What we know – and don’t know – about helping parents support their children’s learning
By Linda Hiebert, World Vision International
My daughter was five-years-old when we discovered her learning disability. She loved listening to books and being read to, but when she tried to read by herself she struggled with even simple words. She was so discouraged, that by the time she turned seven, she stopped reading.
As a mother, I knew that she would not be successful unless she learned to read. I knew that I needed to find a solution for her. I became more involved in her schooling – meeting with her teachers regularly to ensure she was being supported in the class and in our home, and found a reading tutor for her to work with. She continued to struggle throughout school, but with encouragement she graduated, received a master’s degree in education, and is now a reading teacher herself.
Equipping parents with the skills to support their children’s literacy
Being a parent can be incredibly fulfilling and sometimes heartbreaking. I often wonder what would have happened to my daughter if I didn’t have the knowledge and resources to find solutions to her learning disability. The reality for many parents is that they have to walk through the same pain I felt but without the support they need to see their children learn. This doesn’t have to be the case.
Research shows that caregiver involvement in children’s learning positively affects the child’s performance in school. Regardless of income or social status, parents and caregivers can create a home learning environment that nurtures academic achievement, and get involved in their children’s education at school and in the community if given the chance. This means that even the poorest families can support their children’s literacy.
In accordance with the research, World Vision’s global literacy programming places great emphasis on the home learning environment, ensuring children have access to a variety of age-appropriate reading materials and caregivers who highly value their education.
What we don’t know about parental involvement in children’s learning
Evidence is mixed, however, on the impact a caregiver’s involvement in the child’s school has on their learning outcomes. As a result, less emphasis is often placed on the school-to-home relationship, and more research is needed to determine which aspects are most beneficial.
Joyce Epstein, whose framework of the six types of parent involvement includes activities based in and outside the home, believes partnership between schools, families, and communities is the best approach for student success.
A caregiver behavior survey conducted with World Vision’s literacy programming participants in Ethiopia found that 50 percent of caregivers surveyed never meet with their child’s teacher, and 83 percent never attend PTA or School Management Committee meeting. Currently, World Vision’s literacy programming sessions for caregivers address one of component of Epstein’s framework of parent involvement – learning at home – but these results clearly show a need to do more.
As a result, World Vision is embarking on three-year research project in three African countries. The focus of this research project is to understand, within a specific context, the uptake of our parent and caregiver engagement activities, the impact of improved caregiver engagement on student learning outcomes and whether or not partnership between parents and caregivers with the school is a predictor of greater success.
This research will build evidence on which practices impact children’s reading skills and the quality of World Vision’s education programming. In doing so, the results will inform existing and future programs to build caregiver capacity to improve learning outcomes.
It’s time to take our literacy programming to the next level: ensuring that we continually innovate and improve on our work in order to help parents support their children’s learning to the best of their abilities.
Linda Hiebert is the Senior Director for Education and Life Skills at World Vision International. She has over 25 years of experience in international development, including work as program officer, director and organizational vice-president in a number of countries and regions. Linda has a bachelor's degree in nursing, and a master's degree in Development from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Follow Linda on Twitter @LindaHiebertWV.
 Epstein, Joyce L. School, Family, and Community Partnerships. Westview Press, 2011.