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30.6.2019 | Catalina González

The Role of Parents in Education Transformation: A Needs Assessment Guide

Catalina González from HundrED 2019 innovation LEMA (Literacy Education and Math Lab) discusses the crucial role of parents in education and how to facilitate equity amongst children in lower socio-economic areas.

Catalina González from HundrED 2019 innovation LEMA (Literacy Education and Math Lab) discusses the crucial role of parents in education and how Literacy4All is facilitating equity amongst children in lower socio-economic areas. Highlighting that by working together with parents, teachers, students & the greater community we can have a more profound impact.  

Parents play a critical role in providing learning opportunities at home and in linking what children learn at school with what happens in other aspects of their lives. However, socioeconomic barriers prevent parents in many communities from supporting their children’s learning.

From past experiences in literacy programs we developed in Guatemala and other Central American countries, it was observed that mothers needed to bring their children when attending the literacy program because they had no one else to help care for them.  Through working in these communities, we learned that allowing mothers to bring their children was not only a need but an opportunity, as mothers became excellent tutors of their children, sharing with them what they have learned and encouraging them to take risks and get involved in play.  Mothers in our programs used our games  not only to gain literacy skills, but also to play with their children and to help them discover and learn as well. In this process, both the mothers and children benefited, in at least two ways: developing literacy and math skills and nurturing their relationship and bond. By engaging mothers in this way, they were also empowered to support their children’s learning process confidently.

In another project, Literacy4All was invited by a municipality in Colombia to design and implement a literacy program for mothers and caregivers of children 0 to 5 who did not know how to read and write. Here we observed how the women in the program had big dreams for their children but knew that without necessary literacy skills, their capacity to positively influence and participate in their children’s education was limited. However, the program participants were residents of a neighborhood in the city where it was not safe to be out of their home after six o’clock; and where congregating in small groups, even if for educational purposes, was perceived by the community as a “dangerous” activity. Although the program was ultimately successful, this was an example of how socio-economic barriers prevent mothers from engaging more actively in education.

Increasing parent engagement at home and in school will require local ownership and customized strategies for specific contexts to remove barriers.

The Parent Engagement Working Group –

In 2018, Project Literacy, a global campaign founded and led by Pearson, established a global Community of Practice that convenes literacy practitioners from all over the world to collectively tackle barriers to closing the literacy gap. Project Literacy, with support from Results for Development (R4D), kicked off the Community of Practice through five co-designed working groups after guiding a collaborative process to define key topics and objectives. The Parent Engagement Working Group that emerged out of these conversations focuses on increasing parental involvement in children’s literacy development.

Literacy4All, along with other organizations from Ghana, Jordan, India, and the US., has been involved in this working group. The process has been a unique opportunity to discuss the issues more in-depth with colleagues, share and learn from organizations in other countries and collaborate in the creation of a tool that responds to the realities and needs of diverse communities.

The work of the group started with the premise that greater parent engagement in education is needed to tackle global challenges. However, while research supports the notion that parental engagement may positively impact student academic attainment, the extent to which parents are engaged in learning and the likelihood of that engagement being sustained over time depends on several other factors that limit and contrain parent engagement.

In many communities, parents struggle with their education and may lack the tools to engage in the process fully.

“Important social and economic factors still prevent many parents from fully participating in schooling and learning.  Today, 1 in 10 people globally are unable to read and write, and people who struggle with literacy are more likely to live in poverty, lack education, have difficulty finding a job, and miss out on opportunities to participate fully in society” (UNESCO, 2017)

The connection between parental education and the literacy of their children has been examined in numerous studies. Not only does a person who cannot read struggles to know their rights, to vote, to find work, to pay bills and to secure housing; this complex situation spirals outward, impacting future generations and society as a whole.

Literacy practitioners of the working group cited the following barriers as limitations to more productive parent engagement. This applies especially to economically under-resourced communities:

  • Low literacy skills and low levels of education
  • Lack of confidence in their ability to fulfill responsibilities related to their children’s learning
  • Unawareness or confusion about their roles and responsibilities, or conflicting information about their role in supporting their children’s learning
  • Busy and stressful lives, where other commitments interfere with their ability to actively participate at home or school (low paying jobs, double shifts, difficulty securing childcare or transportation, poverty, and hunger; among many others)
  • Poor communication or distrust between parents and teachers/administrators at school. (How teachers perceive parents and how parents see and understand teachers impacts the interaction)

As a result of these challenges, there is a need for practitioners to create and deliver programs that are engaging and relevant to the needs of parents (Baker, 2015); and progress towards increasing parent engagement at home and in school will require local ownership and customized strategies for specific contexts.

Any approach to parental engagement must recognize that there are multiple actors including parents, teachers, schools, the wider community, and peers; which interact in a child’s learning and formal education. Successful parental engagement strategies and initiatives reflect an awareness of this interdependence and the broader context in which child development occurs.

“Parents should not only be part of defining the problem, but they should also be part of developing the solution.” (Project Literacy: Parent Engagement Working Group, 2018)

As a result of these observations and analysis, the working group members created a needs assessment tool.


The Parent Engagement Needs Assessment Tool

The Parent Engagement Needs Assessment is a tool to engage parents in discovering and interpreting their own environment and needs, and later use that knowledge and information to inform parent engagement initiatives that respond to the realities of their own communities.

“The guide is intended to be used by literacy practitioners and program implementers who work with parents and caregivers, specifically those who engage low and non-literate populations; with the purpose to provide easy-to-use guidance on determining the realities, beliefs, needs, and resources of the communities we work with, to build local ownership, develop customized strategies and implement tailored parent engagement programs.” (Parent Engagement Needs Assessment Guide, 2019)

The guide has two main sections. The introduction provides a set of guiding principles on how to engage and how to support, prepare, and allow parents and caregivers to encourage their children’s literacy and education development through open participation, respect, and validation, co-creation, co-evaluation, empowerment, and ownership. The framework section provides a series of one-pagers with guiding questions to help parents assess the broader literary context, the home learning environment, and the caregiver experience. It also offers spotlight stories from Ghana, Jordan, and other countries, and suggests participatory data collection methods to guide the process.

The authors of the guide proposed seven guiding principles as a foundation for engaging, planning, implementing, and evaluating parent engagement. They include: keeping parents at the center of the process and taking a human-centered design approach; empowering parents to support literacy, even when they are not literate themselves; allowing parents and communities to own programs and determine what is included and how they run; value the communities by incorporating multiple methods for language and literacy present in their own community like oral tradition, music, folktales, etc.; building programs that parents can identify with; measuring progress in ways that are also meaningful to parents and caregivers; and finally, consulting with parents to understand how the program is impacting them and work with them to co-design evaluation and metrics that capture impact that is relevant.

Parental aspirations and expectations for their children’s education have a strong relationship with academic outcomes (Fan and Chen 2001). In turn, a parent’s sense of efficacy and belief in their ability to help their children is central to whether they perceive themselves as contributing meaningfully to their children education and the level to which they become involved with their children schooling (Gutman and Akerman 2008).

We believe the Parent Engagement Needs Assesment can be used as a tool to identify aspirations and expectation, and as a tool to increase the parent’s sense of efficacy and ability in a couple of ways:

  • Parental discovery: Used by parents to discover for themselves what their role is and how they can participate in their children’s literacy processes.
  • Assess needs: Used parents, caregivers, and other relevant stakeholders to observe and identify the needs of the community.
  • Co-create strategies: The results of the assessment can be used as a basis for engaging parents to co-create (or course-correct) a program.

Want to learn more about the Parent Engagement Needs Assessment?

Contact: Results for Development (R4D), Laurel Schmitt lschmitt@r4d.org or Sonaly Patel, spatel@r4d.org


Baker, Timberly L., Wise, Jillia, Kelley, Gwendolyn& Skiba, Russell J.(2016)Identifying Barriers: Creating Solutions to Improve Family Engagement

Emerson, L., Fear. J., Fox, S., and Sanders, E.(2012).Parental engagement in learning and schooling: Lessons from research. A report by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) for the family-School andCommunity Partnerships Bureau: Canberra.

Fan, X. & Chen, M. (2001). Parental Involvement and student’s academic achievement: a meta-analysis, Educational Psychology Review. Vol.13.

Goodall, J. & Voorhaus, J. (2010). Review of best practice in parental engagement, Research Report DFE-RR156, Department for Education, UK Government.

Gutman, L. & Akerman, R. (2008). Determinants of aspirations. University of London, Institute of Education. Available: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/2052/

Harris, A. & J. Goodall (2008). Do Parents Know They Matter? Engaging All Parents in Learning. Educational Research50(3): pp. 277 -289

UNESCO (2017). Literacy Rates Continue to Rise from One Generation to the Next. UNESCO Institute for Statistics. 


To learn more about LEMA, visit their Innovation Page on HundrED.