Parenting recommendations: Using research and theory to address communication challenges
by Erron L. Huey
Things that happen outside a classroom play a role in what happens inside the classroom. A teacher’s job is easier, though, when there is consistency between the two. Often, this leads to teachers making recommendations to a child’s parents or guardians. However, by law (5 Texas Family Code § 151.001), parents have the right and responsibility to make decisions for their children, which means that they do not have to follow recommendations. Therefore, teachers and caregivers have to consider more than what a child needs; they also need to think about the parents.
Teacher recommendations often are attempts to change parents’ behaviors and decisions. Thus, understanding the reasons behind parents’ behaviors and decisions is important. Researchers find that parents’ personal values, moral beliefs, previous experiences, and personal well-being all influence parent-child interactions (Wissow, 1996). These factors also shape how parents interpret recommendations, and their interpretation can determine whether they follow offered recommendations.
For instance, most parents want to provide their children with the best opportunities and guidance possible (Howard, 1996 & 1998). They incorporate recommendations into a mental list of what they can do to benefit their children. Parents can also turn this list into things that they must do to be an ideal parent. This can lead to feelings of failure and hopelessness because people may not live up to their ideals. In turn, some parents give up. Therefore, even helpful recommendations can make the situation worse if they are not carefully considered.
Assuming that people’s behaviors are based on rational decisions is part of the problem. According to this assumption, people decide how to respond (Hechter & Kanazawa, 1997; Monna & Gauthier, 2008), and their decisions consider the possible costs and rewards of different behaviors and actions. Research shows, however, that this assumption is usually wrong (Monroe & Maher, 1995; Zafirovski, 2012).
People often make their decisions in the moment. This normally involves the resources they have, how they feel, previous decisions in similar moments, and what they think is acceptable (Schwabe & Wolf, 2013; Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2013). Responses, then, are based on what is currently happening and what parents previously learned.
Getting past the challenges
Parents are humans, and what we know about cognitive development can help solve part of the problem. Piaget theorized that people adapt their ideas about the world based on what they already know and are able to do (Feldman, 2004; Piaget, 1970). As people adapt their ideas and behaviors, they try to balance what they already know with what they are currently experiencing and learning. People create new ways to think about the world when current experiences and learning is more than they can assimilate or accommodate. This process is the basis of Piaget’s stages and the ideas behind constructivism.
Constructivism refers to the idea that people create, or build, their ideas based on what they experience (Gelman, 2009). For instance, infants cry. A new parent may discover that picking up the infant reduces the crying. The parent has created what Piaget might call a limited pattern of operations. But sometimes simply picking up a crying infant does not end the crying, which leads to parents trying other solutions until they find one that seems to end the crying. By trying each new solution parents expand their behavior into a larger pattern of possible responses. Thus, parents are constructing their response patterns.
As people learn, their new cognitive abilities do not fully replace their older ones (Van Geert, 1998). Instead, newer abilities change how the older abilities are used. For example, children can learn to count using their fingers. Learning to do multiplication does not make this skill disappear. Rather, children may count sets of numbers they are trying to multiply. The children’s previously learned skill is still present. In similar fashion, adults and parents tend to solve new problems using what they already know.
The rational-decision assumption is another example of how Piaget’s theory can help. The last stage in Piaget’s work is hypothetical-deductive reasoning, which emphasizes the development of abstract thinking skills. However, these thinking skills take time to develop (Feldman, 2004), and are not always used in new situations. When teachers make recommendations, though, these are the skills they expect parents to use.
Recommendations ask parents to think abstractly about the outcomes they want. The potential rewards of following the recommendations are hypothetical. Using research to support the recommendations requires deductive thinking because it asks parents to apply information from other families and children to their own. Most people, however, use concrete and operational reasoning in daily interactions because the results are immediate and tangible. For instance, picking up a crying infant often reduces the crying.
Laws, regulations, and ethics
Recommendations should start with existing legal and ethical obligations. For instance, making parenting recommendations is not enough to address suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. In Texas, every adult that suspects child abuse or neglect must report their suspicions (5 Texas Family Code § 261). Under the current law, teachers and caregivers have 48 hours (2 days) to verbally report any suspicions to the Department of Family and Protective Services. Because 2 days is a short amount of time, it is helpful to know how abuse and neglect are defined and described in Texas law (Texas Attorney General, n.d.; Department of Family and Protective Services, n.d.).
Further, recommendations should be aligned with existing policies and regulations in place in schools and centers. This helps to create consistent expectations for children and ensure appropriate responses from adults. For teachers and caregivers, this means that their recommendations should reflect the Texas Minimum Standards (40 Texas Admin. Code § 744, § 746). For example, the standards say that caregivers must use positive methods of guidance and discipline (§746.2803 (l)) and emphasizes the following:
using statements that are clear and positive to remind children about behavioral expectations and redirect behaviors
praising and encouraging acceptable behavior
briefly using supervised separations, or time-outs, when appropriate.
These regulations provide a place to start when making recommendations because they are the methods that are already used in the classroom.
Parenting recommendations should also be consistent with existing ethics codes. Principles from the Belmont Report provide the foundation of most professional ethics codes in the United States (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1979). The first principle, respect for persons, emphasizes the idea that people deserve the right to make their own decisions without being forced to do something. This first principle also stresses that people who are not able to make their own decisions, such as children, need to be protected from harm.
The second principle, beneficence, emphasizes the idea that professionals should strive for maximizing benefits while reducing any risks of harm.
The third principle, justice, stresses that a professional’s work should be fair and based on people’s needs, their legal rights, and what they deserve. This means that making ethical parenting recommendations involves the following:
respecting parents and children and the choices that parents make, while working to protect children from harm
making sure that the recommendations have benefits for parents and children and minimal risks for harm
making recommendations that meet the needs of all the parents and children served.
Consider the parent
Recommendations should be sensitive to the realities and limitations present in a family. This is part of most ethics standards and guidelines as well as Texas law and regulations. For instance, Texas law recognizes that some parents are not able to provide all the resources that a child may need (5 Tex. Family Code § 261). Parents in this situation are not neglectful unless they refuse resources that are offered to meet the child’s needs. Therefore, teachers should think about the resources and limitations of the families they serve.
Theory and research tell us that culture and history influence parents’ values (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998). Each parent has unique values and expectations, which are created by their interactions with their culture over time and shape their behaviors and responses. Therefore, parents’ development and socialization are important (Hubbs-Tait, et al., 2006).
An example is the common recommendation for parents to read to their children, which is supported by decades of research. This recommendation, however, overlooks the estimated five- to 20-percent of the general population with symptoms of dyslexia (University of Michigan, n.d.). Because dyslexia is a lifelong condition (Peterson & Pennington, 2012), there are parents who have challenges with reading that they have struggled to overcome over time. Therefore, recommending that parents read to their children may be unrealistic and insensitive in some cases.
Alternately, one could recommend that parents spend time talking with their children and telling them stories (Goodson, Layzer, Simon, & Dwyer, 2009). Researchers have found these actions benefit children’s development beyond developing early literacy (Kelly & Bailey, 2013, Li & Fleer, 2015). The important thing, whether reading a book, talking with a child, or telling a story, is that children and adults verbally engage with each other in ways that become more complex over time, encourage imagination, and involve acquiring new words and ways of thinking (Goodson et al., Honig, 2017).
Another example is that parents learn to be parents on the job. As parents learn to care for their children, they tend to seek guidance from doctors and nurses, friends and family, as well as the media (Eisenberg, et al., 2018). However, this information is often inconsistent and inaccurate—even from medical professionals. As a result, parents may learn by using trial and error.
In turn, trial-and-error experiences can contribute to different responses and values between parents and professionals. Most recommended parenting techniques require time and consistent application to work properly, a challenge for many families.
Time-out is a common example. According to extensive research (Howard, 1996; Wolf, McLaughlin, & Williams, 2006), children and parents need to be taught how time-out works.
Moreover, before adults try using this technique, they need to learn to make consistent decisions about the following:
which behaviors deserve time-out
how long time-out should last
how isolated the child should be during time-out
when a child should be ready to leave time-out
how to reinforce the lesson and help the child afterward.
A parent may not fully understand that all these factors are important and must be applied consistently. This can lead parents to try time-out, not see immediate changes, and decide that the technique does not work.
Corporal punishment offers a contrast. Based on the research, corporal punishment is relatively common in the United States (Knox, 2010; Straus & Stewart, 1999). Many parents view spanking as their responsibility and right that is legally protected (Gershoff, Miller, & Holden, 1999). They may have used this punishment tactic, seen it work in the moment, and decided that it will always work (Wissow, 1996).
Further, parents can point to research indicating that corporal punishment results in immediate outcomes that some parents desire (Baumrind, Larzelere, & Owens, 2010; Larzelere & Kuhn, 2005) and that negative side effects, if any, are small (Ferguson, 2013; Larzelere & Kuhn). As a result, corporal punishment can appear to be effective and acceptable.
However, a larger amount of research indicates that corporal punishment should be discouraged due to its undesirable consequences for children (Gershoff, 2013; Gershoff & Bitensky, 2007). Additionally, the Texas Minimum Standards for Child Care Centers clearly state that center staff must not use, or threaten to use, corporal punishment—even in the case of a parent punishing his or her own child (40 Texas Admin. Code § 746.2805, §746.2807).
This can lead to telling parents things like, “Don’t spank” and “Use time-out.” But parents can see these recommendations as reducing their options for disciplining their children, violating their rights, and advocating for something they see as ineffective; thus, limiting their ability to parent responsibly. Therefore, professionals need to help parents learn when, where, and how to use different techniques (Howard, 1996). Recommendations need to provide parents with a range of desirable options to replace the undesirable ones.
Teachers also need to consider daily stress and hassles. Stress impacts learning and impairs decisions (Schwabe & Wolf, 2013; Starcke & Brand, 2016). Further, it appears that when people experience stress, they tend rely on previous decisions and habits rather than thinking things through. Because parenting can be stressful and parents often learn through trial and error, it is probably safe to assume that some parental responses are not always rational.
For example, many 2-year-olds overuse the word No, which research and theory tell us is a normal behavior. Toddlers are not trying to be defiant (Baillargeon, Sward, Keenan, & Cao, 2010) but merely growing toward independence. Parents, though, may interpret the defiance as the reason behind the child’s behavior. This means that teachers can help parents by providing accurate information about what they can realistically expect as their child develops. This makes it important for teachers and caregivers to do the following:
participate in continual education about child development
identify routine events that are stressful and involve children
develop a relationship with each child in their care
be aware of each child’s development
help parents understand their children’s development.
In the center and classroom
Observable behaviors provide the basis for the strongest recommendations. Observing what a professional does offers tangible evidence for what works and a model of how to achieve the desired effects (Wissow, 1996). Further, one’s own behavior is one of the few things a teacher is able to control. Therefore, teachers and caregivers can model the behaviors and techniques they recommend in settings where they have a clear responsibility for the child’s well-being.
Responsibly modeling behavior has additional effects. Children watch how adults respond and repeat their behavior (Wissow, 1996), but they do not always repeat the behavior immediately. For instance, many parents have experienced the moment when a child repeats undesirable words in frustration only to realize that they themselves are the source of the new vocabulary.
On the other hand, children repeat desirable behaviors, which can also be powerful. By providing clear examples of the desired behavior, teachers demonstrate what works. By being consistent, teachers provide children with stability and increase the odds that they will repeat desirable behavior both at home and in the classroom.
Ideally, making recommendations is part of an ongoing conversation. Clearly communicating classroom expectations, decisions, and reasons increases the likelihood that teachers and families are able to share developmental goals and behaviors—and why they are valued.
For instance, it is more helpful to say something like, “We use our hands respectfully and productively,” instead of saying, “We don’t hit.” This allows for a conversation about what is valued—that is, ideas of respectfulness and productivity. It also helps to explain why the behavior is expected.
Steps in making recommendations
Working with children is easier when there is consistency between what happens at home and at in education settings. To increase the chances that parents use their recommendations, teachers wisely consider the reasoning that parents use, their cognitive development, what they have learned, and the settings and circumstances that parents encounter when making their decisions. Additionally, there are legal and ethical obligations that should inform a teacher’s recommendations.
Offering recommendations to change behaviors requires taking one small step at a time. The first step is to create objectives for each child’s behavior and development. That means having clear ideas to communicate to parents in simple language and with observable outcomes.
The second step is to build a trusting relationship. Teachers build trust in the following ways:
demonstrate that you care about the parents and their child
learn about each parent, their family, and the child
listen to what they value and need
when parents ask questions, provide the best answers that you can as openly and honestly as possible
model the behaviors that are appropriate and ethical.
It helps to remember that desirable behaviors take time to develop and that parents as well as their parenting skills are still developing.
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About the authors
Erron L. Huey, PhD, is an assistant professor on the Early Childhood Development and Education faculty at Texas Woman’s University in Denton