunities also must focus on helping teachers understand how to best support diverse families in meeting learning goals, communicating, and building relationships—always engaging with parents and caregivers individually.

Recommendations for Programs and Communities

Recommendations based on the existing research include:

  • including families from nondominant racial and ethnic groups and from all income levels in family engagement activities to ensure that everyone feels included and welcomed and increase participation among historically marginalized groups;
  • connecting families to community resources, including mental health providers, libraries, museums, financial supports, and supporting families’ abilities to access supports for health and living conditions and educational resources;
  • providing additional focus to support families during transition from pre-K to kindergarten and during each school transition;
  • supporting families building social and political connections to advocate for children and families’ needs;
  • seeking ways to engage with parents and community partners and build connections between them with the philosophy of partnership and sharing of power;
  • focusing on strength-based, multigenerational approaches that focus on equitability;
  • providing teachers with professional development, time, and tools to learn new ways to build safe, welcoming, and trusting environments and to build individual relationships with families; and
  • building strong public policy and program leadership, as well as dedicated resources, to promote more effective family engagement.

When programs and teachers work to build relationships with early intervention services, community organizations, and parents, then children, families, and teachers are better supported and achieve better outcomes. The most effective programs also encourage families to participate in community meetings, provide opportunities to engage with community resources like libraries and museums, and connect families to additional resources related to mental health and other special needs.

Explore the research about family and adult engagement on early childhood education—specifically pre-K—that affects child development and student academic and social outcomes:

National Center for Healthy Safe Children’s Safe Schools FIT Toolkit—Creating Conditions for Meaningful Family Engagement from Pre-K

Parent Engagement Practices Improve Outcomes for Preschool Children, an issue brief created by The Pennsylvania State University with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement, Annual synthesis 2002, by the National Center for Family & Community Connections with Schools

“Longitudinal and Geographic Trends in Family Engagement During the Pre-kindergarten to Kindergarten Transition,” Early Childhood Education Journal

Engaged Families, Effective Pre-K: State Policies that Bolster Student Success, a report from The Pew Center on the States Education Reform Series

The Early Childhood Family Engagement Framework: Maryland’s Vision for Engaging Families with Young Children, developed by The Maryland Family Engagement Coalition

Strengthening Partnerships: A framework for prenatal through young adulthood family engagement in Massachusetts, developed by The Massachusetts Family Engagement Coalition

The impact of family involvement on the education of children ages 3 to 8: A focus on literacy and math achievement outcomes and social emotional skills, developed by MDRC—Building knowledge to improve social policy

Family Involvement Makes a difference: Evidence that Family Involvement Promotes School Success for Every Child of Every Age, a Harvard Family Research Project


Bill Valladares
GaFCP Communications Director

Reg Griffin
DECAL Communications Director

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Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) is responsible for meeting the child care and early education needs of Georgia’s children and their families. It administers the nationally recognized Georgia’s Pre-K Program, licenses child care centers and home-based child care, administers Georgia’s Childcare and Parent Services (CAPS) program, federal nutrition programs, and manages Quality Rated, Georgia’s community powered child care rating system.

The department also houses the Head Start State Collaboration Office, distributes federal funding to enhance the quality and availability of child care, and collaborates with Georgia child care resource and referral agencies and organizations throughout the state to enhance early care and education.