Professional Development

Article Library » Recommended Articles

Challenging African-American Parents To Participate In Their Children's Learning:

Share This Article: On Twitter On Facebook Print


The Role Of Home Visitors As Reading And Writing Instructors

Background and purpose of the study:  A study of urban African-American families and their K-first grade children was undertaken by a university, two elementary schools and a social service agency in the inner city of a large midwestern city.  The social service agency provided the impetus for this study, by requesting that a family support home visitation project begun two years earlier be expanded, to include a curriculum that “matched” what K-grade 1 students were doing at school.

The project, originally called "Academic Challenge," was designed to provide problem-solving assistance to families who were not in contact with their children's elementary school or whose children were chronically truant.  "Academic Challenge" had some success meeting familial needs, especially those related to family situations that accounted for young children being truant (eg., housing, clothing, transportation), but the program had not been successful in addressing educational concerns. 

The program now needed to focus on challenging parents to participate in their children's learning.  New program goals were identified: a) to motivate parents to participate in academic, but developmentally appropriate, activities related to their children's classroom learning, (b) to encourage parents to read to their children at home and to value their role as "first and most important teachers" and (c) to use home visitation as the means by which effective home-school communication with parents could be established.

Theoretical rationale for the study:  Coleman and Tabin (1992), Bruner ( 1987), Ogbu (1987), and Comer (1986) show there is significantly more parental participation in schools when teachers show an appreciation for the family unit.  Comer and Klein (1993) show that parents respond positively when teachers make arrangements to visit the family in the home setting.  In the classroom setting, Tharp and Gallimore (1988) and Ascher (1989) find a significant relationship between what teachers, principals, or specialists say to parents and how parents perceive their ability to help their children achieve at home. 

Other researchers show that the lower the social/economic level of the family, the less apt parents are to talk to a teacher, ask for support or question a teacher (Harris, Kagan and Ross, 1987.)  Ascher (1989) finds that, in order to validate their parental role, mothers and fathers seem to need to talk to school personnel whom they consider an "authority figure." 

These studies address the dilemma teachers and administrators confront in this decade:  namely, the less contact schools have with families, the less parents feel empowered with the belief that they make a difference in the successful educational outcome of their children's schooling.  What can public schools do to foster strong parent-school relations?

It is discouraging that 25 years of efficacy studies on involving parents in their children's learning have, for the most part, yielded non-significant results, greatly reducing the chance that educators and administrators in school settings might be willing to implement educational initiatives aimed at getting parents to participate more fully in the educational process (White, Taylor and Moss, 1992.)  Further,  schools of education charged with the responsibility of preparing teachers, psychologists, specialists and administrators, are producing professional teachers who do not have a working knowledge of how to engage in effective parent-teacher partnerships (Constable and Walberg, 1988.) 

The federally-funded Head Start program is a good example of a successful  comprehensive initiative that fails to show the positive effects of  empowering families, in spite of the fact the parent participation is a major goal of the program.  Zigler and Styfco (1993) find that, while career and job training opportunities for Head Start teachers and aides has risen sharply since 1988, the number of parent education and training opportunities for parents has consistently decreased.  These and other similar findings cannot, in these times, account for the complexities of poverty and urban family life (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Samaroff, 1975,  Huston, 1991, Zigler and Lang, 1991, Huston, McLoyd and Coll, 1994, Hernandez, 1994.)

In spite of poor results from parent involvement efficacy studies, most researchers agree that parents make a difference (Lazar, 1989), and that it is crucial to put the highest possible priority on strengthening home-school relations(Kagan, 1991; Tharp and Gallimore, 1988; Comer, 1986) trains parents to become involved directly in on-site school based school activities.  Kirst (1990) recommends activities that involve an alliance of parents, social agencies and educators.  Both these approaches are part of the rational for this study.

This research focuses in the examination of two processes simultaneously:  building healthy, positive home-school relations and encouraging parent participation in the academic process, even if parents do not or can not participate in their children's  classroom learning.  It was hypothesized that parents would be able to participate sucessfully, in a home program, and that their children would show academic gains in developmental language, reading and writing skills. 

The following research objectives were posed for the study:

1.  To research the efficacy of employing paraprofessional African-American home visitors as parent educators who would guide parent participation in reading and writing activities, based on four culturally relevant literature-based social studies themes:  "School days, My Family, Going Places and How Things Work."

2.  To assess what changes in K-grade I children's knowledge of print, language and writing ability would occur after three-months of weekly home visits, as a result of parent- child interactions with the social studies curricula during "home-teaching" sessions with a home visitor.

3.  To collect data on parent-child interactions in the home setting that demonstrates that parents are gaining an appreciation of their importance as reading ans writing instructors of their children.


Employing the collaborative consultative school model described by Diamond,   (1994) and Tharp and Gallimore (1988), the two inner city schools, a university and a social service agency set out to analyze social studies, language arts, math and science curricula prescribed by the public school system for kindergarten and early primary age children.  The social studies curriculum was chosen for its family-based appeal to parents and its practicality for use by the home visitors. 

Four developmental themes were extrapolated from the 1993-1994 sequence of study: School Days, My Family, Myself, Going Places and How Things Work (see Table 1.)


Table 1


Theme #1:        School Days


(1)       School is a place where we earn

             to play and work in groups.

 (2)       Every one has a role to play at school

              that is important.

(1)       Play & Work At School - 

(2)       People At School -
Miss Nelson Is Missing!


Props:                      books

                                    miniature people and animals


                                    hats, comfort clothes

                                    flannel board

                                    numbers, letters & shapes

                                    writing tools

                                    stamps & stickers

                                    assorted paper

                                    scissors, rulers, & stapler

                                    play mat

                                    hand-size blocks

                                    hand puppets


                                    charts, grids

Theme #2:        My Family, Myself


(1)       Each individual has unique qualities and abilities.

(2)       Families have members who love and support one  


(1)       From Head To Toes -  Magic School Bus
(2)       Family Favorites                  
            - Aunt Flossie's Hat

(3)       Family Stories - Shortcut


Props:                      body parts puzzle

                                    cooking/cups, spoons

                                    play food containers/ pics

                                    health play objects

                                    play telephone

                                    dress-up hats, comfort clothes

                                    miniature cars, trucks and people

                                    hand  or finger puppets

                                    grooming accessories/mirror

                                    writing tools

                                    calendar, papers, scrapbook

                                    assorted writing forms




Theme #3:        Going Places


(1)       Families need each other, goods and services, in order to  
             lead their daily lives.

(2)       It's important to relate to others and to know how to get
            and get to those things in your community.


(1)       Going to Play - Jamaica’s Find

(2)       Running Errands - The Boy who didn't believe in spring

(3)       Going to Community Places - Just Us Women


Props:                      play money


                                    construction pattern blocks

                                    fraction kit


                                    construction/transportation fleet

                                    miniatures - cars/buses/trucks

                                    waffle blocks

                                    town carpet/mat

                                    arts/crafts /writing tools, protractor


Theme #4:        How Things Work


(1)       For things to work, their parts must work together.

 (2)       Things grow and change.




(1)       Round and Round-=Mike Mulligan

 (2)       Bright & Dark-Half Moon and one Whole Star

 (3)       Up and Up-Gloria's Flight


Props:                      spheres/globes

                                    magnifying glass




                                    miniature tools


                                    writing tools

                                    miniature cars, trucks and people



                                    shiny, foil, texture papers

                                    cultural/ natural history pics/puzzles


Based on current parent-child interaction research, a four-step procedure was developed that follows a protocol designed by Susan Newman (Get Ready, Build Bridges, Make Meaning and Have Fun).  Dr. Susan Turben extended the protocol to include a checklist of behaviors and traits associated with each of the four steps, in order to provide home visitors with a screening tool with which to collect information about parents’ actions and children’s actions during each home visit (see Tables 2 and 3, assessment plan and measures).

The four-step procedure offered a simple format for encouraging and enhancing parents’ responsivity to their children’s thinking, speaking, writing and reading.  It also afforded home visitors the opportunity to evaluate parent-child interactions on a regular basis  during each home visit.  Home visitors were trained in the four-step procedure, asked to model it for parents during home visits and requested to complete both parent and child checklists for both parent and child at the end of each visit.

Results of an exhaustive curriculum search by the university researchers showed that social studies was the curricular domain most compatible with parental expectations of their young children and least problematic for paraprofessional home visitors who, in their role as reading and writing instructors, would be implementing the curricula. 


Selection of participants for the study:   Forty-two African-American and  Hispanic kindergarten and first grade children were initially identified for inclusion in the study by two elementary principals.  They determined each family's eligibility, after talking to teachers, selecting a smaller number from the total group (25) because of unusual family situations or lack of contact with the family. 

For example, several of the selected families were related to each other and has recently moved into a housing project nearby; they had made no contact with school personnel during the 1993-4 school year.  Another household was headed by a very young parent who had six children under the age of eight. 

Other family considerations were studied in the selection process, such as the location of each home in relation to the work site of employed parents, the number of persons living in a single apartment or house, and any factors that might affect the success of placing a home visitor in a particular home.  The K-grade I teacher selected 25 children from among the remaining students to be used as a control group. 

The control group of children would receive pre and post test assessments, but would not participate in the home visitation portion of the project.  The school contacted each of the families to secure their permission to participate in the study and to sign release forms.

Selection of paraprofessional home visitors:  The social service agency recruited African-American community volunteers who could be available days, evenings or weekends several days each week for three months.  The eight volunteers were matched geographically to three housing project locations within a three mile radius of each school.  Each of the volunteers agreed to participate in eight hours of paraprofessional training , under the direction of one of the university researchers

Implementation and Assessment Activities:

Based on parent-child interaction research, the collaborating schools and agency developed a three-stage implementation strategy.  The preparation phase included plans for (a) recruitment of K-grade I families and students,

(b) selection of home visitors, (c) identification and training of early childhood educators qualified to conduct pre and post-test assessments,

(d) training of home visitors and (e) development of the activity-based social studies curriculum,including props for a play-learning kit and protocols for evaluation of student and families. 

The implementation phase began with selecting valid and reliable assessments, preparing testing schedules and training graduate students to pre-test 25 students and 25 controls in two elementary schools.  Three measures were chosen for their ability to assess developmental traits associated with literacy and language at the K- grade I level:

1.  The Klesius-Serl test of print concepts (Gillet and Temple, 1986)

2.  The TELD-2 test of early language development (Hresko, Reid and Hammill, 1991)

3.  A writing sample produced spontaneously by each student.  The sample consisted of drawing or writing about "people in
      my family." 

The implementation phase also included the development of a home visitation protocol.  There were four-steps to these protocols, each consisting of four steps (Susan Newman, 1993; Susan Turben,1994.)  The four-step strategy (Get Ready, Build Bridges, Make Meaning and Have Fun) identified a developmental sequence of parent and child actions and play and literacy props, each selected for practicality of implementation and the ability of the play materials to elicit spontaneous pretend play (McCune-Nicolich, 1991.)  

The third phase, post-test and evaluation, tested the research design, collected the pre and post test data and analyzed three types of observations made during the study:

•      1.  Practicality of implementation

•      2.  Influences on parents' interactions with their children

•      3.  Impact on children's language and literacy behaviors.

Ask Dr. Susan