Parents Play a Vital Role as their Child's Most Important Teacher
Learning About Learning
How Young Children Learn
Reflecting on Our Learning Environments
Next Steps: Ideas to Extend Practice
- Children learn by actively engaging with the world and with other people.
- Children's learning and development occur in four domains: physical, emotional, cognitive, and social. These domains are interrelated; for example, putting together a puzzle involves both physical and intellectual (or cognitive) activity. In addition, experiences in one or more domains (such as putting together a puzzle) can influence other domains (for example, success with a puzzle can have a positive influence on one's self-image).
- The home is a powerful center of learning for children. This is because the strong emotional bonds children have with family members strengthens the impact of experiences in the home. Also, the family can be spontaneous and individualize experiences that focus a child's interest.
- Families' beliefs about children and how they learn, and their behaviors based on these beliefs, have long-term effects on children's social competence and long-term school success.
When people talk about parents teaching their children, many think of times when parents sit down with their children and show or tell them how to do something. While that type of teaching does occur, much of the learning children experience happens in the course of everyday family interactions and experiences.
The ways parents touch, look at, and talk with their children from earliest infancy affect children's physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. These patterns also affect how children's brains develop.
Babies are born with 100 billion brain cells. As they begin to experience the world, the cells connect into networks. The connections that are made by the brain in the earliest years of life and are used will become permanent, but other cells will disappear in time. For example, a child who is spoken to and read to has a good chance of developing strong language skills because so many neural connections have been laid in the part of the brain where language is handled. On the other hand, a child who is rarely spoken to or read to may have difficulty mastering language skills because there are insufficient neural connections in that part of the brain.
The quality of a child's experiences within the family also affects the way his or her brain grows and develops. The repeated experiences of daily life — those arousing joy, curiosity, fear, anger, or other emotions — will likely have long-term effects on the child's willingness and ability to learn. This is why it is important for parents to look beyond what they do with their children to how they do it — to the attitudes and feelings that underlay their actions. For example, if a mother enjoys reading to her child, the child senses this and learns that reading can be a pleasurable experience. However, if a mother feels anxious or distracted while reading to her child, the child may pick up on those feelings of discomfort and infer that reading is an unpleasant task.
Finally, it is important for parents to realize how much they teach their children simply by the behavior they model. A child learns by observing his or her parents in daily life as much as by what the parents try to teach.
Because so much of brain development occurs after birth, in the early years, parents play a vital role as their children's first and most important teachers. Dr. Lillian Katz, a professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois, describes four important areas of learning that are heavily influenced by parents:
- Skills. Young children are eager to master skills they see their parents and older siblings doing. While they can't complete tasks with the degree of mastery older family member have, they can develop skills in areas such as: self-help (for example, dressing, brushing teeth, feeding), family life (setting the table, sorting laundry, gardening, cleaning), problem solving (starting to take turns, following rules, negotiating), and literacy (scribbling, storytelling, using pictures to "read"). These skills are fostered and enhanced in the home.
- Knowledge. Young children, through their experiences with people and objects, acquire a great deal of knowledge about the world. Children learn very early to name objects and to understand their functions (for example, keys open doors and start cars, dogs bark, cats meow). Children use this background knowledge to approach new learning experiences and to acquire more knowledge. Families are important in expanding a child's understanding of the world.
- Attitudes about learning. Children want to do things they see their parents and siblings do. The kinds of activities children see their family members doing and enjoying (such as reading, discussing, or taking on a new task) will greatly influence their motivation to do them. Children also are influenced by parents' responses to their own efforts to learn. For example, the child who is reprimanded after scribbling on the wall learns that scribbling is bad. The same child who is redirected to a piece of paper learns that scribbling is good, but writing on walls is not.
- Learned feelings. Closely associated with attitudes, learned feelings are the emotional associations children make with learning. For example, many young children pretend to read, mimicking the voice their parents or teachers use when reading and using pictures to tell the story. A child is more likely to develop feelings of confidence as a reader if adults comment on how much they enjoy the child's reading. Feelings of closeness associated with reading together also contribute to the child's positive feelings toward reading. On the other hand, if a child tries to read a passage and is told, "That's not quite right...let me do it," he or she is likely to associate feelings of inadequacy with attempts at trying new tasks, even when having the skills to do them.
Children acquire from their families skills, knowledge, attitudes, and feelings about themselves as learners. The quality of the home environment in the early years of a child's life has a powerful and long-term impact on later social and academic success. Parents set the stage for their children's learning through the attitudes and beliefs they hold about how and what children should learn. These attitudes and beliefs largely determine how supportive a family learning environment will be.
There is no one way in which parents create a supportive family learning environment. However, certain factors are key. Three factors introduced in this module include:
- A belief in the child's role, from infancy, as an active partner in his or her development. The child who has opportunities for hands-on learning will feel more connected to the learning experience.
- A realistic, in-depth understanding of the child's abilities and interests. High expectations are important for growth but expectations that are too high or too low diminish the child's confidence. The ability to observe carefully is an important skill for setting appropriate expectations.
- A recognition of and emphasis on the learning experiences that occur within routine family activities in the home and community. Included here are: reading to children in ways that actively involve the child, using television appropriately, encouraging the child's active manipulation of a variety of stimulating objects, asking children questions that stimulate thinking and promote verbal problem-solving skills, and having a supportive parenting style (a style that projects confidence in the child as capable and competent).
Head Start staff can help parents recognize the important role they play in their children's growth and development. Staff can also offer support and resources to help parents create effective family learning environments.
||Learning About Learning
Purpose: This activity will demonstrate for participants that rich learning experiences can strengthen several domains of learning simultaneously. The activity also demonstrates how adults influence what and how children learn through the way they structure the learning environment.
Playdough; two tables; chairs for participants; a familiar children's story; chart paper; markers; tape.
Trainer Preparation Notes:
It is important to remind participants that the word "child" is used in this guide to mean children within the infant/toddler to preschool range. You may wish to add additional examples during the activity, or include Early Head Start whenever the term Head Start is mentioned, to match participants' needs.
After welcoming participants, set the stage by stating that the activities in this guide focus on the many ways parents are their children's first teachers. As a first step in understanding parents' influence on children's learning, this activity will focus on how young children learn.
Ask participants to select one of two tables to sit at for this activity. Begin the activity once they are comfortably seated. Ask participants to think of themselves as learners. Tell them you are an adult who is going to give them a task to complete. Ask them to listen to your directions carefully.
Go first to Table A. Place a supply of playdough on the table and tell the learners that their task is to make anything they want out of the playdough.
Next, go to Table B. Give these learners a supply of playdough and tell them that their task Is to illustrate the story of The Three Little Pigs (or select another familiar children's story of your choosing). Assign each of the learners at the table a different character or prop (in this case, a pig or a house, etc.) from the story. Tell them that they can only make their assigned story character or prop from the playdough.
Allow 10-15 minutes for participants to complete their tasks, then bring the whole group back together. Ask the participants at Table A to report what it was like to complete their task. For example, was the task easy or difficult for the group to complete? Why? Was it fun? Why? What did they observe about themselves as learners? Record their responses and your observations about their attitudes and feelings on chart paper labeled Table A.
Next, ask the participants at Table B to give a similar report, and write these findings on another piece of chart paper labeled Table B.
When you have heard from both groups, ask participants to reflect for a moment on the similarities and differences between the two learning experiences. Highlight examples where teaming was seen as a positive experience. Then ask the group which of the two learning situations (Table A, which was self-directed and learner-centered, or Table B, which was adult-directed) was more engaging for learners and why?
Summarize the activity by highlighting the following points:
Important learning occurs when:
- Children do things that interest them.
- Children are highly involved in an activity or situation.
- The activity includes forming images, recalling the past, anticipating consequences, and imagining how things could be different.
- Children are given responsibility for their learning.
Children are learning all the time, in everyday situations involving family, friends, and neighbors. Parents are especially important as teachers because they can provide individual attention, know a child's interests, and can turn everyday activities into learning opportunities.
Conclude the activity by stating that the activities in this guide will focus on how parents can create supportive family learning environments and how Head Start staff can actively support parents as teachers.
||How Young Children Learn
Purpose: This activity illustrates what and how young children can learn through everyday interactions with their families.
Handout 1: Learning About Learning [PDF, 19.4KB]; Handout 2: Snapshots of Learning [PDF, 258KB]; photos of children and adults engaged in everyday activities at home and in other settings.
Coach Preparation Notes:
Handout 2 [PDF, 258KB] presents two photos for participants to analyze. However, you can use the last page of the handout to present additional photos that may be more meaningful to your participants. Use the tips below to select photos for this activity.
Use several photos. Two to five images are generally enough to spark interesting discussion. If the participants are staff with children of their own or Head Start parents, you may want to use photos of their children and family.
Use photos that depict children and families at home or in their community. For example, select photos of: an adult reading to a child, children helping with a household task, children in physical play and in quiet play, adults joining in a children's activity, or children engaged in a problem-solving activity or in some type of self-help activity.
Think about the different ways children learn as you select your photos. Include photos that depict opportunities to learn from other children, from adults, and from being alone with materials. Also select photos that demonstrate opportunities for formal learning and informal learning.
Include children of different ages who reflect the different cultural contexts and family structures found in participants' programs.
Begin stating that this coaching activity will focus on how and when young children learn. Explain to participants that you will show them photos of children learning in different situations. Before doing so, use the information contained in the background section or Handout 1: Learning About Learning [PDF, 19.4]to illustrate four important areas of learning:
Provide participants with a copy of the first page of Handout 2: Snapshots of Learning [PDF, 258KB]. Ask participants to study the photograph and read the questions and answers provided at the bottom of the page.
Take the questions one at a time and ask participants if there are other examples they would like to add.
Divide participants into pairs. Provide them with a copy of the rest of Handout 2 [PDF, 258KB]. Tell them their task is to study the photographs provided and answer the questions at the bottom of the handout. Allow 10-15 minutes for this task.
Then ask the group to reconvene. Invite volunteers to share highlights from their pairs' discussion. Note any similarities and differences between pairs observations of the pictures.
Summarize the activity using the following points. State that important learning occurs:
- In everyday situations involving family, friends, and neighbors.
- In families because they can provide individual attention, know a child's interests, and are able to do things on the spur of the moment.
- When children do things that interest them.
- When children are highly involved in an activity or situation.
- When children are given responsibility for their learning.
- When adults are actively involved in children's learning by figuring out what the child knows and does not know, and building on a child's interests.
Conclude by stating that the activities in this guide focus on how parents can become more actively involved in their children's learning and how Head Start staff can actively support parents as teachers.
||Reflecting on Our Own Learning Environments
Purpose: Participants will examine some parental beliefs and behaviors that contribute to effective learning environments. They will reflect on how they put these beliefs and behaviors into practice in their own homes and in their work with families.
Handout 3: How Parents Support Children's Learning [PDF, 25.2KB]; chart paper and markers; pens or pencils.
Begin this activity by using information from the background section to illustrate the following points:
- All parents want their children to be successful.
- Parents provide the foundation for their children's social and academic success.
Continue by stating there is no one magic way parents can ensure that their children will be successful in school and later in life. There are, however, certain beliefs and behaviors that work together to help create supportive family learning environments.
Divide participants into four small discussion groups. Provide each participant with a copy of Handout 3: How Parents Support Children's Learning [PDF, 25.3KB]. Assign each group two of the eight principles listed on the handout. Ask them to take notes on their discussion to share with the entire group.
Tell participants their task is to discuss two of the principles listed on Handout 3 [PDF, 25.3KB]. Encourage participants to think about how they put these beliefs and behaviors into practice themselves as they read through the handout. Then ask the small groups to discuss the following questions:
Why are families so important to children's learning?
What strengths do families bring to this role?
What challenges might parents face in building strong family learning environments?
How can you in your role at Head Start support parents as they create family learning environments?
Bring the entire group back together. Have each group report the highlights from their discussion.
Conclude the activity by summarizing the following points:
- Every family functions as a family learning environment, regardless of its structure, economic resources, or ethnic or cultural background. Powerful learning occurs within families, in daily activities and interactions.
- Because the family learning environment is so influential, parents are their child's first teachers and continue to be the primary teachers over time. Each parent brings unique strengths and skills to this role.
- Head Start can help parents recognize the important role they play in their children's growth and development. It also can offer support and resources that parents can use to create effective family learning environments.
||Supportive Elements of Family Learning Materials
Purpose: Participants will identify ways in which parents promote children's learning through everyday, routine interactions at home.
Handout 4: Our Stories Keep Us Connected; Head Start video: Our Stories Keep Us Connected; VCR and monitor.
Trainer Preparation Notes:
This activity can be done by observing some or all of the families on the video. If you have less than 40 minutes to do this activity, you may want to limit the amount of time participants watch the video to ensure there is ample discussion time.
Begin by saying that people often speak of parents as teachers but don't always stop and consider what that means.
Introduce the video by stating that it provides an opportunity to see how some Head Start families promote their children's learning. Tell participants they will be watching a video and to observe the many ways that parents serve as their children's teacher.
Provide participants with a copy of Handout 4: Our Stories Keep Us Connected. Then list the following questions on chart paper:
What hopes and dreams do these families have for their children?
How do the parents influence their children's learning?
How do the parents support their children's confidence in themselves?
How do the different families use Head Start as a resource?
Tell participants to keep these questions in mind as they watch the tape. Ask if there are any questions. Then show the video.
When the video is finished, review the questions listed on chart paper. Lead a discussion using the posted questions as a guide.
Debrief the activity by making the following points:
- All families have hopes and learning goals for their children.
- What parents believe about their role as "teacher" and how children learn greatly affects the learning that occurs at home.
- Powerful learning occurs in a variety of ways within families in daily activities and interactions.
- Head Start staff can be a valuable support to parents as they make the most of the "teachable" moments of everyday life.
Conclude this activity by stating that the activities in the next module will explore several elements of family learning environments in more depth.
Next Steps: Ideas to Extend Practice
- Use other guides in the Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community series to expand your understanding of early childhood development. For example, read the background sections in Head Start's Nurturing Children and Enhancing Children's Growth and Development and try one or more of the coaching activities to practice new skills.
- Observe one or more children at play in both a classroom and their home settings and observe how the different environments affect children's learning. Keep a journal of observations and discuss your findings with an experienced teacher.
- Select/adapt one or more of the activities ... for use in a parent workshop (e.g., as part of an orientation meeting with parents new to Head Start). Plan for discussion time after the activity (or activities) to ask parents what they want to learn about in the area of child development.
- Show the video Our Stories Keep Us Connected at an orientation meeting with Head Start parents, and introduce the parent guide that accompanies the tape as a resource for parents who want to strengthen their role as their child's first teacher.
- Expand your understanding of parents as teachers by observing a diversity of parent/child interactions in different settings (e.g., friends. relatives, television families, families at the park, etc.) Keep anecdotal notes on your observations. As you review your notes, look for patterns of ways in which parents communicate messages about the importance of learning to their children.
- One evening while watching the television shows normally watched by your family, make note of what skills, knowledge, attitudes, and feelings children are learning from these shows.
- Make a photograph album of parents and children engaged in activities together to illustrate the wide range of learning that takes place through daily experiences. Place the album in the lending library for families to sign out and "read." Also, purchasing a camera (or investing in disposable cameras) for the lending library may encourage parents to keep their own records of their children's learning.