Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

Parent and Family Perception of Engagement: Lessons from Early Years Programs and Supports

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

Parent and Family Perception of Engagement: Lessons from Early Years Programs and Supports

Article excerpt

Introduction

As schools across Canada settle in to full-day kindergarten programs, it is important to assess the strengths of early childhood programs and services. Many provinces are shifting the responsibility for early years programs and supports away from social service agencies and into education (Underwood & Frankel, 2012). It is important that the existing capabilities within the Early Years sector are not lost during this transformation. This study investigates parent and family perceptions of the strengths of early childhood programs and services in three communities in Ontario: one rural, one urban, and one northern. These three communities were designated by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS) as demonstration communities for Best Start strategies from 2005 to 2010.

Best Start a provincial strategy for integrating services for children from birth through school age, provided the platform for communities to develop unique strategies for integrating community level services for children and their families (MCYS, 2005). MCYS introduced its vision for Best Start in 2005, and the three demonstration communities were designated as sites for accelerated implementation and evaluation of the Best Start strategy (MCYS, 2005). This study was funded by MCYS; it was conducted at the end of the five years of additional funding that the three demonstration communities were allotted. At this time, 'Best Start' is a provincial strategy for children's services across the province; the strategy is intended to eventually shift to develop 'Ontario Best Start Child and Family Centres' that will be integrated with school services (MCYS, 2011). These Ontario Best Start Child and Family Centres are in progress at the time of writing this article, and were envisioned in Charles Pascal's report, With Our Best Future in Mind: Implementing Early Learning in Ontario (Pascal, 2009). It is not yet clear how Best Start, as examined in this study, will fit with the Ontario Best Start Child and Family Centres. Pascal's report presented a vision for early learning that has been partially adopted by the Ontario government, including the implementation of full-day kindergarten for 4- and 5-year-olds. The move to full-day kindergarten is a trend that has been observed in a number of provinces across the country. This article focuses on the components of children's services delivered through the Best Start strategies in three Ontario communities, and how parents and families perceive the strengths of the early childhood sector. The findings of this study can inform school-based programs, ensuring that the strengths of the early years sector are not lost as responsibilities shift to schools.

Objectives

The objectives of this study were to investigate parent and family engagement in early years programs and services by assessing their experiences with early years programs and how they perceive the effects of programs and services on child outcomes. Because Best Start is a community-level strategy, we were interested in exploring the experiences of parents and families in each community, rather than evaluating individual programs. The Best Start strategy is intended to ensure adequate service levels while avoiding redundancy. Each community has unique needs, so programs vary greatly from one community to the next. In this study, parent engagement was assessed based on parent and family descriptions of why they originally accessed programs and why they continued to access programs.

Best Start and the Demonstration Communities

Each of the communities in the study had a unique service delivery model, which was designed to meet the needs of the local children and families they serve based on the unique priorities of their Best Start strategy. Although their strategies differed, each of the Best Start networks in these communities included childcare, public health, Ontario Early Years Centres, early intervention, child and family services, and schools. …

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