Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
As Manica F. Ramos, Senior Research Scientist at Child Trends notes, we often forget that parents are the first and primary teacher for their child – from the moment they’re born, through their school experiences, and until the end of the day. Which is why helping parents learn how to teach in every day moments is such an important piece of a child’s early learning experience.
Chris Riback: Manica, welcome to the studio.
Manica Ramos: Thank you.
Chris Riback: I’d like to start with two terms that I keep hearing at this conference. One is equity, and the other is developmentally appropriate practice. These, I believe are central to a lot of the work that you do. Why are they so important today? Why are they so hard to attain?
Manica Ramos: The concept of equity is making sure that folks have equal access to opportunity. Developmentally appropriate practices, making sure that you’re taking in to mind the child’s development when you’re interacting with the child, so that the activity is appropriate for the child’s age.
Chris Riback: It’s got to be. You have to keep both in mind for the activity to, not only make sense, but to be able to have an impact and be meaningful for the child, I would assume.
Manica Ramos: Yes. As the adult when you’re interacting with the child, you want to scaffold them, right? So you want to understand where they are. And you want to help them to get a little bit further on their developmental path.
Chris Riback: Better to think like a child, than think like an adult.
Manica Ramos: Yes. Sometimes, yes.
Chris Riback: Sometimes, yes. So often in early childhood education we hear about the programs and the educators and the policy makers, and it feels like we don’t hear enough about the families. What is the difference between involving versus engaging families?
Manica Ramos: Sure, and before I answer that question, I want to start off by saying that oftentimes we forget that parents are the first and the primary teacher for the child. They’re with the child as soon as a child is born. They’re with the child through the programs and schooling, and they’re with the child afterwards. We need to make sure that we’re thinking about the role, the central role that parents are playing.
Chris Riback: Do you talk to parents about that? Do you, do talk to them about that part of the role of parenting is teaching?
Manica Ramos: Yes, absolutely. I do work with many different parent engagement programs, and a key part of that is helping the parent to feel self-assured in their role as a teacher for the child.
Chris Riback: It is a confidence question often, isn’t it?
Manica Ramos: Yeah, absolutely. And self-efficacy as well. Sometimes parents don’t realize how much they know. A parent can very easily change the direction of the child’s emotion. The parent can easily, very easily help a child transition to another activity, and they may not realize that they have that key skill that others, such as a teacher as me-
Chris Riback: And a child is always watching, isn’t she?
Manica Ramos: Yes, absolutely. So, one of the key roles of parents is to model for their children as well because the children are always watching.
Chris Riback: I’m sorry. I threw you off. Involving versus engaging.
Manica Ramos: Absolutely. The idea of involving is very activity-focused, and this is an idea on, I’ll use a preschool center as an example. The preschool center setting activities for parents to engage in, and then inviting the parents to be involved in those activities. While that’s important and necessary, one thing that we know from the research is that you really need to engage parents. Engagement is more focused on a goal or positive goal- oriented relationship. Rather than being activity focused, you’re really focused on building a relationship with the parent, so that you can set goals for the benefit of the child.
Chris Riback: So, it’s not just, Mrs. Jones come over here and help us with the block building today. But it’s Mrs. Jones, let’s talk about the goals for your child. Here are the things that he or she can achieve, and let’s talk about different paths where you can help your child get there.
Manica Ramos: Absolutely. That sense of shared goal-setting and power-sharing is really central to the idea of authentic parent engagement. Really being a partner with the parent, and engaging the parent in a way that’s meaningful for them.
Chris Riback: You focus on the Latino community. And you’ve examined how Latino cultural values and beliefs shape Latino behaviors related to parental engagement in their young children in the learning and development. What have you researched in that area? What have you found?
Manica Ramos: I can tell you a little bit about my dissertation, and for my dissertation I focus exclusively on recent Latina immigrants. I looked at what research says is the definition of parent engagement, any support that the child provides to their parents. Then, I’ll compare that to what surveys we use to measure parent engagement. Then, I also talked with the parents in open-ended way and asked them, based on this definition of parent engagement, how are you engaged? What I found is that Latina parents were engaging in activities that were not captured on surveys of parent engagement, and that those activities really directly backed to cultural values and beliefs. So it is, it’s explaining this is why the parent is doing this. They have these culture values and beliefs, and they’re acting on those beliefs.
Chris Riback: We have a whole category of actions, I assume positive actions in terms of-
Manica Ramos: Absolutely.
Chris Riback: That weren’t even being considered, captured or anything.
Manica Ramos: Yes, and I think that that highlights the importance of moving from these activity basis, to really focusing on the relationship because when you’re focusing on the activities, they’re conceptualized within the culture. There’s some assumptions about what parents should be doing. However, when you focus on relationships, you’re just focusing on building that trust and positive two-way communication.
Chris Riback: Speaking of communication, you do your research in English and in Spanish. How does that help your work? Why does it make a difference?
Manica Ramos: Well, because some parents are don’t speak English and we still value-
Chris Riback: You ask a dumb question, you get an obvious answer.
Manica Ramos: No, I think it’s a really important question because there are not enough researchers who are doing their research in English and in Spanish. Where there’s an entire group of people whose voice who really want to understand and uplift. In order to do that you have to do it literally and figuratively in a way that they can understand. Speak their language.
Chris Riback: Speak their language. I would assume there’s obviously, particularly when you think about the cultural effects that you were just mentioning, if you’re not speaking the language, you’re missing a lot.
Manica Ramos: Absolutely.
Chris Riback: Speaking of culture, speaking of language, and speaking of families, which you touched on earlier, the importance of valuing learning, valuing education at home and the opportunity that can come by finding even simple ways. There’s a lot of talk about equity, and there’s a lot of talk about the very, very real challenges of poverty in various communities. Yet, having that positive engagement at home can really matter. That’s something that’s happened to you in your life.
Manica Ramos: Yeah, absolutely. I will share that. The reason why I became interested in parent involvement and family engagement is because when I look at the literature, I realize that the experiences that I was having, the things that my mother was doing, was just not reflected in the literature.
Chris Riback: What was she doing?
Manica Ramos: Communicating the importance of education. Even though she could not sit down and help me with my homework, she was making space for me to do my homework. She was making it a priority for as soon as I come home from school, I sit down and I do my homework because education is really important. That very communication of the importance of education, and helping the child to develop some grit or some goals around education is family engagement.
Chris Riback: Now she’s got a PhD daughter. I’m sure she’s not proud.
Manica Ramos: Yes, yes. My mom is very proud.
Chris Riback: I’m sure. Manica, thank you. Thank you for your work. Thank you for coming by the studio.