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Teaching High Schoolers How Children Learn

Enriching the health curriculum with a robust education in child development — to support future parents
Parenting curriculum

For most high schoolers in the United States, learning parenting skills at school consists of taking care of a bag of flour or trying not to drop an egg. Little time is devoted to how children grow, how they learn, and how adult caregivers play an important role in preparing them for academic and social-emotional demands down the road. And yet, 23 states have at least one standard about parenting or child development, suggesting that schools do have a vested interest in adding these concepts to the health curriculum.

Researcher Nell O’Donnell Weber of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in collaboration with Professor Meredith Rowe, saw an opportunity to provide this richer knowledge to high school students long before they become parents. As part of her doctoral research, Weber conducted an online survey of 1,044 American high schoolers across the country to learn what they knew about parenting and child development. She found that, overall, high school students believed that caregivers should and do play an active role in a child’s early learning. However, students often struggled to define exactly what that role was or how to best support early learning. Weber noted that the data gathered from the survey suggested that high schoolers answered questions about child development correctly 50% of the time — the same as if they were answering them by chance.

Rowe and Weber are using these findings to inform the creation of a curriculum on child development, with support from the United Way of Northern New Jersey and informed by United Way's Born Learning initiative.

"There’s no one right way to parent, but everyone should have access to the same fund of information." — Meredith Rowe

“In much of the work we do, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to get information to parents of young children. The thought was, maybe there’s more of a preventative approach we can take,” Rowe says. This is especially important given the persistent income-based achievement gap in cognitive skills that are apparent even before children enter kindergarten. Rowe and Weber believe that if we want to prevent these achievement gaps, parents and future parents need to be armed with information to help promote their children’s development during the early years. 

The eight-week module they're creating is designed to fit into an existing health curriculum. Overarching considerations include:

  • Understanding that intelligence is malleable is key to preparing high schoolers to be potential parents. “We really wanted to emphasize the idea of plasticity and how much those early experiences matter,” says Rowe. “Parents having the knowledge [of] and the belief [in] a growth mindset is also critical…. There’s no one right way to parent, but everyone should have access to the same fund of information.” With a growth-mindset approach, future parents will view their role and their child’s potential as adaptable.
  • Learning about child development needs to be concrete. Teens should interact meaningfully with and observe younger children at different stages of development. Spending time with a young child can influence how high schoolers think about development. “Our results showed that experiences like babysitting or having younger siblings do matter,” says Weber. The curriculum currently includes an observational component, where students observe and spend time with a young child.
  • Space should be created for child development research in media. Students in the survey said that, after their own parents, TV and movies were where they learned the most about parenting, so the curriculum includes media for students to analyze and reflect on. “But this also indicates a tremendous opportunity for greater collaboration between researchers and media producers to supplement and disseminate research findings about parenting,” Rowe says.
  • The curriculum will also work to provide a common knowledge base, whether particpants are future parents or not. Many other countries, like the United Kingdom, provide new parents with information about child development through such services as nurse practitioner home visits, Rowe says. Even if participants never become parents, society benefits if all members understand how to support children’s early learning. This equal access to information ensures that all members of society are equipped with the knowledge they need and can potentially prevent early achievement gaps.

As a next step in this research, Rowe and Weber, with support from the Caplan Foundation for Early Childhood, are recruiting high schools to pilot the curriculum. “We aim to partner with schools that share our vision and to determine if teaching early learning to high schoolers is a viable method of preventing early achievement gaps,” says Weber.

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