Digital technologies and the empowerment of parents

Presentation by our Director, Eszter Salamon at tha G-STIC 2020 Conference. G-STIC stays for Global Sustainable Technology & Innovation Community that organises high-level global conferences every year supporting the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. We were invited to contribute about our work and view on the role of parents with special focus on early years, but also lifelong learning and the necessary reforming of school systems.

Abstract

Early childhood is not just the most crucial period in the life of children, but also very important in the lives of their parents. With the right support for educating children, the family can create a solid base for success in life. In the spirit of global Early Childhood Development policies and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, governments are to offer such support in forms and means that are most suitable for families.

During the first two years in the life of any child, this support should encourage education in the family and close community. Digital technologies are already there to provide empowerment and peer support for parents with very young children. Later on, the focus should also be put on formal education provisions. From a parental engagement perspective, this is a crucial time for equity and inclusion as vulnerable parents can be empowered to become equal partners of education professionals.

This kind of arrangement can have a major impact on children’s later success in formal education. We should therefore carefully look at the large evidence base as well as the many examples of existing and possible technology solutions to support this crucial parenting period as a means of inclusion for all.

Presentation

The axiom providing the basis for our work and my presentation is that parents are the primary educators of their children. This does not only mean that they are the first educators – this is not questioned by anybody -, but also the most impacting ones[i]. Solid research evidence shows that parents have the largest impact on the attitudes of children towards learning until about age 10-12. This role is then taken over by the peer group, but teachers are never in this position (with a few individual exceptions). It has also proven to have the largest impact on learning outcomes, and it does not depend on the education level of parents. At the same time, many school systems still consider parents as a nuance – it was part of my own teacher education, too. The current situation may offer a huge leverage for professionals accepting the role of parents in the education of their children[ii]. Believe me, it was there, just parents were not teaching equations and history dates, but many other things.

In early childhood, parents’ educational role is the most important[iii]. And the first step in supporting parents as educators is to celebrate the great job they have done in teaching their children – first to walk and talk. Vulnerable parents often only need this much to boost their confidence. Even in the countries that take the best interest of young children into account the least (like Belgium or the Netherlands, I am sorry to say), formal education provisions only take some time of the life of children, and it is a smaller period of time per week than the time spent with parents and family. In case of taking this best interest of the child into account, policies should encourage breast feeding for at least a year[iv] by allowing mothers to stay at home with the baby (sorry, fathers, you cannot take this on), and beyond that making it possible for parents to still be with their child at home until the end of the separation anxiety period, typically happening between months 15 and 24. Formal education should be encouraged after this age, and for younger children it should be openly discouraged[v] – without making parents who cannot find other solutions feeling guilty.

Governments seem to understand the importance of a good start, but the situation is similar to that of schools: what is easy to do is not the best for children. Parents organisations and parenting experts have celebrated the Early Childhood Development approach of UNESCO and UNICEF, putting the emphasis on supporting the family around the child in their education efforts in these very early years. Good quality, accessible and affordable formal childcare and early education is, nevertheless, crucial from the age of 2. For this reason, we consider the ECEC approach of the EU with a push for institutionalisation as early as 3 month an approach that is not in line with the core of the UNCRC: the best interest of the child.

I would like to highlight a digital tool that was developed with EU financial support, but builds on the wish of parents to organise their own childcare by a few parents sharing care obligations while ensuring they have time to work and run chores where children are not welcome. The Families Share app has been a major success. When schools and child care was closed, first in Italy, it was taken on board by employers as a welfare tool, helping parents to juggle their work and family with the help of other parents.

I will come back to digital technology, parents and early childhood, but before that let me reflect on the two topics already discussed in deep dive sessions of the G-STIC Conference: curricula and lifelong learning.

We have discussed that SDG4-coherent curricula need to focus on real life needs of the labour market, educate active citizens and provide for well-being. For the first, labour market needs, school systems need to engage parents in redesigning curricula. They bring real life into school, they are the future employers of today’s school children. It, of course, needs facilitation so that people do not

focus on the short-term needs of their own children, but this is doable. It is a great example of citizenship education for parents, for teachers and for children.

Lifelong learning and parental engagement are connected in three different ways. First and foremost, becoming a parent is part of the lifelong learning journey of all people, but it needs to be supported much better and a more systemic way than it is now. At the same time, parents who are conscious lifelong learners also establish a role model for their children to become ones themselves. If learning is celebrated, rewarded and enjoyed, it stays with us for life, as it has been pointed out as necessary in an earlier session. Last but not least, we also need to focus on the adult learning needs of people. For many low-skilled adults the only point of connection to formalised education is that of the school of their children, often having trust in professional educators there. So, Parent International promotes an approach that ensures schools’ participation in the lifelong learning of parents, by schools becoming community learning centres offering services to the whole local community. There are some great examples of it from Latvia[vi] to Hungary[vii] to the Netherlands[viii].

Parents also need professional support in becoming better educators of their children in early years. Some parents need it more than others, but nowadays even the best empowered parents are lost in the labyrinth of demands and approaches they meet on the internet and sometimes in offline communities. Thus, one of the key elements of supporting young parents is having knowledgeable professionals the parents trust and will listen to. Unfortunately, early education is not part of the training of these professionals – paediatricians, district nurses, social workers, dulas, midwives, or even the teachers of older children in the family. There are some great initiatives, like the programme training paediatricians in playful learning in Mexico[ix], or training toy librarians for disadvantaged Roma communities in Europe[x], but there is a lot more to do here.

Parents often feel the least empowered when it comes to digital technology. WHO recommendations on sedentary screen time[xi] have been translated to screen time in general by popular media. Thus, parents are sometimes made to feel guilty for calling the grandparents on Skype. At the same time, popular expectations on child behaviour has changed for the worse. When my own son was small, people smiled when he sang on public transport or was playing somewhat loudly while I was waiting in the bank. Nowadays, the looks parents get could kill, so it is understandable that they try to make children silent by showing them YouTube videos on their smart phones.

At the same time, most communication on digital technology and children has been a risk-oriented one rather that having an empowerment approach. Street traffic is dangerous, but we still don’t lock our children up, but rather teach them to cross the street safely. We need to do the same with digital technology as it is here to stay. The past few months have made event the most Luddite parents use technology, but professional and experienced peer support is ever so important.

Parents International and its experts have participated in some projects that have this approach. For example, in the DigiLitEY project[xii], focusing on digital practices of 0-8-year-olds, we have developed a guide for parents[xiii] to feel safe when teaching their children to cross the digital main road. We work with the Council of Europe[xiv] and are currently building a coalition to support parents as digital citizenship educators: to teach their children how to be online, but also to ensure their rights and well-being online. We are also trying to stir the conversation in the Safer Internet community from dangers to risk mitigation. We need to change the approach as many popular tools, such as parental control programmes, violate the rights of children. The key is to find a balance: we must not violate other child rights, such as the right to peaceful assembly or freedom of expression in the name of protecting the right to safety. The most important message we need to convey here is that the most effective parenting methods that are also in line with child rights are offline ones. If you build a warm, trustful family environment, your child will tell you if they have a bad experience or will not be afraid to ask questions. If you actively listen to your child, you will know if something is wrong, if you boost their self-esteem and resilience, they are much safer online and offline.

It seems to be less of a problem when you have young children, but while they usually are very apt to use technology, it is early childhood when you as a parent need to build the strong basis for their digital future. Today, we are in a better position than we were 5-10 years ago. Today’s young parents use digital technology confidently and mostly safely, a recent, not yet published Europe-wide research shows[xv]. Interestingly enough, these young, digitally literate parents are the ones indicating they know very little about Artificial Intelligence. To me, it really shows their high competence level: we are yet to really understand what AI means in our lives.

Digital technology has helped parents in the recent past and present. It is a tool for inclusion, especially in the case of disabled parents, parents who do not speak the language of instruction, and parents whose work schedule prevents them from coming into school. There are areas of digital technology use that parents and professional educators need to work out together. The most important of these is probably home-school communication. How to find the right balance between digital and in-person communication? How to avoid a communication overload by expecting 24/7 online presence of both parents and teachers? How to allow space for child-parent communication before the teacher communicates with the parent on grades, absence, the child having done something wrong. Education professionals need to be trained for establishing relationships in which parents are scaffolders of learning, and also gate-keepers – not in the sense of “Thou shall not pass’, but keeping the gate open for everything that serves the best interest of their children[xvi].

Parents International has conducted a major research among parents in the spring, and subsequently created a call for action on renewing education – as parents see it. It is called the New Education Deal, and I am proud to report that governments, schools and professionals have endorsed it and pledged to include parents’ wishes into renewed education systems. What are these elements?

  • To focus on the social learning happening at school rather than only subject learning,
  • To have a clear division of work between school and home – for equity school needs to rely on parents with schoolwork less,
  • To define what is meant by basic competences, skills and knowledge to stop education inflation and the global learning crisis,
  • To find the rightful place of arts and sports in the curricula as main drivers of well-being, and to rethink school schedules,
  • To abolish or minimize the role of standardised tests to focus on real learning rather than learning for the test,
  • To increase schools’ and teachers’ understanding of family situations, and not surprisingly
  • To keep using digital tools as they are to cater for the individual learning needs of children.

The Chair of Parents International’s Scientific Advisory board, Janet Goodall EdD has reimagined home-school relationships in 2017[xvii], and established a framework we are promoting at all levels of education from early childhood to adulthood. It is based on the following principles:

  1. School staff and parents participate in supporting the learning of the child
  2. School staff and parents value the knowledge that each brings to the partnership.
  3. School staff and parents engage in dialogue around and with the learning of the child
  4. School staff and parents act in partnership to support the learning of the child and each other
  5. School staff and parents respect the legitimate authority of each other’s roles and contributions to supporting learning

I would like to conclude by linking my presentation to the next education deep dive session on future-proof education systems. My message is that is can only be done if parents are part of designing and implementing them. Parental engagement in education in general and education reform must be based on 4 core beliefs that are evidence-based:

  1. All families have dreams for their children and want the best for them
  2. All families have the capacity for supporting their children’s learning
  3. Parents and school staff should be equal partners
  4. The responsibility for building and sustaining partnerships between school, home and the community rests primarily with school staff and especially the school leaders (Karen L. Mapp, 2007[xviii])

 

[i] eg. Desforges, C. and A. Abouchaar (2003). The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment: A Literature Review, Department of Education and Skills.

[ii] Brossard, Mathieu; Cardoso, Manuel; Kamei, Akito; Mishra, Sakshi; Mizunoya, Suguru; Reuge, Nicolas (2020). Parental Engagement in Children’s Learning: Insights for remote learning response during COVID-19 , Innocenti Research Briefs no. 2020-09, UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence

[iii] https://www.unicef.org/earlychildhood/index_69849.html

[iv] https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/statements/2011/breastfeeding_20110115/en/

[v] Belsky, J. (1986). Infant day care: A cause for concern? Zero to Three, 7(1), 1–7.

[vi] Tuna, A. (2015). Development of the school as multifunctional community resourse in Latvia: opportunities and challenges, SOCIETY. INTEGRATION. EDUCATION. DOI: 10.17770/sie2014vol1.759

[vii] https://dea.lib.unideb.hu/dea/bitstream/handle/2437/80024/tezis_magyar.pdf?sequence=7&isAllowed=y – resource in Hungarian

[viii] https://wij-leren.nl/sterrenschool.php

[ix] https://www.csmonitor.com/EqualEd/2019/0108/Mexico-tells-early-learners-You-need-to-play-more

[x] http://www.old.romaeducationfund.org/toy-library-network

[xi] https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/325147/WHO-NMH-PND-2019.4-eng.pdf

[xii] http://digilitey.eu/

[xiii] http://digilitey.eu/smartparenting/

[xiv] https://edoc.coe.int/en/human-rights-democratic-citizenship-and-interculturalism/7865-digital-citizenship-and-your-child-what-every-parent-needs-to-know-and-do.html

[xv] Link tot he survey, results will be published soon https://www.coe.int/en/web/education/-/digital-citizenship-education-survey

[xvi] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343719761_PARENTS_PRIMARY_EDUCATORS_CAREGIVERS_GATEKEEPERS_SCAFFOLDERS

[xvii] Goodall J. (2017) Learning-centred parental engagement: Freire reimagined, Educational Review

[xviii] Henderson, A. & Mapp, K. (2007). Beyond the Bake Sale – The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships. New York, The New Press


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