Engaging Parents in Innovative Early Ed.

A main problem that early childhood education institutions often face is consistently engaging parents. We know that when parents get involved, students perform better, but achieving this involvement is difficult for a variety of reasons, especially when utilizing a progressive approach to early childhood education, like that of the Reggio Emilia approach.

In the book Authentic Childhood: Experiencing Reggio Emilia in the Classroom, authors Susan Fraser and Carol Getswicki describe the Reggio Emilia approach as one that forces teachers to view their students as their collaborators and able learners, while also allowing the learning experience to be child-directed (2002). This approach was developed in Italy by Loris Malaguzzi in Italy and was implemented in preschool throughout the country. The Reggio Emilia approach differs from the much more common Piagetian approach, which sees child development as an internal process that occurs in predictable and universal stages.

I recently read a 2014 research article titled “Parental Engagement in a Reggio Emilia-Inspired Head Start Program” from the Early Childhood Research & Practice Journal by Stephanie Smith of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which described some of the difficulties early childhood education programs have engaging middle-to-low income parents in the progressive Reggio Emilia-inspired approach. For those interested in implementing a play-based curriculum at your center, I suggest you read this article. Smith argues that previous literature on the topic displays that middle-to-lower class parents have a more difficult time understanding the value of the Reggio Emilia approach due to it’s “internalization of hierarchies, explicit child agency, and relationships between work and play that are reflected in American middle-class families.” To study how lower class parents engage with their child’s early childhood program, Stephanie Smith conducted a qualitative study that observed two Head Start programs in at-risk Chicago neighborhoods. The researcher observed and interviewed parents, teachers and children at the two locations for a year.

Smith’s study found that three of the eight parents interviewed conveyed they understood the Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum, while the other five did not. Several who did not quite grasp the curriculum recognized the curriculum was unique, but couldn’t say why. Additionally, multiple parents stated that they were disappointed with the abundance of unstructured play. Each of the parents felt they were “well informed about their child’s progress, and they largely had positive feelings about the program.” Significant improvement in self-help, problem solving, emotional skills, and curiosity were witnessed as well. Lastly, teachers and parents felt a strong connection with one another in response to the program.

So what exactly is the significance of this study? Although a small study, this research article sheds light upon the difficulty educators have conveying the uniqueness and importance of a child-centered, play-based, Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum to individuals of low-income and disadvantaged parents. If middle- and upper-class individuals have access to progressive early childhood education grounded in a play-based curriculum, then lower class individuals deserve that same opportunity.

Below are possible ways to explain to parents the benefits of a Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum, especially to those who are low-income and/or disadvantaged:

  • Explain what a Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum is in basic language;
  • Provide pamphlets that convey the research supporting play-based learning;
  • Provide take-home resources children can utilize with the help of their parents to bring a play-based approach to learning;
  • Invite parents into the classroom as often as possible;
  • Encourage parents to treat their children as collaborators;
  • Lay out clear expectations for parent engagement in the classroom;
  • Offer insight into how parents can structure at-home environments that stimulate play-based learning;
  • Encourage parents to work on long-term projects with their child;
  • Hold periodic conferences to discuss parental concerns about curriculum and/or child progress.

While most early child care institutions may not implement an Emilia Reggio approach in its entirety, many incorporate elements of that approach. For this reason, it is essential that we as educators value the Emilia Reggio approach and know how to communicate its importance to parents.

Journal Citation:       

Smith, Stephanie C. “Parental Engagement in a Reggio Emilia–inspired Head Start Program.” Early Childhood Research & Practice 16.1 & 2 (2014): n. peg. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.      

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