Research School Network: Working with parents to support children’s learning in the early years: what we learnt, and what this means for the future? Supporting children during lockdown wasn’t just a unique challenge, writes Julian Grenier – it was an opportunity to learn.


Working with parents to support children’s learning in the early years: what we learnt, and what this means for the future?

Supporting children during lockdown wasn’t just a unique challenge, writes Julian Grenier – it was an opportunity to learn.

This blog is part three of a five-part series.

[Read part one; read part two].

In this third blog about working with parents to support children’s learning at home during the lockdown, I am going to consider what we learnt from our evaluation with parents, and what this means for the future. In the next blog in the series, you’ll hear from three of our partners in this work: The Grove Nursery School, EasyPeasy, and Boromi.

In blog two, I shared the simple logic models we put together to guide our work with the 50% of children who returned, and the 50% who stayed at home. The logic models were deliberately brief and simple for two reasons.

Firstly, time was short, and we needed to have a clear set of objectives that our team members- split between the site and working from home – could all work on together. Making choices is about what you leave out, as well as what you choose to do.

Secondly, we wanted to be as clear as possible about what we wanted to achieve, so that we could share that with parents, and then evaluate the impact of our work at the end. This is especially important in a context where around 90% of our parents speak English as an additional language, and where levels of literacy are, on average, low. If we couldn’t explain what we were setting out to do in a few sentences of plain English, we’d flounder and fail.

We evaluated the impact of our work in two main ways:

  1. We asked parents to complete a Google Form to give feedback. 37 parents responded out of around 100 who chose to keep their children at home. We think that’s a good rate, but a number this low means that data have to be interpreted with caution (just 2 or 3 people have a big impact on percentages)
  2. Our deputy headteacher, Lindsey Foster, drew together a range of information from key people to look at which aspects of our approach proved to be effective, and which aspects did not work well.

Our programme for children at home consisted of: WhatsApp messages with links to videos on YouTube, sent three times a day; individual video calls by the key person to each parent and child, once a week; key group sessions for a group of up to 8 children on Zoom, once a week.

Parents said that they valued video-calls from their child’s key people. Some said they were grateful that key people took the time to check in on them and support them with home learning. This links to an important consideration we had, that we needed to provide emotional support to parents under pressure. Video calls are the closest we could get to the sort of face-to-face individual, supportive discussions that our key people always offer parents.

Parents said that they used staff videos as guides. One parent said she got new ideas of using books. I never thought of using books like that”.

Parents said that their child really enjoyed repeatedly watching the stories. At the end they really understood the book well and were able to retell the story.

Watching the video helped them to learn what types of questions to ask when reading to their child.

Some parents spoke about key events in the stories with their children. They also found the activities linked to the books helped the children to understand the story deeper.

These approaches that parents used are well-evidenced to support children’s early reading, as outlined in the EEF Guidance Report Preparing for Literacy.

These findings suggest that parents valued videos that showed them clearly some good ways of chatting, reading and playing with their children. Modelling and showing were valued. On the other hand, videos that explained how children learnt were watched much less, and never mentioned by parents when we evaluated our work.

Over 80% of parents reported that they engaged with one or more of: WhatsApp, YouTube videos and playing at home with free materials we shared.


These figures are encouraging. They suggest that all of these approaches might help us to improve the range of work we do with parents to support children’s learning at home in the longer term, when the vaccine takes us into a more settled world.

Nearly all our parents have a smartphone, and few have home broadband, laptops or tablets. That’s probably why WhatsApp video calls were accessed more than Zoom calls. However, several parents mentioned specifically how important the Zoom sessions had been.

We learnt that some of our worries about ICT were unfounded. For example, many parents have large amounts of data in their phone plans and there was little concern about our work using up too much of that allowance. However, using Zoom on a phone is harder than WhatsApp: we learnt that we will need to put more support in place to make sure families cab take part in Zoom sessions.

We know from our YouTube statistics that videos were widely watched. Shorter videos were better received. Videos with songs, stories or demonstrations of how to play with equipment were watched much more than videos with general ideas about playing and helping children’s learning.

You Tube

Half of the parents said that they spent more than 30 minutes a day chatting, playing and reading with their child.

The sample size is too small for us to find out more about which groups of parents spent the most time supporting their children’s learning at home, and whether there were particular groups of children who missed out.

We think that’s one of the many areas which could be usefully researched in the future.

Overall, this is another promising finding for the future. We hope that we can support and encourage parents to support their children’s learning at home this much in the future, in addition to the time they spend in nursery.

Finally, we asked parents to tell us what changes they had noticed as a result of the home-learning support they were giving their children. The biggest change parents reported was that they were spending more time playing with their children. The second biggest change was noticing that their child would play for longer periods of time.

Changes 1
Changes 2

Overall, parents were extremely positive in their rating of how well we had supported them to chat, play and read with their children.


In the next blog in the series, you can hear from three partner organisations we worked with:

The Grove Nursery School, EasyPeasy, and Boromi.

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