Family-based support for early learning

The Social Care Institute for Excellence’s weekly analysis of research findings behind specific social work practices

Family-based support for early learning is central to ensuring successful outcomes for young children and plays a key role in children’s success in the education system.

A Centre for Excellence and Outcomes (C4EO) review of studies found an association between learning at home, combined with high-quality pre-school provision, and improvements in children’s attainment. It also found evidence that the home learning environment and the quality of pre-school learning have an impact on children’s development.

These findings parallel initiatives which include training and qualifications related to family support and support for outreach workers within children’s centres.

The term “family support” is a broad one, encompassing a range of interventions geared towards promoting parental involvement. These include:

● Home visiting programmes.

● Parent training/parenting skills schemes.

● Cognitive development programmes.

● Efforts to improve parents’ mental health.

● Schemes to improve home-school links.

● Family and community engagement.

The effectiveness of family support initiatives is dependent on several factors. Timing and flexibility are among the most prominent factors governing effectiveness with early intervention leading to better and more durable results. Any intervention is better than none and a variety of entry routes into support services helps parents, carers and children.

Services are more effective if there are different types of provision, including multi-dimensional approaches which address more than one facet of children’s lives. Strategies that are successful in some contexts will not necessarily translate to others.

Interventions targeted at socio-economically disadvantaged groups have been shown to be useful and policies should be locally driven with provision ideally shaped by the involvement of parents and the community. It should also promote family involvement in the community.

Contrary to a common preconception, the quality of the home learning environment is more significant for children’s outcomes than the education or income of their parents.

With this in mind, support should be geared towards improving interaction between parents and children. Building good relationships through contact and communication is key to the success of family engagement initiatives.

In general, approaches should be sensitive to the needs of different groups, taking into account practical as well as cultural barriers to involvement for parents.

Parental involvement

The direct involvement of parents in activities such as teaching songs, playing letter games and reading has a positive impact on a child’s development.

Different groups of carers such as low-income families, parents/carers from ethnic minorities or single parents/carers, have varying support needs which should be considered when developing interventions. But, when targeting services, a balance must be struck with the possible consequences if lack of integration across services leads to compartmentalisation. For children from socially disadvantaged groups there can be benefits from attending provision with children with a mix of social backgrounds.

Other factors to be considered when targeting interventions at specific groups include the barriers faced by ethnic minority parents, who are likely to be disproportionately affected by issues such as time, distance and cost. Services should be accessible by public transport and account must be taken of those with special mobility needs.

Cultural sensitivity

● Practice should be sensitive to the home culture and engage with the positive aspect of differences.

● Culturally specific parenting programmes that aim to increase parental confidence in their heritage improve attainment.

● Cultural barriers to understanding should be considered. Language barriers or cultural suspicion towards underpinning ideas such as the notion of partnership may contribute to misunderstandings.


● The focus should be on trusting relationships between staff and parents/carers. The make-up of the local population should be reflected in the service with a mix of ages, gender and ethnicity.

Varied strategies

● Although engaging parents is the first step towards addressing problems, parents most in need of support services are often the least likely to access them. An approach that combines targeted and universal interventions can help to address this issue.

● Strategies should be targeted at different stages of participation, including access, building working relationships, maintenance and education transition.


● Family-based support for early learning is central to ensuring successful outcomes for young children.

● There are a wide range of approaches to family-based support including training, home visits and schemes to build home-school and home-community links.

● The best interventions will be flexible, locally driven, focused on parent child interaction and supported by a trusting, open relationship with support services.

● Barriers to support can be geographical, financial and time related. Language and cultural difference can also limit parental involvement.

● Different groups of carers can have different support needs which should be considered when developing interventions.

● When the decision is made to target specific groups it should be balanced against the possibility of compartmentalisation.


C4EO aims to improve outcomes for children, young people and their families in England by identifying and co-ordinating the evidence of “what works” at national, regional and local level. The centre plans to build a single, comprehensive picture of good practice, and identify the systems and methods that are making a difference to the lives of children and young people. Using this information, C4EO will offer support to local government, children’s trusts and other stakeholders, working in partnership to help increase the effectiveness of their services.

Further information

C4EO Knowledge Review 2: Improving children’s attainment through a better quality of family-based support for early learning

National Academy for Parenting Practitioners


Author Desforges C, with Abouchaar A

Title The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievements and adjustment: a literature review

Publisher Department for Education and Skills Research Report 433, DfES.

Abstract A review of English language literature established research findings on the relationship between parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment in schools


Author Harvard Family Research Project

Title Family involvement in early childhood education. Evidence that family involvement promotes school success

Reference Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project

Abstract The evidence is clear: family involvement helps children’s readiness to enter school, promotes their school success, and prepares youth for college. This research brief presents findings from HFRP’s ongoing, in-depth review of research and evaluated programmes that link family involvement in children’s education to student outcomes.



Title Barriers to inclusion and successful engagement of parents in mainstream services.

Publisher York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2007, 30p, bibliog

Abstract Examines the barriers to parents’ engagement with support services, and how services – including health, education, social services, youth justice and leisure – have successfully overcome them.


Author Melhuish E, Quinn L, Hanna K, et al

Title The effective pre-school provision in Northern Ireland [EPPNI] Project

Reference Summary report 1998-2004 (research report No. 41), Bangor: DENI

Abstract The EPPNI team collected a wide range of information on over 800 children who were studied longitudinally until the end of key stage 1. Data were collected on children’s developmental profiles, background characteristics related to their parents, the child’s home learning environment, and the pre-school settings children attended.


Author Moran P, Ghate D

Title What works in parenting support? A review of the international evidence

Publisher Department for Children, Schools and Families Research Report 574, DfES

Abstract This is a review of current literature providing an evaluation of parental support programmes, with a focus on looking for best practice. The findings look at intervention times and types of intervention, service and delivery methods, as well as the difference between group and individual work.


Author Duch, H

Title Redefining parent involvement in Head Start: a two-generation approach.

Publisher Early Child Development and Care, Volume 175, Number 1, January 2005, pp23-35(13)

Abstract The present review of the literature aims to look at two-generation programmes and their effects on children and parents as a potential strategy to improve parent involvement in Head Start while responding to the self-sufficiency needs of families. This paper reviews several programme evaluations: Comprehensive Child Development Program, Even Start Family Literacy Program, Head Start Family Service Centres, New Chance and New Hope.


Author Page, J., Whitting, G. and McLean, C.

Title Engaging effectively with black and minority ethnic parents in children’s and parental services

Publisher Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) research report 013, London: DfES.

Abstract This research explores how children’s and parental services can engage effectively with black and minority ethnic (BME) parents. There were two key phases in this research – a literature review and qualitative fieldwork undertaken in ten settings of externally evaluated good practice which were used as case studies.


Author Penn H, Barreau S, Butterworth L, Lloyd E, Moyles J, Potter S, Sayeed R

Title What is the impact of out-of-home integrated care and education settings on children aged 0-6 and their parents?

Reference Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

Abstract The integration of educational curricula with care is currently a topical issue in the field of early childhood provision, but there is considerable confusion about how and why integration should be pursued, and what works in what contexts. The review aims to address a topical policy issue in the UK, which is the research evidence on the impact on children and their parents of the integration of care and education in the early years.


Author Quinton D

Title Supporting Parents Messages from Research

Publisher  Jessica Kingsley

Abstract Supporting Parents brings together authoritative research on supporting parents and carers. Underpinning the government’s developing policy for children’s services, it is for practitioners, policy makers and academics working in child care.


Author Scottish Government

Title Evidence briefing – early years and early intervention

Reference Edinburgh: Scottish Government

Abstract This paper introduces the four thematic briefing papers provided for the Early Years Framework task groups. This introduction paper does not attempt to draw together the findings across the thematic papers rather it is intended to provide some considerations to bear in mind when interpreting the evidence.


Author Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B.

Title Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Final Report – A Longitudinal Study Funded by the DfES 1997-2004

Reference  DfES

Abstract The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) project investigated the effects of pre-school education and care on children’s development for children aged 3-7 years old. The EPPE team collected a wide range of information on 3,000 children who were recruited at age 3+ and studied longitudinally until the end of Key Stage 1. This research report summarises the empirical work published in eleven Technical Papers.

This article is published in the 5 March edition of Community Care under the headline “Family-based support for early learning”

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