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Lesson 2.4

A Child's First Teacher

Kids don’t pick their parents.

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Image: Adélie Penguin chick looking happy after a feeding - CC Liam Quinn

Parents and other caregivers play a very direct role in a student’s education. Among those working for education change, a common misconception holds that teachers wield the greatest influence on a child's learning. Not so: teachers matter a lot, but it all starts with parents.

Birth to age five really matters

What happens at home, before kindergarten, sets a child on the learning path. A child fortunate enough to be born healthy and to grow up surrounded by words, in any language, generally will do better at school than a child raised in adversity or neglect.

Reading to your children is one of the most important ways to prepare for success in school. The earlier the better. Research now indicates that reading, more than talking, builds greater literacy skills. It makes sense: The language in books is usually more enriching than everyday speech.

Mothers’ educational attainment correlates with young children’s reading experiences. Source: Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, Washington DC: US Government Printing Office Mothers’ educational attainment correlates with young children’s reading experiences. Source:, Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, Washington DC: US Government Printing Office

A variety of community campaigns support parents as a child’s first teacher. For example, “Pequeños y Valiosos,” a program by Univision associated with the "Too Small to Fail" program, provides information to encourage parents and caregivers to talk, read, and sing with children birth to five to develop their language and vocabulary skills. The national PTA partners with Reading Rockets to provide family learning tools.

Poverty hurts

Poverty, or even mere lack of income, makes it massively harder for parents to participate in schools. There is little or nothing schools can do about it. Boosting parents' income isn't what schools are about. Professor David Berliner, an influential writer and researcher on the role of poverty in student learning, calls poverty “the unexamined 600 pound gorilla in the classroom.”

Poverty, or even mere lack of income, makes it massively harder for parents to participate in schools. There is little or nothing schools can do about it. Boosting parents' income isn't what schools are about.

Professor Berliner argues that poverty is tremendously disruptive to parents’ capacity to support their children’s education, and that education reform, standing alone, is fated always to fall short of true success. By age 3, for example, children from high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child amplifies this work by looking at the biological impact of stress and neglect and offers 8 ideas to remember about child development.

While schools are not able to directly increase the income of parents, school systems can use resources in ways that help low income students. In California, schools with large numbers of students living in poverty get more money through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Reducing the impact of poverty is a central aim of Community Schools, which provide services right on campus.

How parents engage in K-12

Parent engagement goes way beyond the act of deciding where your child will go to school. From preparing your child for the first day of school to creating a space for learning at home, engagement makes a difference in the success of a child - and also the success of a school. One of the great challenges schools face is creating an environment that encourages ALL families to be engaged. Much of the research in this area is based on the work of Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins, who identified six areas of engagement:

  • Volunteering
  • Parenting
  • Communicating
  • Learning at home
  • Decision making
  • Collaborating with Community

It is relatively easy to engage English-speaking and highly educated parents in school. It's what they expect and often demand. The real work is creating a school environment that welcomes all parents, including those with limited time, those who don’t speak English, and those who may not have experienced success in school themselves. School-based parent organizations are critical to that work.

Parent-teacher conferences

Parent-teacher conferences are a critical ritual that probably gets too little research attention. In most cases, schools arrange conferences at the beginning and the end of the school year. In well-to-do communities, parents almost always show up. But attendance in most schools tends to be spotty. Scheduling, transportation and language barriers can pose challenges, though in a pinch Google Translate is better than trying to get your point across through interpretive dance. At their best, these conferences enable parents and teachers to coordinate their efforts in support of each child. Practically speaking, however, most parent-teacher conferences last only ten minutes or so.

Parents have a new opportunity for influence

With the introduction in 2014 of the Local Control Funding Formula in California, parent involvement became more important than ever, because local communities were given increased authority over the use of funds. Parents and communities now must have a say in how your school district spends its money. But how can you make informed decisions? Try these two resources to get started:

  • Ed100’s LCAP parent checklist helps parents identify the most important needs at your school.
  • California State PTA’s scorecard helps school communities evaluate their current level of parent engagement, take action to expand it, and measure improvement over time. The scorecard includes six “standards,” based on Joyce Epstein’s model of parent engagement, with three levels of implementation for each standard.
fooPTA National Standards for Family-School Partnerships Assessment Guide copyright 2014 California State PTA

It’s important for parents to know what they can do to support their children’s academic progress, from how to prepare for a parent teacher conference to knowing their rights as parents. The California State PTA has also created parent academies called School Smarts to help parents navigate their local school systems and become effective child advocates. In 2014 EdSource released conclusions from a survey about ways to support parent involvement in schools. Among the top findings? Give parents advance notice about meetings, offer translation services and hold the meetings when parents are available.

A wealth of evidence shows that parent and family engagement in schools can strengthen them and improve the quality of education.

Tips for Parents

One of the first questions to ask about your school is whether it is welcoming to all families. Check out the National PTA Toolkit for ideas on how parents as well as school leaders and staff can help create a school where parents feel welcomed, valued, and connected.

The National PTA also created a survey that you can use to measure family engagement at your school. [PDF] (Also available as a Word doc in English or Spanish - copyright National PTA)

Joining your school’s PTA or parent group is an important first step in learning more about your school and how you can help make it even better.


All of the following factors make it harder for parents to participate in schools. Which ONE is hardest for a school to do something about?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 1:40 pm
I have spoken to several friends who are teachers. One eye-raising comment I heard was that there are parents out there who always assume their child is not at fault. I'm not saying I'm perfect (I'm far from it!), but teaching children to be responsible human beings is essential to our society.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar September 19, 2017 at 2:19 pm
Looking for tips to help your child and school succeed? The California State PTA has 100 tipis inEnglish and

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 15, 2017 at 1:13 am
An alternative approach to parent-teacher conferences: do them as a group, with the teacher and all of the parents together first, then hold separate followup meetings. Yes, it's been done. The buzzword for it is "Academic Parent-Teacher Teams" (APTT), coined by WestEd's Maria Paredes.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 11:59 am
Yes, schools can and should address the problem of low income. How? By directing residents to job opportunities in the community, training programs (Adult School and a Community Colleges), etc.

user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 5:59 pm
Parents- This a very big deal and waiting for school to start is putting kids years behind before they start. Parents can (and DO) make a difference from Day#1. Why not have our schools show parents how to be great teachers in the home?
user avatar
susan_m_mathews May 20, 2015 at 4:03 pm
I agree that it is very important for parents to be engaged in their schools, and I hope that this website will help support that. I was disappointed to see the tecommendation above that is a good way for parents to shop for a school. The great site gives patents only data about school performance on standardized tests, and demographic information about the students and parents. This is really site that just helps drive parents to higher-scoring a less diverse schools.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 21, 2015 at 3:23 pm
Actually, GreatSchools provides quite a lot of information about schools beyond their test scores, and for many schools the site includes substantial comments directly from parents. Of course there is no real substitute for visiting schools, but parents need to start somewhere. GreatSchools provides visitors with a place-based view of the options, including private schools. More about school choice in lesson 5.2.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 12:00 pm
Why limit this to parents? What about grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.?
user avatar
shadowzwench April 27, 2015 at 12:20 pm
Parents need to be engaged with the schools and their children in order for everyone to succeed. Unfortunately reality is much different and it is usually a small group of parents that are engaged that struggle to ensure that all the kids at the school have as many opportunities as possible.
user avatar
Paigey Girl April 22, 2015 at 2:19 pm
Parent involvement is key to success in school! They are the first teachers and will influence a students desire to succeed!
user avatar
harplits March 13, 2015 at 7:29 am
As a former PTA president, working to engage and involve all of our parents was a frequent topic. One of the most helpful acts was to be certain we had parents on our board that were bilingual and present to answer questions at all parent/child events.
user avatar
Tara Massengill April 19, 2015 at 11:14 am
I wish more parents knew how much the PTA works their behinds off for their respective schools (especially the lower-income schools).
user avatar
Jenny N September 28, 2015 at 5:00 pm
Thanks for sharing that advice. It is so important!
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 9:25 am
Parents should be required to commit to a certain number of on-site hours at a school. During our years at a private school, we had the choice to either SHOW UP and give our time, or PAY a fee if we opted out. Of course, we gave our time willingly. Education is not up to the teachers or administrators - it is everyone's responsibility. Parents (especially minorities or undocumented parents) may feel intimidated as their education may be lower than the professionals teaching their children. However, if they are welcomed in and made to feel valued and wanted, it can make a significant difference in their participation. Nobody goes into parenting with a manual and all of the answers, but most parents do just fine nonetheless. Kids just need to feel like their parent cares enough to prepare them for each day, show up on time, communicate with the teachers, and attend school events. Kids rely on their parents to demonstrate what is expected of them. Respect, attendance, responsibility, etc.
user avatar
geecookie2011 April 18, 2015 at 7:27 am
I find that your statement is well intent to be a concern for the students however a teacher, educator they get paid to teach our children however if I'm going to do the teacher's role then I might as well keep the child at home and teach he or she myself. because if i need help at home no one from the educational world will come home and help me with my home please keep that in mind when you're making your suggestions.
user avatar
Brandi Galasso February 9, 2015 at 10:51 am
parents are 1st teachers and they need to realize that. Parents need to quit just dropping off their kid and picking up thinking the school is going to raise your child. Parents have to actively teach their kids everyday and assist teachers . without parents the school system is not going to get any better because no one cares like parents should. parents don't always know they are allowed to be involved and some schools make you feel very unwelcome, because the administration at a school usually hiding things. schools should have people that reach out to parents and teach them what they need to do to help their child succeed. and also need to be taught their rights and how schools are supposed to be ran. parents need to be told more then just what the schools want to tell them because there is lack of information there, like how much say they really do have at their kids school. schools should be ran by people who care not just administrators making all the money that should be going to the schools.
user avatar
anamendozasantiago February 5, 2015 at 7:58 pm
Parenting classes are awesome to increase parent participation and improve education at home:)
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm
Parenting? Too limiting. We need to focus on the entire family!
user avatar
anahsrad January 12, 2015 at 10:33 pm
The YouTube video did not play saying that the user has changed the account - can you redirect me, please?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 13, 2015 at 9:22 am
Thanks for the catch! The ephemeral nature of the web is a constant challenge of this work. Readers, if you see a problem, please do leave a comment like this one -- it's quite helpful to us.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 12, 2014 at 9:24 am
When parents struggle to make ends meet, children suffer. There is a strong connection between family financial security and life outcomes for children. Supporting children, argues the Annie E. Casey Foundation, implies supporting families. Its 2014 report Creating Opportunities for Families describes the practical interconnections between school, communities, work, child care services and transportation. This report is part of the Kids Count series, a useful and credible resource for understanding the real-world meaning of data about children living in poverty.
user avatar
Paul Muench October 31, 2014 at 7:51 pm
On a minor note, thank you for connecting the dots on Parent Trigger and the new API (EPI?). I now better understand the democrats political urgency behind that effort. Its a good reminder to look around for side effects the next time some new educational change is claiming to make a big difference yet doesn't seem to do much of substance.
I think having a growth mindset is the most important thing a parent can "do" for his children's education. Working day after day with no apparent change can be frustrating. But somehow learning seems to work that way. It seems as if a person needs time for all the pieces of understanding to align and become solid and then all of a sudden he can perform. So much of learning is "invisible" to a parent that faith and patience is necessary to help your child become somebody new. Having a growth mindset can seem a false prophesy at first, but that's only because it's really a self-fulfilling prophesy. Telling parents its real, its genuine, you can believe in it is a great first step.
user avatar
Arati N June 19, 2014 at 2:03 pm
Most important role parents can play is to be engaged and involved in their child's school. Simply complaining about what's wrong has a negative impact, but providing and being part of a solution is a step in the forward direction.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 12:03 pm
Yes! If you are not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem!
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