By Sophie Hurewitz, Child Policy Research certificate student ’22
Dr. Christine McWayne, professor at Tufts University, was the featured speaker for the Early Childhood Initiative Seminar on April 20, 2021. McWayne, an applied developmental scientist and community-based early childhood educational researcher, focuses on fostering a better understanding of the early social and learning successes of young children growing up in urban poverty. She believes that the use of culturally grounded information can help bridge the divides that often exist between primary helpers, such as parents and teachers, in young children’s lives.
McWayne began her lecture, “Bridging the Divides and Making Visible the Invisible: Connecting Parents and Teachers through Cultural Inclusion,” by discussing how research framed around the “achievement gap” implicitly describes individual children, their families, and their teachers as being the source of the problem. She argued for a focus on inclusion, belonging, and justice. Through this lens, all children are respected as individuals with unique strengths, paradigms for intervention are re-examined, collaborations have positive goals, and there is a sense of agency in creating positive change, McWayne explained.
She stated how the dominant narratives in the field link achievement and opportunity to race and ethnicity, income, and home language. This research and increasing public awareness has led to “a flood of mandates aimed at closing these gaps.” In response to these mandates, many researchers focus on identifying the protective factors against early risks, such as family engagement and strong family-school connections. “There’s a growing sense of urgency around getting families engaged in children’s early education as early as possible,” she said.
What if we flip the script?
McWayne urged viewers to “start with a different set of assumptions.” The Readiness through Integrative Science and Engineering (RISE) project aims to do just that. RISE aims to strengthen connections between home and school settings in order to co-create culturally inclusive preschool classrooms that foster positive approaches to learning through hands-on exploration. The focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in children’s everyday lives, support for teacher practice, and the co-constructed preschool curriculum all aim to transform the traditional weakness-based narrative.
McWayne provided viewers with some background on the RISE project, which includes four main values: 1) to engage multiple perspectives and experiential knowledge, 2) to build shared understandings through shared learning experiences, 3) to co-construct meaningful STEM inquiry-based learning experiences for all children, and 4) to embrace a “living” curriculum.
She highlighted the reality that, for many low-income minority families, socio-cultural and language differences between families and teachers create very significant gaps between the home and school settings. These gaps result in underrepresented families labeled as lacking knowledge, skills, social connections, and even values regarding the importance of early childhood education.
“In reality, often educators don’t have access to the potentially powerful information about home-based practices and routines,” she said. It is for this reason that RISE frames family-school connections as “emphasizing information flowing from the home to the school.” Not only will this mindset transform how teachers and school administrators think of families, but it is also instrumental in creating a welcoming, inclusive school environment.
Creating a truly inclusive school environment requires more nuanced ways of looking at family engagement. RISE encourages programs to validate both visible and invisible forms of family engagement by equally valuing school-based, home-based, and community-based engagement opportunities. Additionally, RISE encourages programs to incorporate indirect ways to engage families’ lived experiences. These two goals requires three fundamental themes, according to McWayne: thinking of parents as equal partners, realizing that learning builds on familiar and existing experiential knowledge, and recognizing that culture is embedded in all that we do.
In order to prioritize this innovative home-to-school approach for teaching and learning, teachers were instructed on how to incorporate families’ everyday knowledge that can be used to make curricula more meaningful for their children. For example, RISE researchers met with parents to determine everyday routes that children took by bus, train, or by foot. Researchers then took photographs of opportunities for STEM learning that were along the paths provided by the parents. Upon sharing this information, teachers were excited to incorporate STEM learning in the children’s local surroundings via neighborhood walks, which were already part of the Head Start program. Additionally, the children began incorporating these neighborhood features in their block and ramp play. McWayne reported how children at one program located in a downtown area began to build tall structures that resembled the buildings in their community. Children at another Head Start program began building longer structures such as the bridges and tunnels that they encountered in their daily lives. Children in these programs were utilizing STEM concepts about stability and design, “using information from their immediate environment” that “might never have come to light without that joint activity with parents.”
Through RISE-sponsored joint activities, “teachers and parents began to see each other as human beings, not as defined solely by their role in the Head Start program.” Teachers began to engage with the perspectives of the parents and encouraged parents to feel empowered as collaborators with regard to their child’s education.
The many successes of RISE implementation extend to the parents’ own perceptions of the family engagement initiatives. RISE parents reported perceiving significantly fewer cultural and relational barriers, reported encountering fewer program barriers, and reported similar resource barriers compared to non-RISE parents. McWayne highlighted for viewers how the measure of resource barriers was to be expected, given that all parents and children were eligible for the federal Head Start program.
The RISE program proved to be a brilliant example of the benefits of parent-teacher collaboration , enabling teachers “to capture the experiences of more children in their classroom[s],” leading to a more inclusive learning experience, according to McWayne.
McWayne concluded by reminding viewers of the outdated, normative “idea that parents and teachers operate in a hierarchy.” “The beauty of the home-to-school approach,” she added, “is that the teacher is in a learning position to learn about children’s everyday lives.”
Sophie Hurewitz is a rising senior at Duke majoring in neuroscience with a minor in global health and a certificate in Child Policy Research.