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Toward a Collaborative Approach to Parent Involvement In Early Education: A Study of Teenage Mothers In An African-American Community

May 1996

Authors: Susan B. Neuman, Tracy Hagedorn, Donna Celano, & Pauline Daly

Source: American Educational Research Journal, Winter 1995, Volume 32, No. 4, pp. 801-827.

Participants: Nineteen African-American adolescent mothers, all of whom had toddlers in an early intervention program.

Purpose: The purposes of this study were to 1) address the challenge of creating a collaborative approach to parent involvement; 2) elicit adolescent parents' beliefs about learning and early literacy; and 3) provide illustrations of ways in which parental beliefs may be incorporated within a framework of developmentally appropriate practice, helping to assist parents in fulfilling their aspirations for themselves and their children.

Method: The adolescent mothers were enrolled in an ABE program that included free day care for their young children. Mothers engaged in focused discussion to learn how they perceived their educative roles and practices. Prior to engaging in the peer discussion groups, mothers were interviewed to determine their perceptions on learning and literacy development. Other materials were collected for the discussion groups: pictures of children from different countries working, playing, and learning; short video scenes from area preschools of children playing and learning with their peers and adults.

Groups of mothers were randomly assigned to one of four interview discussion groups. Sessions totaled approximately 10 hours. The leaders began with a general overview of the topic and ended with "I'm interested in your views about your children's learning and what kind of schooling you'd like them to have." If participants seemed to echo each other's comments, the moderator would ask, "Does anyone see it differently?" To prompt participants for evidence to support a position, she would say: "When you said you teach your child--tell us how you do that." Researchers observed and took notes of the discussion groups. After each session, they compared notes, shared observations, and considered the questioning route to explore whether questions should be eliminated, revised, or added to ensure divergent perspectives and interactions of greater depth.

Data gathered from the discussions and interviews were analyzed using the constant comparative method and organized into categories. Four members of the research team independently identified themes or categories across the discussion groups. Then they compared categories and examined similarities and differences. Next, they linked categories that appeared to reflect a common perspective. This analysis provided shared beliefs that could facilitate a more collaborative process of involving parents in their children's early education. Researchers sought to capture participants' attitudes, perceptions, and opinions.

Results: The analysis indicated that these adolescent mothers did not share a common world view, but instead reflected several different child development perspectives, broadly defined along a continuum of transmissive, maturational, and transactional beliefs. On the transmissive side of the continuum, comments seemed to reflect the belief that knowledge was finite, defined as a set of skills, and transmittable from those who had it to those who did not. Children were expected to master what was taught by the adult. In the middle of the continuum was a more maturational view of learning, where learning was not confined to a set of tangible skills but incorporated within a broader definition of education. Children were thought to have an innate potential for learning that enabled them to develop their individual capacities. Learning was seen primarily as the result of physiological development. Less emphasis was placed on what children should be learning than on ensuring that they were provided with a safe and nurturing environment within which to learn. At the other end of the continuum was a more transactional view. Children were thought to actively construct knowledge through direct experiences and through manipulation of objects and interpersonal interactions. This view seemed to empower both the child and the parent in child-centered activities. Children were thought to act as the creative agent with adults facilitating and guiding the learning process, which focused on meaning-making.

Participants shared several basic beliefs about schooling and literacy:
Belief 1: "You gotta teach them something." Mothers wanted their children to thrive both socially and intellectually, and they wanted the schools to teach both practical life skills and academically-oriented skills.

Belief 2: "I want my child to be safe." All mothers wanted their children to be in a safe environment. School was valued by many mothers because it provided a refuge from the unpredictable atmosphere of the street. They placed strong emphasis on their children learning a variety of interpersonal skills, from cooperation to autonomy, that might facilitate social negotiation both in and out of school.

Belief #3: "A good teacher is keeping that respect." All regarded respect as a critical component for establishing and maintaining family/school relations. Mothers respected teachers who were nurturing, maintained order, were willing to attend to children's individual needs, and taught them skills.

Belief #4: "What I'm doing, I'm doing for her." All of these teenage mothers sought to be positive role models for their children.

Conclusions: Parents in this study reflected basic beliefs highly compatible with those of many school professionals. They clearly valued educational achievement, security and independence in learning, respect from and for teachers, and information that might enable them to enhance their children's learning. They also indicated very specific beliefs about how best to educate their children.

Professionals should be willing to incorporate a range of pedagogical teaching strategies to be more congruent with family beliefs; similarly, parents should be willing to participate in activities that may enhance their role as educators of their children. For example, efforts to respond to adolescent mothers' shared beliefs suggested changes in the day care and the parent-education program. Changes were designed to incorporate parents' beliefs in order to establish a constructive relationship between families and professionals. These examples show that establishing a posture of reciprocity between parents and professionals may require a delicate shift in the balance of power between schools and communities. Through a better understanding of parental beliefs, parental involvement programs may be designed to enable culturally diverse parents to realize their aspirations for their children.

Questions for family literacy professionals:

Condensed by: Sarah Nixon-Ponder

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