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Research Digest

FINE Newsletter, Volume VIII, Issue 2
Formula for Success: Engaging Families in Early Math Learning

Harvard Family Research Project’s (HFRP)
Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP. For more information about the research summarized in this digest, please contact WestEd. For help citing this article, click here.


Early mathematics ability is a strong predictor of later mathematics achievement and overall academic success.1 The study described in this paper attempts to evaluate an intervention designed to engage families and promote mathematics learning in preschool children.2 The intervention model includes a school-based curriculum whereby families attend weekly parent support meetings and then use in-the-home PBS KIDS digital games, videos, and hands-on activities, all related to early mathematics and all provided in both Spanish and English.


Theoretical Framework
This work is guided by the PBS Ready to Learn Math Framework (see Figure 1). The framework includes four main mathematical concepts, including algebraic thinking, and measurement and data. Each concept is accompanied by concrete mathematical tasks that support these concepts.    

Figure 1. Mathematics Concepts in PBS KIDS Games and Support Materials

Description: rtl_math_framework

The Intervention
The study used a quasi-experimental design3 and focused on two overarching mathematics concepts: (1) numbers and operations in base 10, and (2) geometry and spatial sense. For nine weeks, parents of children in the intervention group participated in a weekly program at the preschool led by the classroom teacher. Each weekly session focused on mathematical concepts and how to use PBS KIDS transmedia activities in the home (see text box). Parents were encouraged to work with their children at home on the PBS KIDS activities for 30 minutes a day, four days per week, and were given a Chromebook laptop for the duration of the study to do so. Parents also received ideas for hands-on activities to do with their children, printed from the PBS KIDS website. Preschool teachers participated in six hours of facilitator training to learn how to conduct the weekly parent meetings.


The intervention in this study uses “transmedia storytelling,” or “transmedia.” This term refers to representing a narrative or story experience across multiple platforms and formats,4 and may provide new opportunities for families to engage with their young children in quality learning interactions. Below are examples of some of the transmedia activities (two digital and one hands-on) focused on numbers that were included in one week of the intervention. All activities in this intervention are available free of charge at the PBS KIDS website.


Children’s mathematics knowledge and skills improved. The intervention was positively associated with gains in children’s knowledge and skills in mathematics. On two types of measures,5 the intervention group improved more than the comparison group did.6 These findings were similar for Spanish- and English-speaking families, and across all income levels.

Parents’ awareness and support of their children’s mathematics learning increased. According to parents in the focus groups, the intervention motivated them to set aside time each day for math activities with their children; they learned new skills and became better prepared to support their children’s learning; and they learned to work collaboratively with their children to provide context-sensitive support. In addition, parents said that they learned to support their children in a learning environment that encourages playfulness and positive affect. A typical comment from a parent was:

For me, with my daughter, it was fun . . . I learned how to ask her more questions, and we found a way to learn together.

Teachers were successful in facilitating the parent meetings. Teachers at the intervention sites were successful facilitators of parent meetings, delivering intervention activities with fidelity and providing parents with deeper connections to their preschools. Nearly all teachers reported that they enjoyed the experience of teaching parents. One teacher commented:

I think the most exciting thing is to see more [parent] awareness of math all around. If there is something we did, I think it was to at least open their eyes to see that there was math everywhere and that they can use it. You know, by being in the car and playing a simple game of counting cars. Just opening their eyes to that.


Digital media, coupled with parent training on how to use it to support children’s learning, is an effective way to improve mathematical competencies and narrow school readiness gaps. The current intervention, if scaled up to reach more low-income preschool families, could have a profound effect on kindergarten readiness in children in low-income communities, and could perhaps affect children’s future academic careers. The intervention allows for children at all income levels to progress in their mathematics abilities, and, most importantly, allows children in low-income families to progress toward meeting important standards for kindergarten readiness.

With training, early childhood educators are well suited to support families in choosing and utilizing digital media that can support children’s learning. As families gain more access to educational digital products, they may look to early childhood educators for guidance around how to responsibly and effectively use these new tools to support their children’s learning. Policymakers, schools of education, and professional developers of early childhood education preservice and in-service should anticipate families’ and providers’ needs as they build capacity of teachers and other professionals to provide this support to families with young children.

Betsy McCarthy, PhD  As a senior research associate at WestEd, Betsy provides technical assistance and research expertise for a number of large projects, including Ready to Learn: Expanded Learning Through Transmedia Content Study, in collaboration with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

This research digest is a summary of McCarthy, B., Li, L., Tiu, M., Atienza, S., & Sexton, U. (2015). Learning with PBS KIDS: A study of family engagement and early mathematics achievement. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

1 Burchinal, M., McCartney, K., Steinberg, L., Crosnoe, R., Friedman, S. L., McLoyd, V., & Pianta, R. (2011). Examining the black-white achievement gap among low-income children using the NICHD study of early child care and youth development. Child Development, 82(5), 1404–1420; Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., Pagani, L. S., Feinstein, L., Engel, M., Brooks-Gunn, J., Sexton, H., Duckworth, K. & Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446; Jordan, N. C., Kaplan, D., Ramineni, C., & Locuniak, M. N. (2009). Early math matters: Kindergarten number competence and later mathematics outcomes. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 850–867.

2 The intervention was developed, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, as part of the CPB and PBS Ready to Learn initiative, which supports children and family learning through the development and dissemination of multiplatform math content for preschool children, especially those from low-income families.

3 Quasi-experimental design studies are frequently used when it is not logistically feasible to conduct a randomized controlled trial where subjects are randomly assigned to treatment or control groups. Instead, quasi-experimental designs typically allow the researcher to influence the assignment to the treatment condition using some criterion other than random assignment.

4 Herr-Stephenson, B., Alper, M., Reilly, E., & Jenkins, H. (2013). T is for transmedia: Learning through transmedia play. Los Angeles and New York: USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop; Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

5 The research team collected data using the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, Third Edition (TEMA-3), a researcher-developed assessment of mathematics skills related to the concept of shape, parent surveys, parent focus groups, and parent meeting observations.  

6 Technical Note: Adjusted mean differences in TEMA-3 scores show that the intervention group’s scores on the post-test were higher, on average, than those of the comparison group (point estimate of 2.93; minimum detectable effect size [MDES] = 0.22), a difference that was statistically significant (at the 0.05 level) after accounting for differences in baseline test results and participant ethnicity.


This resource is part of the May 2016 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

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