Can Pre-K Assessments Support Family Engagement in Early Learning Programs? Listening to Parent Perspectives

A version of this issue focus was originally published by New America.

Family involvement has long been considered essential in any pre-K setting. Ongoing exchange of strengths-based, equity-centered information about children's skills is one powerful mechanism pre-K programs can use to effectively engage families. Parents have intimate knowledge on the full history of their child’s development and interests—they know when their child first smiled, when and what their child’s first word was, and what their favorite games are at home. When this knowledge is supplemented with information from early learning programs about children’s developmental needs, teachers have a more complete picture of the child. This in turn allows teachers to share recommendations for how to support children’s development so that parents are empowered to provide “just right” learning experiences for their children at home.

Last year, MDRC engaged a small, diverse group of pre-K parents from around the country to share their experiences with early learning assessments in childcare, pre-K, and Head Start settings. The following insights highlight ways that assessment information can be used to facilitate family engagement to support children’s early learning and development.

Parents value regular access to assessment information about their child. Many parents were hungry for more information about how their child was doing in pre-K and wanted to use this information to support their child’s learning at home. One parent shared: “I don't feel like I would ever be upset with a teacher reaching out to me with information about my kid. Cause you know, we're not there [at school]. And kids aren't always going to tell their parents, like I'm struggling with something.”

Parents also recognized the need for regular intervals of communication to keep up with children’s ever-changing skills. One parent described how weekly updates would be useful since with “kids that age, different things change…just having a sheet or…some notes, you know, this week we worked on this with your child, it looks like he was progressing a little bit [or] it looks like he wasn't progressing.”

Another parent shared her appreciation for receiving this type of information, “[the school] would send home pamphlets like paperwork about what…you could work on with your kids. Like, this is how this kid dealt with anger and they would talk about a different emotion and talk to the kids about it and try and give them ways to handle situations. And I thought that was really awesome.” When programs share regular information about children’s strengths and needs, families have greater ability to support learning and development at home.

Assessments can strengthen the quality of parent-teacher relationships. Parents and teachers can partner to address children’s needs proactively rather than reacting to academic issues as they arise. By working together to collect and share information about children, they can develop shared goals, improve individualized instruction, and keep track of how children are learning holistically. Many parents value this type of partnership, but schools often struggle to foster these relationships. “The triangle is, you know, all three have to be on the same page—the parent, the child, and the teacher,” one parent shared. When it comes to expectations about children’s behaviors, another parent noted: “I think schools are not talking. [They should be] doing a better job at communicating with parents…if we have a disconnect in one of those areas, then you know that’s a path for failure.”

Ongoing conversations can also be used to structure these partnerships and offer opportunities to encourage parent-teacher communication. For example, one parent shared, “toward the end of the year, I started having a lot of teacher conferences, but not because [my son] was bad, it's just that I was kind of requesting how was he doing? Is he excelling? I want to know.” Many schools appreciate this level of engagement but can do more to foster it.

Parents’ knowledge provides teachers with important assessment information. To be effective, teachers must listen to families. Parents are experts on their children’s lives and can share unique insights to help pre-K programs provide better instruction. For example, one parent shared, “my child, just besides being a scholar, he is a person, everyday trying to kind of like bridge and infuse so that you get a full picture of who the child is, I think it's definitely important.” Parents provide a crucial link to teachers in creating the full picture of children’s development.

When programs don’t adequately engage with families, parents can become frustrated. One parent said, “It’s very discouraging as a parent to feel like your child's school isn't trying to work with them, just every time you do something bad you have to get pulled out or picked up…you don't want to be there ‘cause you feel like you are just a bad kid, or you are doing something bad. So, I feel like that kind of goes hand in hand with trying to change the narrative in trying to be more like accommodating and trying to figure out kind of what works for that child.” By listening to families, teachers can get a better sense of what students truly need.

Family engagement matters for young children, particularly for children from racially marginalized groups or those experiencing poverty. Collecting and sharing equity-centered, asset-based assessment information with parents is an underutilized but powerful tool for effectively engaging families and providing higher-quality early learning to young children.