The first few years of a child’s life are some of the most important for shaping their outcomes in both the shorter term and later in life.
How and where children spend these formative years is an extremely significant predictor of their academic outcomes and life chances – it’s even more influential than their family background.
Making sure that all young children grow up in a positive home environment, one that supports their early development, is important for education equality.
All parents and carers want the best for their children, but supporting early learning at home isn’t easy – especially with the competing priorities that adult life can present.
For some time now, the EEF has been looking into structured programmes that give guidance to parents and carers about how to take advantage of learning opportunities at home.
ParentChild+ is one example. Delivered in England by the charity Family Lives, this approach aims to improve young children’s early literacy skills through intensive home visits carried out by trained home visitors.
However, despite the comprehensive support woven into its design, our recent trial of ParentChild+ shows us just how difficult it is to improve outcomes by aiming to influence the home learning environment.
Our independent evaluation found that children in families who were offered the intervention made less progress in their vocabulary than children in families in the control group.
Those who completed the programme were provided with over forty toys or books and had approaches to engaging their children in literacy activities modelled to them twice a week for fifteen months, yet this wasn’t sufficient to positively impact children’s vocabulary. In fact, the more visits the families received, the less likely the programme was to improve outcomes.
It is important to note that our trial of the ParentChild+ programme was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, so a third of the visits had to be conducted online rather than in person. This may have influenced the findings, but families still received at least some additional face-to-face support, so the negative impact is unexpected.
It is unclear from the evaluation exactly why we got these findings. However, if you interpret that the programme was successful in influencing parents’ behaviour, it must be that the programme didn’t do so in the way it intended to.
A possibility could be that, in their enthusiasm for the programme, parents and carers were, over time, less proactive about instigating conversations and learning opportunities outside of the ParentChild+ sessions, and overall, the control families implemented more.
Whatever the root of the issue, the findings from this trial are definitely not a reason to give up on programmes that look to improve the home learning environment.
In order to make sure we’re doing everything we can to understand how home learning environment programmes work, we’re refining our approach.
In future trials of HLE programmes we will:
1. Consider measuring their impact on different subsets of skills (e.g. different aspects of language)
This trial looked at the impact of ParentChild+ on children’s understanding of vocabulary, as positive findings had been found around this in previous trials of the programme in the US. However, in future – where appropriate – we will consider whether we ought to broaden the scope of our measurement to look for impacts on other areas of young children’s language and literacy, for example use of vocabulary and language.
2. Capture quality of sessions and parent’s delivery
Future trials will assess the quality of delivery by home visitors, as well as recording the quantity of delivery. The trial completed observations of parent-child interactions in both the treatment and control group, but found limited differences between the groups. Our trials need to go further to understand whether and how the programme changes parent’s behaviour. This will help us to ascertain whether the effect a programme is attributable to faulty design, or flawed delivery.
3. Understand the saturation point
Sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing. We need to learn more about what the “sweet spot” looks like, where the duration and intensity of sessions is just right and in turn, maximises the chance of the programme achieving the desired outcome.
With more research in this area, we can help them to do so, capitalising on the strong evidence base around the influence of the home learning environment and unlocking how we can implement approaches that have the potential to benefit young children.