Analysis: How Engaging At-Risk Parents With Early Home Visits Can Teach Them to Work With Their Schools for Their Kids’ Success

A child sneaks a peak at the conversation between his parents and two teachers during a home visit in Washington, D.C., in 2013. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post/Getty Images)

Parents are their children’s first and most influential teachers, so effective engagement between parent and school needs to start early. This is true for all families, but particularly for at-risk families. Parents must be able to use social capital to navigate community systems, seek out opportunities, and know how to persist effectively when a child is not getting what she needs at school. Social capital is often a missing link that keeps low-income families locked in the cycle of generational poverty.

To support young, inexperienced parents who have not gained the tools needed to effectively approach their child’s school to discuss his needs, home visiting programs can help. Using evidence-based resources, home visitors trained through programs such as Parents as Teachers, which serves almost 200,000 families with children under age 6 in all 50 states, 115 tribal organizations, five countries, and one U.S. territory, support a range of family needs. They help parents understand how to work in partnership with their school, advocate for their child, support their child’s development, and create a collaborative plan that can lead to better educational outcomes.

In 2017, more than 300,000 families received these services through several research-based home visiting programs over the course of more than 3.5 million home visits. And research demonstrates that home visiting has great benefits for families with young children.

Parents are often referred to home visiting programs by community members such as school employees, caseworkers, or health professionals. Each state determines this process within a budget and partners with approved community providers. Parents as Teachers affiliates, for example, operate in settings including health departments, hospitals, schools, and faith-based and nonprofit organizations.

Parents receiving support are typically not familiar with the unwritten social norms and ways to build and foster communication-based relationships that education, income, and status help many others master. Additionally, for many young or impoverished parents, school was not a safe and supportive place, and they don’t know how to approach their children’s teachers in a collaborative manner.

During these home visits, parents build skills, knowledge, and self-confidence and learn essential tools to shift this paradigm. Parent educators partner with families to implement age-appropriate strategies that develop hard skills such as early literacy and numeracy, foundations critical to kindergarten readiness and success in school. A 2018 evaluation of Tucson, Arizona’s, Sunnyside Unified School District home visiting program showed that children in grades 3-12 whose families participated in the program performed significantly better on English, reading, and math assessments than their peers who did not participate. Sunnyside parents in the program also demonstrated significantly improved parenting qualities over time.

Equally important, home visiting programs also foster ways for parents to understand and promote the development of their child’s soft skills. Engaging around children’s social-emotional and behavioral well-being while building families’ bonds and connections are fundamental to young children’s success — all with the goal of supporting a family on the pathway to becoming emotionally secure and economically self-sustaining. A recent evaluation of four home visiting models showed improved quality of the home environment, fewer behavior problems, and a decrease in psychological aggression toward the child.

Nationally, momentum is growing for strong investments in home visiting and early childhood education. Congress continues to support home visiting through the Maternal, Infant, Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, has doubled funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, gave a boost to Head Start, and funded the Preschool Development Grant. This year, we might see the House pass the Childcare for Working Families Act, bringing us closer to a strong, coherent early childhood system that provides access to quality child care for our nation’s most vulnerable families.

Many governors have called for increased investments that prioritize early childhood education, including for federal-state matching programs such as the Family First Prevention Services Act and the Preschool Development Grant Birth Through Five competition, which last fall provided 45 states with grants ranging from $538,000 to $10.6 million to implement comprehensive statewide birth-through-kindergarten systems that ensure that the needs of children and their families, particularly low-income and disadvantaged children, are met.

Although these investments are moving us closer to ensuring more systemic, high-quality supports for young children and their families, many parents continue to struggle with how to make these programs work for them. This reality has been playing out across the country in communities impacted by poverty for generations — not because parents don’t want what’s best for their children, but because relationships between marginalized families and the schools their children attend are often strained. Many of the parents receiving home visiting support are not accustomed to getting individualized attention, let alone having tools for effective advocacy when a child hits a roadblock at school.

For early childhood systems to be effective for all kids, we must be deliberate and meaningful in the way that parents are engaged. After all, parents are their child’s guiding force from birth through adulthood. When parents learn new approaches to supporting their children, they can lead to a dramatically different response from the school. Home visiting can be the first step to lifelong family engagement and academic success. Equipping parents and caregivers with the tools to build social capital and be effectively engaged in their children’s schooling makes transitions easier as students progress from infancy through child care and preschool to kindergarten and beyond, and it levels the playing field for the next generation of learners.

Providing greater access to evidence-based home visiting is a crucial component of the early childhood continuum and a disruptor of the cycle of poverty. These programs are gems found in the backyard of every legislator. The next several years are full of opportunity for communities and lawmakers to prioritize the family as part of the school community, so every young child can thrive.

Libby Doggett is former deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education and is a member of the Board of Directors of Parents as Teachers National Center. Constance Gully is the executive director of Parents as Teachers.

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