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Pre-K Solutions: Success Stories

Early Family Literacy

Increasing the Impact of an Early Childhood Program

Last Spring, N’shama Brown had been near her wits end. Eighteen months of pandemic closings, openings and uncertainty had played havoc with her budget, her staff and her stress levels. Even before the pandemic, her funding agency had been questioning the impact of her early education and Pre-K programs, and remote operations hadn’t satisfied anybody. Now, the year loomed filled with uncertainty. The Children’s Garden was her life’s work. How could she protect, and even improve it? She felt like the future of the kids in her community depended on her answer.

Fortunately, N’shama had an idea to build on. While some of the kids in her program had completely disappeared when she had to close her doors and go online, the parents and other nearby relatives of most of the kids had stepped up to help their kids participate. When she sent out a survey, some parents had asked how they could help even more. This kind of family engagement is the dream of every early educator. N’shama had seen the numbers in a presentation at the awful virtual conference she attended last year: the more that parents participate in their kids learning, the more benefits their kids received from a program. How could she build on parent interest to create even more engagement in her program, even if life never went back to the old “normal?”

In her case, the answer was in a new kind of early literacy software for families. Instead of providing something for kids to do when their parents are busy, it provides things for parents to do with their children when they have time. It also provides parent videos to help them talk about the software with their kids. Once the kids understand how to do each learning activity, they continue to do it on their own until they master its skill. Even better, the parents learn with their children since in N’shama’s neighborhood, few of the parents were fully literate themselves. Some had even logged in after their kids went to bed to do the adult version of the learning activities. The summer kids were showing clear signs of pre-reading and reading skill development. The program was working!

N’shama saw three groups of families through the software’s reports: the disengaged, the too busy’s, and the re-engaged. The disengaged never logged in. But, as her emails and texts about the software kept going out, their numbers were dropping. The too busy’s complained that teaching their kids was her job, not their job. That led to some difficult conversations, but they were important conversations that gave her an opportunity to convince parents that they had to take an active role if their kids were going to succeed. The growing group was the re-engaged. She could see in the software reports that they were logging in with their kids almost every day! And their kids were the ones who were thriving. She couldn’t wait to share the data with her funding agency. The kids in re-engaged families were learning faster than ever.

Now, as she prepared to open her doors for the school year, N’shama had a plan: convince every parent, grandparent, aunt and uncle in her kids’ families to spend 5 minutes a day on the software with their kids. She had won a grant to pay for tablet computers for the families without computers or bandwidth. She had trained her teachers to ask parents about software use and skill gains. She had even coined a new catch phrase for The Children’s Garden: “families that learn together succeed together.” It was time to open the doors.

Family Literacy from the start

Family engagement is the apple pie of early childhood education: everybody is for it, but not many people experience it every day. If they did, it would light up their children’s lives, and their own. It would deepen family relationships, deepen children’s commitment to learning, increase adult’s interest in improving their own literacy, and increase children’s academic outcomes.

Head Start and other Pre-K programs are a great place to build a long-term solution to our national illiteracy epidemic. But, the benefits of high-quality Pre-K diminish over time. Family learning provides a solution. When parents get involved in their children’s learning, the children learn more and the learning sticks. Let them team up with their children reading together, writing together, and learning together.

What if their parents aren’t fully literate? Engage them in the exact same process that their children are going through. Give them a parallel experience learning reading, writing, social and emotional skills to better their own lives, and to model the use of those skills for their children. Or, let them compete with their children to see who can master their reading and writing skills faster. Either way, let the parent-child relationship carry the burden of providing the motivation, engagement and persistence that it takes to become truly literate.

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