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The Road Less Traveled: Engaging Families in Early Math

Holly Kreider, Ed.D. and Kimberly Brenneman, Ph.D., program officers, Heising-Simons Foundation

As program officers at the Heising-Simons Foundation, we often take the road less traveled, seeking out areas of early education that offer great promise for supporting children’s school readiness and school success, but which typically receive little attention and few resources. Such is the case with our early math and family engagement grant portfolios. 

Our early mathwork is grounded in research showing that math skills in kindergarten are a powerful predictor of both math and literacy outcomes in third grade. Despite these findings, many teachers spend almost no time promoting math in the early childhood classroom. And when children are taught math in kindergarten, the content is very often basic, covering concepts and skills that children already possess. This does not promise much for a nation that aspires to be a global leader in science and technology.

At the same time, the Foundation’s Education program also includes investments in family engagement. While decades of research point to families being critical to children’s learning, on-the-ground family engagement efforts are often random, lacking in evidence of effectiveness, and underresourced.

As we made these separate journeys, we began to realize the importance of traveling together. Shouldn’t we be on the same road to enlist families to support their children’s math learning?

Our Journey
Our first step was to investigate programs and approaches that already existed. To do so, we commissioned a research review in 2012 that found relatively few evaluations of programs that engaged families in early math education. The next year we convened a small group of esteemed family engagement and early math researchers, who confirmed this lack of evidence-based programs and helped us begin drafting a plan to address the issue.

So how to traverse this promising intersection? First, we are making grants to build the knowledge base in this area so that we can understand more fully how families influence children’s early math development over time. Second, we are raising awareness—among the public generally and among families with young children in particular—about the importance of math in the early years, the enjoyment that children get from playing with mathematical ideas, and the critical role families play in fostering mathematical knowledge and skills.

Third, we are developing “proof points” in family engagement practice that ultimately can be offered at a large scale so that families across the country gain not only knowledge about the importance of math but also the specific skills needed to effectively support their children’s math learning.

What We’ve Learned
We’re only partway through our exploration of the intersection of early math and family engagement, but we have already experienced early wins, learned some lessons, and see new possibilities on the horizon. 

We’ve heard from our grantees that, in general, parents and other caregivers receive materials on early math with surprise but also with great enthusiasm. These resources provide new and welcome information for families. We’ve also reconfirmed that supporting early math learning is relatively new for many program staff, making professional development an important component of any math-infused family engagement program aiming for sound implementation and ultimate sustainability.

We’ve seen creative strategies for engaging families in early math that build from program strengths and family interests. For example, many family engagement programs promote early literacy using shared book reading. This same parent-child story time can be readily employed to explore math concepts with young children, extend math talk beyond books, and even examine how storybooks could be constructed differently to promote rich parent-child conversations around math. Foundation grantees are putting a new math twist on a typical family learning experience that builds not just literacy and math knowledge but also a love of learning, as families spend quality time together, sharing their own journey through early math.

Related Resources
Math Matters: Children’s Mathematical Journey Starts Early

Early Math for Later Success

FINE Newsletter: Formula for Success: Engaging Families in Early Math Learning

Holly Kreider is a program officer for family engagement at the Heising-Simons Foundation. She received her Ed.D. in human development and psychology from Harvard University and an undergraduate degree in psychology from UCLA. Her experience includes applied research, nonprofit and for-profit leadership, and consultation, with a focus on family engagement, child and adolescent development, and program evaluation. Holly joined the Heising-Simons Foundation in 2012.

Kimberly Brenneman is a program officer for early mathematics at the Heising-Simons Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2015, Kimberly was research faculty at Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research, where she led projects focused on curricular and instructional practices to foster science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning for young children in school and home settings. As an educational consultant, Kimberly has contributed to the development of educational media resources to support preschool-aged math and science learners. She earned a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from UCLA and completed her undergraduate work in psychology and Spanish at Bucknell University.

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