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Preparing Tomorrow's Parents

Preparing Tomorrow's Parents improves childhood outcomes through teaching parenting knowledge to high school students in U.S. public schools

Photo of Meredith null
22 16

Written by

Name or Organization

Dr. Meredith Rowe, Harvard University Graduate School of Education Kathy Kwasnik, United Way of Northern NJ Bruce Meyer, Early Education Research Foundation


United States (MA; NJ; FL and national)

What is your stage of development?

  • Early Stage Innovator, with at least one-year experience in ECD


  • University

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Describe your submission in one clear sentence

Preparing Tomorrow's Parents improves childhood outcomes through teaching parenting knowledge to high school students in U.S. public schools

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Parenting knowledge is essential for promoting optimal development in children, however parenting knowledge is not typically available in any formal way to US citizens. The solution is using secondary schools to prepare adolescents for their potential future role as parents. This is a game-changer because it is effective, scalable, durable, replicable and will potentially improve the lives of millions of children. Thus, we aim to improve childhood outcomes by better preparing tomorrow's parents!

Select an Innovation Target

  • Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

Only 32 states currently have curriculum standards or programs generally related to parenting or child development at the secondary level. These programs typically fall within courses on health, life skills, consumer sciences, or "family life education." Many of the programs or standards, however, focus on limited or loosely related topics such as sexual health, reducing teen pregnancy or laying a foundation for careers in early education rather providing a comprehensive course to prepare students for their potential future parenting roles. For example, Colorado's Academic Standards for High School offer only two concepts or skills related even very generally to child development: Standard 2.4, "Use a decision-making process to make healthy decisions about relationships and sexual health" and Standard 2.5, "Support others in making positive and healthful choices about sexual activity" (Colorado Department of Education, 2009). On the other hand, Massachusetts' Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework provides that students will learn skills to "be an effective parent, and nurture the development of children." Notwithstanding the mixed nature of state high school parenting standards, based on our initial research, we have reason to believe that few states actually have effective plans or activities in place to reach the standards. Our objective is to develop a scalable, effective program to educate high school students about parenting and child development.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

We're trying to solve the following problems: insufficient public understanding of the importance of early learning (to improve support for all early learning efforts), unmet parents' needs for formal knowledge of best parenting practices and the unfair and unequal income related achievement gaps in children's kindergarten readiness skills.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

The early childhood years are especially important for young children's brain development. Recent studies indicate that the income-based achievement gaps in cognitive skills such as math and reading are fully substantiated at the time children enter kindergarten (Reardon, 2013; von Hippel & Hamrock, 2016). Moreover, educational experiences including social and emotional learning in the early years have been found to be important for later success in school (Hartman, Winsler and Manfra, 2017) and beyond (Janta, van Belle and Steward, 2016) further emphasizing the early years for building a foundation for future learning and life. Young children in the early years are in the following care arrangements: parents 84%, centers 8%, relatives & others 9% (Corcoran and Steinley, 2017) indicating there is significant opportunity for parental contributions to children's learning in these years. This is not a new idea, as consistent robust associations have been found between parents' practices with children and children's development and school readiness skills (e.g., Koblinsky, Kuvalanka, and Randolph, 2006; Bater and Jordan, 2017; Rich, Spielberger and D'Angelo, 2012, Bettencourt, 2016; Quirk, Grimm, Furlong, Nylund-Gibson and Swami, 2016; Jahromi, Guimond, Umana-Taylor, Updegraff and Toomey, 2014; Quirk, Dowdy, Goldstein, and Carnazzo, 2017; Dishion et al., 2008; Rich, Spielberger and D'Angelo, 2012). Further, parents who know more about parenting and child development and who have a stronger belief or mindset they can make a difference in their child's development, are more apt to interact with their children in ways promoting learning than parents with less parenting knowledge (Rowe, 2008; Rowe, Denmark, Jones Harden, and Stapleton 2016). Therefore, parenting knowledge is essential for promoting optimal development in children. Unfortunately, however, parenting knowledge is not typically available in any formal way to US citizens, and evidence suggests that most adults do not have general knowledge of child development. For example, a recent study attempted to understand what a national sample of American adults knows about child development, revealing that more than half of the sample of US voters reported that they know little or nothing about child development, while at the same time nine out ten believe that knowledge of the topic is important (Zero to Three & Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2017). There are numerous intervention programs targeting parenting knowledge and practices in low-income families and they have been successful (Jones-Harden, Chazan-Cohen, Raikes and Vogel, 2012). However, such intervention programs are often done on a case by case basis or for small groups, have limited scope, can be costly, and are available for only a small proportion of families (St. Pierre, Layzer, and Barnes, 1995). Another approach, one that is more preventative in nature, and potentially more cost effective and far-reaching is to provide parenting knowledge to individuals before they become parents while they're still in school. Schools are already the main apparatus for preparing students for civic life, such as through courses in social studies and government, and as a key site of socialization. In addition, schools prepare youth on public health issues including substance abuse, drunk driving, and smoking behaviors and promote sexual and reproductive health, nutrition, and personal hygiene. Our objectives are to: 1) determine what current high school students in America know about parenting and child development through our current work developing, refining, and administering an Adolescent Parenting Knowledge and Attitudes Survey (APKAS) to a national sample of high school students in the U.S.; 2) to survey all of the state standards on parenting/child development to understand the current guidelines in the U.S. and how it varies by state; 3) to use the information we gain from the results of the questionnaire to inform the development of a scalable program to provide adolescents with the knowledge they need to promote early learning and healthy development in children if and when they become parents; 4) to pilot test the program to determine if students learn the content, and to learn from teachers and students to improve any aspects of the program; and 5) to scale up the program, implement widely and work with policy makers and states to strengthen the standards, disseminate knowledge of parenting and child development, and improve early childhood outcomes.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

1. The beauty is that parents, children and our society all benefit. Parents benefit by receiving the help they need to nurture their children in perhaps the most important job of their lives. Children benefit from that nurturing as knowledgeable parents provide comforting and consistent guidance and experiences that promote learning. Finally, society benefits as its new members join as empathetic individuals who understand how to support the youngest generation. But parents aren't born knowing everything about managing emotions or promoting learning in children, nor are they born knowing about growth mindset. That is why this project is so important. The objective is to teach parenting knowledge and child development practices proactively while future parents are still in school for their benefit, the benefit of their future children and to make our society a better place to live. 2. Dr. Rowe implements small scale parenting interventions with current parents of young children, and is a former preschool teacher. Kathy Kwasnik implements United Way's programs ALICE and Success by 6 which involve working with pregnant women and new mothers from low-income families.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Our idea will positively impact society by preparing tomorrow's parents to promote their children's development. This could result in reduced early achievement gaps and less funds spent on intensive parenting programs. One mechanism through which we see this substantiating is through promoting a growth mindset. Research finds that parents who see intelligence as more malleable than fixed (i.e., those who have a growth mindset) praise efforts more than ability in their 1- to 3-year olds, which predicts the children's likelihood of having growth mindsets later and a belief that success comes with hard work (Gunderson et al., 2015). Conversely, the more parents believe abilities are fixed, the less they engage in math and literacy activities with their young children (Meunks et al.,2016). Thus, helping tomorrow's parents understand that what they do will influence their children's development is a transformative approach. Indeed, in intervention studies that promote growth mindsets in parents, researchers see positive changes in parent- child interactions that promote learning. We expect an additional beneficial impact by improving how parents promote children's early cognitive and social emotional skills. We know from current research that much of what children learn they learn through their social interactions with others, particularly caregivers. Finally, we expect our idea will promote parents' self-efficacy by preparing them for the parenting role.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

There is evidence of an achievement gap, perceptible as early as at three years of age, between children from low-income backgrounds and their more affluent counterparts (Heckman & Carneiro, 2003; Fryer & Levitt, 2006; Reardon, 2013; von Hippel & Hamrock, 2016). Parent attitudes and behaviors have been linked to this achievement gap, and therefore many efforts have been put into place to educate parents about how they can provide enriching early experiences for their young children (Grindal et al., 2016). Unfortunately, these programs are both costly and may only reach a fraction of those parents who might benefit (Sanders, 2008; St. Pierre, Lazer, & Barnes, 1995). Instead, many parents rely on an ad-hoc combination of books, doctors (pediatricians in particular), peers, family, and their own childhood experiences to inform their parenting practices and their knowledge of child development (Holden, 2010). A promising alternative to these limited or informal parenting education programs is to teach parenting skills and knowledge of child development to adolescents in high schools. We believe this program will have a large-scale impact on tomorrow’s parents and their children’s futures, particularly those most vulnerable and those most in need of parenting information and support. It is in the best interest of our society, as a whole, to have well-equipped parents raising America’s children.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (1500 characters)

Our concept is innovative because it is preventative, it capitalizes on an already existing system in place to convey knowledge (Public Schools), it is scalable, it is cost effective, and it has the potential to reach more parents and children than other approaches.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

In our case the "end-users" are the millions of children in the United States that start school significantly behind their peers in academic and social-emotional skills. We aim to reach these end-users indirectly by taking a preventative approach to provide their parents (before they are parents) with the information they need to be better-prepared once they become parents. As described, improved parenting knowledge and practices improves children's kindergarten readiness. Therefore, if parenting knowledge can be conveyed cost effectively on a large scale it can change the outcomes for a large number of children each year. We already have a system to cost effectively teach on a large scale: it is our public school system. Thus, if we can disseminate parenting knowledge and knowledge of child development through our public school systems, it will improve outcomes for literally millions of disadvantaged children. It is worth mentioning that the adolescents we target through our invention, the future parents per-se, are also "end-users" in that when they do become parents and have this prior knowledge base to draw upon, they may be better prepared for the challenges of parenting and better able to promote their children's development.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

The project consists of three phases, we are currently near the end of Phase 1: Phase 1: Current research. First, to gain an understanding of adolescents parenting attitudes and knowledge of child development, we developed and are currently validating, refining and administering an Adolescent Parenting Knowledge and Attitudes Survey (APKAS) to over 1000 high school students across the United States. Second, we are surveying the standards for all of the states to determine which states have current standards related to this topic, and what those standards are. We are triangulating the findings from the survey with the state standards, and will use all of the gathered information in conjunction with the latest research on parenting to inform the decisions about the information to include in the program for secondary students. The phase is currently in progress (since July 2017) and expected to end by July 2018. Phase 2, Pilot Test - The pilot test is essential for confirming Phase 1 research results of the efficacy of teaching parenting in high schools and outcomes including students' experiences and the knowledge they gain. The study team will use existing research, results from the APKAS questionnaire, interviews with key individuals involved in similar programs, and feedback from school leaders from potential pilot sites, to develop a course on Parenting Knowledge for Adolescents (PKA). The PKA course will be offered in two pilot schools as an elective open to high school juniors and seniors and will cover the fundamentals of child development and best practices in parenting. Participating students will complete baseline and endline questionnaires (including APKAS) to assess their learning and to evaluate the program. The results will be used to advance our understanding of the importance of parents' knowledge and practices and the key role they play in their children's development. Finally, Pilot Test results will serve as a foundation for future efforts helping parents prepare their children for school and for life, for example by publishing research based best practices for them to educate and care for their children. Phase3, Implementation - Assuming the research and pilot test confirm, we anticipate a follow-on effort to scale up the efforts, working with states, local officials, federal organizations and others to strengthen federal and state standards and broadly implement teaching parenting and child development in secondary schools. We also anticipate providing the knowledge in the form of "refresher units" online to those who have taken the course and want to share or revisit the material.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (1500 characters)

Our business model -- a course for high school students -- has a high possibility of succeeding in the market, especially in the 32 states that currently have standards related to teaching child development. We are motivated to make the content easy to administer and appealing. It may be more challenging to implement in the states that do not see this as a priority and that may have to come later, after more long-term success is documented elsewhere. However, in the states where we do implement we will target schools in lower-income districts.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (1500 characters)

The questionnaire we designed (APKAS) is providing us with information about American Adolescent's parenting attitudes and knowledge of child development (Phase 1). These survey results are contributing to our initial curricula development for the program. The pilot test (Phase 2) will determine the efficacy of the program as well as help us learn from teachers, students and districts about how to improve the content, delivery and effectiveness of the approach. Once we have it right we will involve policy makers and educational administrators to help us scale and disseminate.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

This project is a joint effort of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, United Way of Northern New Jersey, and Early Education Research Foundation. Prof. Meredith Rowe is Associate Professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. She leads a research program on understanding the role of parents in children's early development, and conducts intervention studies with low-income families. Her work is published widely in scientific journals, and quoted in popular media such as The New York Times, Reuters and ABC News. Dr. Rowe will oversee all aspects of the projects. Doctoral student, Eleanor (Nell) O'Donnell Weber is also an expert on parenting. With Dr. Rowe's supervision, she developed the APKAS and will soon be analyzing the findings and helping out with the next phases of the project. Kathy Kwasnik of United Way of Northern NJ is a Childcare Exchange Master Leader, a certified social worker, and Director of United Way's Success By 6 program. Success By 6 works to ensure that all children from birth through age six, especially those from low-income families, have access to affordable, high-quality early education and learning experiences. Substantial evidence points to the importance of these experiences in setting the groundwork for children's success, both in school and life. We believe improved parenting knowledge can be a huge part of improving success rates for young children and are committed to this concept. United Way of Northern New Jersey believes that improving life for all starts with improving life for ALICE An acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, ALICE represents the growing number of individuals and families who are working, but are unable to afford the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, health care, and transportation. Early Education Research Foundation is an IRS approved public charity dedicated to supporting research and leveraging research in the real world to improve children's kindergarten readiness and funded the current first phase of this work. We found each other because of our common desire to improve early childhood development. We were all working in this space separately and joined forces to try and make more progress together.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (500 characters)

We have been working together as a team on phase 1 of the project. For phase 2 we plan to engage with state DOEs, districts, schools, and teachers. We have some connections in mind, but are also open to working with people who are drawn towards our ideas and who could be thought partners in this piloting process. For the 3rd implementation phase, partnering with state and federal education agencies and policy makers will help in this process

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

Our idea is a complex one and will require many partnerships and alliances along the way if it is to be successful. We would welcome additional collaborators, partners, mentors or others who are committed to this concept to join us as we move forward with this solution. Whether health-science teachers in secondary schools, education policy-makers, technological innovators who can help us get our message across to adolescents, or parents who wished they had this opportunity themselves, we can learn from these expert perspectives. Efforts to teach parenting have been underway for some time but they are often done on a case by case basis or for small groups, have limited scope, can be costly, and are available for only a small proportion of families. Another way to educate parents which is efficient, effective and broadly available is via our public school system. Now we have an opportunity to use that system so every prospective parent can learn best parenting practices so their children can enter kindergarten prepared to succeed in school and in life. We believe this is an important opportunity to help our educational systems become more efficient, productive and responsive to the needs of young children, their parents and our society by adopting a more effective curriculum and cost effective practices. Success in this endeavor means reduced inequities and improved outcomes for young children, help for their parents and better place for all. We welcome collaborations with folks from a variety of sectors that share this vision.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Barbara L Thornton

We need more projects like this. I believe the positive effects will go far beyond those proposed.

Photo of Meredith null

Thank you, Barbara. We appreciate your optimism and hope our effects could be even broader! By teaching all adolescents about early learning and parenting we will then be able to create a community of citizens that better understand the importance of the early childhood period and the ways in which young children's learning and development can be promoted.

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