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Friday, December 4, 2009

Just A "Little" Christmas Program?

Last night my wife and I attended our granddaughter's first-grade Christmas program "Christmas In New York City" at Portsmouth Elementary. The stage was filled with smiling, beautiful children performing a glorious, animated tribute to Christmas in the Big Apple. The music department instructors and the first-grade teachers beamed with satisfaction as their students sang and recited holiday treasures. A huge audience of proud parents, family members and friends snapped hundreds of photos and shot numerous videos as they reveled in the glorious half hour performance.

Besides the obvious Christmas spirit I felt while watching the children perform, I noticed a warm bond with all the people in attendance. Our support for our young participants was overwhelming. Having been a high school teacher for 27 years, I have witnessed such cooperative encouragement at that level many times; however, viewing a first-grade event, I felt the added obligations of concern for these younger children and their bright futures.

The most noticeable features of those onstage were the innocence and the unrestrained joy shared by each boy and girl. All the youngsters created a bright portrait of the future hopes and dreams of our community. Each child was a significant individual part of a whole with equal opportunity aided by their shared educational experience and family support. At this point in their lives, each child was loved, protected, and pampered by caring adults. Then, a worrisome thought entered my head.

It occurred to me that these obligations of necessity seem to decrease little by little as children move through primary school, through middle school, and through high school. Yet, each child tonight deserved to be equally honored and well loved as young peers in a shared environment until adulthood. It was obvious to me that doting adults make a tremendous difference in the success of each child.

To assume maturity will spring from each automatically as water from a turned on faucet is ridiculous. Without the continuous support of family, friends, and educators, some of these precious first-graders will struggle and suffer needlessly. I thought then, "This cannot be allowed to happen." The families must survive and provide.

In Defense of the Family

Recent research demonstrates that families play a significant role in learning for children and youth of all ages, including adolescence. (Kreider, H., Caspe, M., Kennedy, S., & Weiss, H., 2007). In other words, family involvement is just as important in middle and high school students' education.

The older children need to develop independence and take responsibility for their own learning. A family that provides instruction and support as a child ages can help these children to grow. At the same time, "schools become larger, more bureaucratic, and less welcoming to families, which may discourage parents’sense of school community and belonging—and, therefore, their involvement." (Eccles & Harold, 1993)  Nonetheless, adolescents need the continuing family support.

Good family involvement is ongoing, rather than a single moment in time. Family members must consistently provide structure and establish the foundations for learning. It seems that pivotal developmental and educational transitions (times like entering middle and high school) are extremely important in the life of a child. Transitions heighten risk for children, but at the same time, often mark decreased family involvement. Opportunity does abound then if family members seize the obligations.

Recent research demonstrates "benefits of family involvement during transitions and of educators’ outreach to families during these times."  (Kraft-Sayre, M. E., & Pianta, R. C., 2000. Enhancing the transition to kindergarten: Linking children, families, and schools) These findings suggest that involvement during transitions may be key to ensuring a continuous and sustained process of family involvement from birth to adulthood.

Isn't it too bad that conversations about family involvement are often plagued by finger pointing instead of cooperation? Parents and schools often play the blame game, as evident in public forums ranging from the national media to local parent–teacher organization meetings. Good communities can overcome the inevitable "blame game" that plagues the well-being of the student.

And, no responsible family member would doubt the power of good parental influence. Without the "walk," the "talk" is meaningless. The best family is the family that leads by example. Even though he/she will be confronted by the occasional blip in correct behavior, the child needs stability. "Do as I saw, not as I do" will not fool the child of the 21st century for long, if at all.

In fact, research shows that, when it comes to children’s outcomes, parents’ behaviors are more important than other widely publicized factors, such as daycare arrangements. (Belsky, J., Vandell, D. L., Burchinal, M., Clarke-Stewart, K. A., McCartney, K., & Owen, M. T., the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2007, Are there long-term effects of early child care? Child Development)

What Does Family Research Show?

To the Harvard Family Research Project (Raising Student Achievement, 2006 National PTA Legislative Conference) the evidence is clear:  

"Family involvement promotes school success for every child of every age."

"Family involvement helps children get ready to enter school, promotes their school success, and prepares youth for college." 

And, the findings are not talking just about attendance and sports at special events. It seems the more families participate in their child's life, the better his/her future will likely be. HFRP is located at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 3 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. Call them at 617-495-9108, or visit us on the web at

Please, check out these findings:

* Children whose parents read to them at home recognize letters of the alphabet sooner than those whose parents do not.   

Nord, C. W., Lennon, J., Liu, B., & Chandler, K. (1999). Home literacy activities and signs of children's emerging literacy, 1993 and 1999.

* Children whose parents teach them how to write words are able to identify letters and connect them to speech sounds. 

Haney, M. H., & Hill, J. (2004). Relationships between parent-teaching activities and emergent literacy in preschool children. Early Child Development and Care.

* Children whose mothers use complex sentences in their everyday conversations achieve high scores on literacy-related tasks in kindergarten. 

Britto, P. R., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2001). Beyond shared book reading: Dimensions of home literacy and low-income African American preschoolers' skills.

* When parents establish a reading routine with their children, they provide more family bonding time and an opportunity for their children's vocabulary and preliteracy skills to grow. Six independent evaluations show that Raising a Reader improves reading behavior and kindergarten readiness, especially for low-income, non-English speaking families.

* Children in grades K–3 whose parents participate in school activities have high quality work habits and task orientation. 

Izzo, C. V., Weissberg, R. P., Kasprow, W. J., & Fendrich, M. (1999) A longitudinal assessment of teacher perceptions of parent involvement in children's education and school performance. American Journal of Community Psychology

* Children whose parents provide support with homework perform better in the classroom.  

Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., Battiato, A. C., Walker, J. M. T., Reed, R. P., DeLong, J. M., & Jones, K. P. (2001). Parental involvement in homework. Educational Psychologist, 36, 195–210; Walker, J. M. T., Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., Whetsel, D. R., & Green, C. L. (2004). Parental involvement in homework: A review of current research and its implications for teachers, after school program staff, and parent leaders.

* Children whose parents explain educational tasks are more likely to participate in class, seek help from the teacher when needed, and monitor their own work.  

Stright, A. D., Neitzel, C., Sears, K. G., & Hoke-Sinex, L. (2001). Instruction begins in the home: Relations between parental instruction and children's self-regulation in the classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology.

* Adolescents whose parents monitor their academic and social activities have lower rates of delinquency and higher rates of social competence and academic growth.  

Catsambis, S. (2001). Expanding knowledge of parental involvement in children's secondary education: Connections with high school seniors' academic success. Social Psychology of Education, 5(2), 149–177; Falbo, T., Lein, L., & Amador, N. A. (2001). Parental involvement during the transition to high school. Journal of Adolescent Research.

* Youth whose parents are familiar with college preparation requirements and are engaged in the application process are most likely to graduate high school and attend college. 

Auerbach, S. (2004). Engaging Latino parents in supporting college pathways: Lessons from a college access program. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education.

* Youth whose parents have high academic expectations and who offer consistent encouragement for college have positive student outcomes.  

Ma, X. (2001). Participation in advanced mathematics: Do expectation and influence of students, peers, teachers and parents matter? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26, 132–146; Trusty, J., Plata, M., & Salazar, C. F. (2003). Modeling Mexican Americans' education expectations: Longitudinal effects of variables across adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Research.

* Low-income African American children whose families maintained high rates of parent participation in elementary school are more likely to complete high school.  

Barnard, W. M. (2004). Parent involvement in elementary school and educational attainment. Children & Youth Services Review, 26(1), 39–62.

* Low-income African American children with mothers involved in their education showed more self-control in unruly and disorganized classrooms than children whose parents did not provide supportive relationships at home.  

Brody, G. H., Dorsey, S., Forehand, R., & Armistead, L. (2002). Unique and protective contributions of parenting and classroom processes to the adjustment of African-American children living in single-parent families. Child Development.

* Latino youth who are academically high achieving have parents who provide encouragement and emphasize the value of education as a way out of poverty. 

Ceballo, R. (2004). From Barrios to Yale: The role of parenting strategies in Latino families. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 25(2), 171–186; Gandara, P. (1995). Over the ivy walls: The educational mobility of low-income Chicanos.

In Conclusion

Each generation of parents hopes to provide their children better educational and employment opportunities than it had. That concept is really what the future of America depends upon for continued success: the growth of its young individuals will strengthen the new society.

Looking at those first-graders, I think it should be the duty of each adult to help a child achieve the edge needed to compete intellectually, to develop positive character, and to live happily. No one wants to look back in regret at a child left without essential help, K through high school, and say, "If I would have only..."

One parent families present obvious difficulties for youngsters. In 2008, 67 percent of children ages 0–17 lived with two married parents, down from 77 percent in 1980. (

Rebecca O'Neill (The Institute for Study of Civil Society, 2002) stated:

"For many mothers, fathers and children, the ‘fatherless family’ has meant poverty, emotional heartache, ill health, lost opportunities, and a lack of stability. The social fabric – once considered flexible enough to incorporate all types of lifestyles – has been stretched and strained. Although a good society should tolerate people’s right to live as they wish, it must also hold adults responsible for the consequences of their actions. To do this, society must not shrink from evaluating the results of these actions. As J.S. Mill argued, a good society must share the lessons learnt from its experience and hold up ideals to which all can aspire."

The premier family involvement is actually mutual responsibility among families, schools, and other institutions and stakeholders. Every day has its “teachable moment.” Families can encourage learning everywhere—in museums, on playgrounds, and in grocery stores, to name just a few settings. Families can and should be a centerpiece of what is known as complementary learning—a systemic approach that intentionally integrates school and nonschool supports to promote educational and life success.

Flashing back to the eyes of those first-graders, I see a hunger, a hunger for sharing their accomplishments with those closest to them. To think of anything extinguishing that joyful exuberance in any set of those sparkling orbs is unacceptable.

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