Lynch School of Education's Professor Eric Dearing recently co-authored a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report that uses empirical studies to show that parents who are more knowledgeable about child development are more likely to act in ways that encourage their child’s healthy development.
Professor Dearing’s 400-page report, “Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8,” examines the parent-child dynamic while suggesting constructive practices to enhance the efficiency of parenting methods.
The principal argument of the report manifests itself in significant ongoing developments that have contributed to knowledge about early childhood development. To that effect, Dearing initially identifies “a rapidly growing body of science on early childhood” and “increases in funding for programs and services for families, such as early childhood education, home visiting, and income support programs” as crucial to healthy development during childhood and invaluable to the study of childhood development.
However, Dearing argues that although the primary task of a parent is to help his or her children build their knowledge and skills, the experience of parenting also bears tremendous implications for parents themselves.
“[P]arenting can enrich and give focus to parents’ lives; generate stress or calm; and create any number of emotions, including feelings of happiness, sadness, fulfillment, and anger,” Dearing comments.
The report details methods that have proven both advantageous to child development and demonstrative of productive parenting. Dearing explains that parenting practices that indicated positive child physical health and safety emphasized contingent responsiveness, or “adult behavior that occurs immediately in response to a child’s behavior and that is related to the child’s focus of attention, such as a parent smiling back at a child.”
Other practices found to be exceedingly effective included “shared book reading and talking to children; receipt of pre-natal care, vaccination, ensuring children’s adequate nutrition and physical activity, monitoring, and household/vehicle safety; and use of positive reinforcement and appropriate discipline.”
Professor Dearing, while discussing the efficiency of parental efforts to promote healthy behaviors in children, identifies certain issues with governmental programs that hinder the parenting process. “Many families who could benefit from programs that promote effective parenting neither seek out nor are referred to them,” Dearing explains. “Referral mechanisms should be improved in order to better support parents and their children.”
Dearing makes several recommendations to government agencies that would leverage current parental services to improve the overall reach of useful strategies. He calls for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, in conjunction with “community-based organizations responsible for the implementation of services that reach large numbers of families (e.g., health care, early care and education, community programs),” to form a group to identify how evidence-based strategies for supporting parents can be better implemented.
Professor Dearing’s research also identifies the inability of professionals in the parent and family sector to deliver helpful evidence-based parenting interventions. “Evidence-based parenting interventions often are not-available as a part of routine services for parents, such as treatments for mental illness and substance abuse, not specifically for parents but with the potential to benefit many parents,” Dearing asserts. “One reason for this is that providers of these services often lack knowledge and competencies in evidence-based parenting interventions.”
To improve the ineffectiveness of programs provided by professionals, Dearing recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should support research designed to operationalize the elements of parenting interventions. Additionally, he recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should work with the U.S. Department of Education to convene a group of experts in teaching and representatives of research associations to evaluate professional development for people who work with the families of young children. Federal agencies must emphasize increased parent engagement in such endeavors, Dearing implies.
“Parents’ engagement in young children’s learning is associated with improvements in children’s literacy, behavior, and socioemotional well-being,” says Dearing. “Parent engagement is a process that can be facilitated by provider skills in communication and joint-decision making with diverse families about their children’s education.”
Accordingly, Dearing also suggests that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education should convene efforts in parent engagement to produce joint decision-making models and practices for implementation in educational settings, and that a national effort be launched to address major gaps in translating the vast research on parenting methods into practice.
Above all, Professor Dearing stresses the need for a national coalition to address and promote effective, evidence-based parenting processes. “Despite increasing diversity in family structure, data are lacking on how parenting, engagement in interventions and services, and efficacy of services may vary for diverse family forms, kinship providers, stepparents, and other adults assuming parental roles,” he claims. “Filling these gaps would improve the ability of evidence-based programs and policies to support the needs of the range of families and children while addressing the needs of parents from historically marginalized and underrepresented populations.”