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Guest blog: Helping parents support learning at home: workshops, apps and more! by Kathy Sylva and Fiona Jelley

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Tuesday, 19 May, 2020

Research studies, including the Effective Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project, show the powerful effect of the Home Learning Environment (HLE) on children’s development (Sylva et al 2010).  These effects are more powerful than those of early education and even the effects of social background.   In fact, the EPPSE study showed that the effect of the HLE was twice as strong as the effect of preschool education.  Although the benefits of learning at home have been known for decades, effective interventions to support parents have proved elusive, especially for parents living on low incomes and in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Two approaches to supporting parents are described: the 21st century approach through apps sent direct to the parent’s phone, and the more traditional (perhaps old-fashioned?) approach of workshops for parents.   Both are effective in different ways, and two research studies demonstrate the plusses and minuses of each.

The Sutton Trust funded two parent interventions: (1) the Easy Peasy parent app and (2) the Parent Engagement Network (PEN) workshops for parents.  The University of Oxford carried out an independent evaluation exploring the effects on parents and children.

The Easy Peasy App

The Easy Peasy app sends weekly video clips to parents’ phones, each featuring a clip of parent(s) playing with their child in a way that supports concentration, creativity and determination.  In the Oxford study of the effects of the app on parents and children, 150 families from 8 children's centres in an English Coastal Town participated in the evaluation.  The Children were between 2 and 6 years old and the app was sent over 18 weeks.   Parents were randomly assigned to receive the app immediately or to remain as a "wait list control" and receive the app five months later.  Both intervention and control parents completed rating scales describing their children before and six weeks after the intervention.

Seventy-five families completed assessments both pre and post, about half in the intervention and half in the control.  Analysis of Covariance was conducted, controlling for: pre-test score, child’s gender, age, children’s centre.  The intervention was found successful for two outcomes:   children’s self-regulation and parents’ confidence in setting boundaries and using (positive) discipline.   However Jelley, Sylva & Karemaker (2016) describe the effects as "promising" rather than "secure".

The Parental Engagement Network Workshops

PEN is a social enterprise specialising in supporting schools in parent engagement.  With support from the Sutton Trust, PEN trained preschool school staff in four northern authorities to lead parent workshops.  Teachers in nine randomly allocated schools ran one to two parent workshops each term, led by nursery teachers who knew their parents well.    Activities included "FUN" (Families Understanding Numeracy) games and Playclub Bags for literacy focussing on stories and imaginative play.  The nine control schools received the intervention the following year.

The University of Oxford studied the effects of the PEN on the Home Learning Environment of 71 families who attended workshops and compared them to 75 families who did not.   Parent questionnaires were administered to both groups pre and post.   These were rating scales that described activities parents might do at home to support learning. The results showed a significant increase in HLE scores in the intervention group.  Qualitative interviews revealed parents’ pride at new skills developed through the workshops, and also the fact that they enjoyed talking with the teacher before and after nursery about their home learning activities. "Mrs Norris was really interested in our games at home and gave me great tips".

Comparing parent workshops with the app

Both the app and the parent workshops were successful in improving the home learning environment, although in different ways, and the app led to improvements in children’s self-regulation, one of the proposed new Early Learning Goals.  The app had the advantage of reaching families who do not attend workshops at school, but on the other hand, the workshops had the advantage that practitioners were able to encourage parents in home activities through informal and sustained conversations.  Nursery staff had a unique opportunity to chat with parents every day to encourage them in home learning, whereas the app had the unique advantage of going straight into the home.  Perhaps the way forward is to combine apps with workshops, with both supported through frequent conversations in the setting with parents.

Professor Kathy Sylva and Fiona Jelley work in the Department of Education, University of Oxford.  Kathy Sylva is a Vice President of Early Education.


Jelley, F., Sylva, K. & Karemaker, A. (2016). EasyPeasy parenting app: findings from an efficacy trial on parent engagement and school readiness skills. London: The Sutton Trust.

Jelley, F., & Sylva, K. (2017). Engaging parents effectively: Evaluation of the PEN Home Learning Project. London: The Sutton Trust. 

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B. (Eds.). (2010). Early childhood matters: Evidence from the effective pre-school and primary education project. London: Routledge.