Outcomes of early childhood education: Literature review

Publication Details

This literature review was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to provide policy makers with a synthesis of research that analyses the impact of early childhood education (ECE) for children and families.

Author(s): Linda Mitchell, Cathy Wylie and Margaret Carr, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: May 2008

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Chapter 5: Parenting and life course outcomes

Studies of parent outcomes from ECE are rare. There is some descriptive information from parent surveys of their views on gains; and there are a few studies that have compared parent groups between programmes with different levels of parent involvement/support in terms of the home learning environment, parent–child interactions, and parent attitudes and views. Those studies that reported findings on parent outcomes were mainly in ECE centres that made parent communication and support a special focus, alongside provision of ECE. Statistical analysis appears to be available only for the outcome of parental employment, and for longitudinal intervention studies.

Parenting outcomes in the studies found for this review include improvements in interactions with the child, home environment and help for the child to learn at home, father involvement, and parental understanding/knowledge of child learning, development, and behaviour.

Parent life course outcomes were education and training, economic self sufficiency, and employment. Yoshikawa (1995) terms these "life course outcomes" because they could be expected to influence family socioeconomic status. We have also included social support, cultural connectedness, community participation, confidence/self-esteem, and family functioning outcomes under this category since these relate to adult and family wellbeing. Incidences of abuse and neglect, for example, are associated with families lacking mutually supportive relationships and social support (Jack & Jordan, 1999).

A somewhat wider range of parenting and life course outcomes was measured in the family support programmes that were included in Yoshikawa's (1995) review of early childhood education and family support programmes associated with long-term effects on social outcomes and delinquency. These family support programmes were designed mainly to serve adults and are not included here because they did not have an ECE basis.


In all, fourteen studies (some with more than one report) reported parenting outcomes. All, except one (the National Evaluation of Sure Start), were positive. The national evaluation of the U.K.'s Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) which compared families in SSLPs with families in Sure Start-to-be communities (National Evaluation of Sure Start Team, 2005a) was the only study to find some positive and some neutral impacts, and no benefits for measures of supportive parenting. A key flaw with this evaluation in relation to the research questions for this review is, that although parents were living in communities where they could access a range of family and child services, it is not known whether they were in fact accessing them.

These 14 studies also examined aspects of service operation or ways of working with families that contributed to parenting outcomes:

  • Two compared integrated programmes (providing ECE services consolidated with family support, health, and advocacy services) with nonintegrated programmes (in Toronto and U.K.).
  • Four were in parent-led ECE centres (in New Zealand and France), where parents took responsibility or worked with staff to implement the curriculum and parenting skills were emphasised.
  • Five were in teacher-led services in Australia, England, New Zealand, and Canada analysing ways teachers work with parents.
  • One compared responses of parents in preschool groups in Englandwith high levels of parent involvement with parents in preschool groups with low levels of parent involvement; the longitudinal Competent Children, Competent Learners study reported parent views of benefits of parent involvement in their child's ECE centre.
  • One was in an intensive programme. The evaluation of 17 Early Head Start programmes for low-income families with infants and toddlers compared participants in these programmes with controls on parent–child interactions and parent self-report.

Integrated ECE centres, parent-led centres, and the intensive Early Head Start programme were more likely to have a range of parenting goals and to gather outcome data across the range. Teacher-led centres were more likely to trial specific approaches to working with parents/whānau, such as engaging parents in curriculum, assessment, and planning, involving fathers, and book reading practices, and to measure the specific impact of these approaches, or generally assess the impact of parent involvement in the ECE programme on parenting.

Table 5 summarises parenting outcomes from these 14 studies.

Table 5: Summary of evidence of impacts of ECE on parenting outcomes
Integrated ECE Centres and Intervention Programme (3 Studies)
Interactions with Child Of 3 studies: 2 positive (E>C* parent– child interactions- supportive of learning and development, reading daily, less smacking; E>C for help child learn at home) 1 mixed (E>C* for non teen mothers of 3-year olds for less slapping, scolding, physical restraint, and less negative parenting, but no impact for teen mothers or mothers of 9- month-olds; no impact on supportive parenting for both groups; E>C for less household chaos for mothers of 9-month- olds but not mothers of 3- year-olds)
Father Involvement Of 1 study: 1 mixed (E>C* for involving fathers in families at top end of low income families)
Understanding & Knowledge of Child Learning & Behaviour -
Communication with Teacher about Child Of 1 measured: 1 positive (E>C* for talking to teacher)
Parent/Whānau-led ECE Centres (4 studies)
Interactions with Child Of 4 studies: 4 positive for parents supporting and encouraging learning, communication skills, positive behaviour management
Father Involvement -
Understanding & Knowledge of Child Learning & Behaviour Of 3 studies: 3 positive for understanding child development and learning, undertaking relevant courses
Communication with Teacher about Child -
Teacher-led centres working with parents (5 studies)
Interactions with Child Of 5 studies: 5 positive (e.g. greater acceptance of child behaviour, more frequent and appropriate book reading and other practices)
Father Involvement Of 1 study: 1 case study centre that worked on involving fathers positive in fathers feeling more valued, comfortable, participating more in the ECE centre, supported in parenting
Understanding & Knowledge of Child Learning & Behaviour Of 2 studies: 2 positive for centres that involved parents in assessment, planning, and explaining curriculum
Communication with Teacher about Child Of 2 studies: 2 positive for more communication with teacher about the child
Centres analysing parent involvement in education programme (2 studies)
Interactions with Child Of 1 study: 1 positive (increased ability to help children learn, better relationships with children)
Father Involvement -
Understanding & Knowledge of Child Learning & Behaviour Of 2 studies: 2 positive. Parent involvement linked to better understanding of programme, greater interest and knowledge of child development
Communication with Teacher about Child -

Only some studies gave sizes for these impacts on parenting. These were:

  • Parents in Toronto integrated ECE settings with a range of family support programmes had average ratings (on a 5-point scale) of 4.4 and 4.3 on "more likely to talk to the teacher" and "help the child at home" out of 5 compared with 4.2 and 4.0 in kindergarten only, and 4.1 and 3.9 for parents in kindergarten with one family support programme (Corter et al., 2006).
  • Early Head Start parents (with babies and toddlers) in programmes offering child development services usually in centre-based child care, with parenting education and home visits, were more supportive of their child during play (d=0.27), more likely to read to their child daily (d=0.46), and smacked less (d=0.26) than controls (Love et al., 2005).
  • Sixty-two to 100 percent of parents in the four parent-led centre studies reported learning that supported parenting (Mitchell et al., 2004; Mitchell, Royal, Tangaere, 2006b; Powell, 2006; Tijus et al., 1997).
  • Nineteen to 36 percent of parents in teacher-led services reported better understanding of their child's learning and development through ECE centre involvement (Elias et al., 2006; McNaughton et al., 1996; Mitchell with Haggerty et al., 2006; Pagani et al., 2006).
  • Amount of parent–child reading time doubled from 38 to 89 minutes per week in a parent–child book reading programme in a teacher-led centre (Pagani et al., 2006).

In two studies, parents who had been involved in assessment, planning, and evaluation reported greater understanding of learning processes, the ECE curriculum, and/or communication with teachers about home activities. This is consistent with the benefits of including families and whānau in assessment described with exemplars in Kei Tua o te Pae. Assessment for Learning: Early childhood exemplars (Ministry of Education, 2004).

Work with parents that focuses on pedagogical aims can be a very powerful role for ECE centres and links to gains for children. The EPPE study found that settings that engaged parents in regular ongoing assessment of children's learning supported parents to engage more in complementary activities at home. The project found that higher home learning environment scores were associated with higher cognitive development scores, increased co-operation/conformity, peer sociability and confidence, and lower antisocial and worried behaviour scores.

Differences in population groups

Overall, parenting gains were found in every study, but only two analysed differences for population groups (National Evaluation of Sure Start Team, 2005b; Pagani et al., 2006).

The national evaluation of the SSLPs found that teen mothers, the most disadvantaged group in their study, did not gain from being in an SSLP community (which offered accessible family/parent support services, child and maternal health services, and play and child care). For teen mothers, there was no positive impact on maternal acceptance of the child's behaviour (evidenced by avoidance of slapping, scolding, physical restraint) and on reducing negative parenting (when child aged 36 months), as was experienced by non teen mothers. As well, father involvement improved only for the middle-income group.

The SSLP evaluation team suggests several reasons for these differences in outcomes:

  • relatively more advantaged families were found to use more services (and so reap more benefits);
  • possible adverse reaction by most disadvantaged families to home visiting (this was a core service in most SSLPs); and
  • SSLP staff may prefer working with the more co-operative groups, and spend more time delivering services to them.

Pagani et al. (2006) found that when Canadian teachers offered a wider range of ways to communicate with parents, parents of linguistic minority children, whose children were showing less improvement in verbal skills, were more likely to take these up than other parents. Some other studies have shown value in adapting ways of communication in order to engage with specific groups of families. In England, Whalley and the Pen Green Centre Team (2001) have illustrated successful ways of working with "hard to reach" families. The changes made by teachers in a New Zealand ECE centre for children of teenage mothers (Mitchell with Haggerty et al., 2006) also improved their communication with mothers about children's learning.

Scope of programme

Centres that combine ECE and family support (integrated ECE centres) have a wider range of goals and therefore wider potential impact than those that provide ECE only. Gains for parents in ECE-only centres tend to relate to the specific area of ECE practice focus. This finding is consistent with Yoshikawa's (1995) review of the impact of different types of ECE programmes:

...only combination early childhood education/family support programs affected a broad range of outcomes for both children and parents. . . . Six of 8 combination programs which sought to measure parenting benefits found positive effects, and all 4 of those which sought to measure maternal life course outcomes found benefits.

It may be that parents saw integrated centres as offering opportunities for themselves as well as for their children. Although parental goals for children were more important than the goals they had for themselves, 40 to 60 percent of parents in each of the five integrated centre sites in Toronto (Corter et al., 2006) had parenting education goals for themselves when they first joined.

Parent/whānau-led centres in New Zealand also have goals that are wider than children's early education. "Parents using these services emphasised the importance of their own involvement in, or gain from, the service" (Mitchell, Royal Tangaere et al., 2006, p. 58). The four studies in parent-led centres found that parents reported gains for parenting outcomes. In New Zealand, these were greatest in playcentres, which aim to provide adult education as well as early childhood education, and offers support for adults to learn.


Five studies compared services that made greater gains on parenting outcomes with services where gains were less strong, or there were no gains. These highlighted factors contributing to positive outcomes for parenting: parents participating in the ECE centre programme and in education opportunities for themselves; good quality services offered for children and parents; and services offering an empowering or partnership approach.

Mitchell, Royal Tangaere et al. (2006) found parent participation in the education programme and in adult education courses, and leadership for adult learning, were associated with greater gains for parenting in parent/whānau-led centres in New Zealand.

The English EPPE case studies of effective practice (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2003) found that excellent ECE settings shared child-related information between parents and staff, and parents were often involved in decision making about the education programme. In disadvantaged areas, staff offered advice on how parents could complement the educational aims within the home. In addition, the quality of the home learning environment scores rated by the activities parents do with the child at home (reading to child, library visits, child paints/draws, parent teaches letters/numbers, alphabet, songs, and nursery rhymes) were found to be more important than parents' socioeconomic status and levels of education in relation to child outcomes. "In other words, EPPE found that it is what parents did that is more important than who they were" (Melhuish, E., Sylva, K., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B., 2001). These ECE centres that help enhance parenting are likely to impact also on child outcomes through the home learning environment.

The U.K. National Evaluation of SSLPs (2005b), which examined links between aspects of SSLP implementation and the level of change in child and parenting outcomes, found in general that tackling the range of disadvantages associated with child poverty in an integrated way was more likely to produce better child and parenting outcomes. Specific additional findings for parenting outcomes were as follows:

  • For families with a 9-month-old:
    • more empowerment by SSLPs was related to more maternal acceptance of the child's behaviour.
  • For families with a 3-year-old:
    • stronger ethos and overall scores on 18 ratings of what was implemented (service quantity, service delivery, identification of users, reach, reach strategies, service innovation, and service flexibility), processes of implementation (partnership composition, partnership functioning, leadership, multi-agency working, access to services, evaluation use, and staff turnover), and holistic aspects of implementation (vision, communications, power, ethos) were related to more maternal acceptance of child's behaviour.
  • More empowerment was related to more stimulating home environments.
  • Having more inherited (and established) range of parent-focused services was related to less negative parenting.
  • Having more child-focused services that were improved by the SSLPs was related to more maternal acceptance of child's behaviour.
  • Having a greater proportion of staff who were health-related within an integrated package of services (broader than ECE) was associated with more maternal acceptance of child's behaviour.

Love et al.'s (2005) evaluation of Early Head Start comparing 1,513 Early Head Start families with 1488 families in a control group, found the strongest impacts on positive parenting were for programmes offering a mix of centre-based and home-visiting provision and implementing Head Start standards early. These standards covered the quality of early childhood development and health services, family and community partnerships, programme design, and management.

Yoshikawa (1995) found that effective programmes that had the broadest range of positive effects for children and parents provided good quality ECE as well as support to adults.

Duration and timing

None of the studies analysed outcomes in relation to different lengths of time that individuals participated. The integrated and parent/whānau-led centres, which achieved positive results over a range of parenting outcomes, provided for children from birth to school entry. Early Head Start provided ECE and parenting services from birth to age 3, and the Sure Start Local Programmes were working with families of children from before birth. Yoshikawa's (1995) review suggested that because prenatal and early infancy periods may be a time of heightened stress for parents, family support interventions may be especially beneficial.

Parental life course outcomes

Education and training

Six studies reported positive education and training outcomes for parents. Three were in New Zealand parent/whānau-led centres, one was in an integrated centre in a long-term intervention, the Abecedarian study, and two compared centres with differing levels of parent involvement (the Competent Children, Competent Learners study and an English preschool group study).

Intervention study: The Abecedarian study reported increasing advantages over time in levels of maternal education for programme group parents compared with control group parents, who were comparable on levels of education pre intervention. Programme mothers had on average one more year of education than controls when their child was 54 months. By the time their child was 15, programme group mothers were significantly more likely to have post high school educational attainment (80 percent) compared with the control group (28 percent).

General studies: Short-term, parents reported gaining skills and knowledge through participation in education courses provided by the ECE centre (parent/whānau-led centres) and involvement in the ECE service (both those in teacher-led and parent/whānau-led centres reported gains). Sixty to 73 percent of parents in parent/whānau-led centres reported learning about organisation and management, and facilitation, as well as learning for parenting through course participation and involvement in the ECE programme and running the centre. In a variety of ECE centres in the Competent Children, Competent Learners study, 20 percent of parents reported improving their own skills through involvement in their current ECE centre when children were age 4, compared with six percent in their first ECE. Involvement was through a variety of ways, e.g. as a committee member, in the education programme, fundraising, working bees, and resource development.

The English preschool group study (McGivney, 1997) found differences related to subgroups: those parents who had left school at age 15 were more likely to attach importance to personal skills and to gaining qualifications from learning through ECE participation than those who had left later. Possibly this latter group already had qualifications. The former group reported greater gains: in self-confidence and enhanced communication skills, social skills, practical skills; and wider aspirations and motivation to undertake learning activities. This study did not provide effect sizes.

Social networks, cultural connections, and community participation

Five studies (not the Abecedarian study) provided evidence of parents forming social networks, making cultural connections, and participating in community through their ECE participation. These effects appeared to be stronger in parent/whānau-led centres where 71 to 98 percent reported making friends, compared with 41 percent in a variety of ECE centres in the Competent Children, Competent Learners study.

Parents in rural centres in a New Zealand playcentre study and the English preschool group study were more likely to report social support as a gain than parents in urban playcentres and preschool groups.

In New Zealand, kōhanga reo, community language playgroups, and Pasifika ECE centres contributed to parental language learning and cultural connections. Twenty-two to 67 percent of parents from these centres reported such gains (Mitchell, Royal Tangaere et al., 2006).

Confidence and self–esteem

Two New Zealand playcentre studies and the English preschool group study reported enhanced personal confidence and self-esteem as gains from ECE participation.

Parents responding to a survey in Powell's (2006) playcentre study reported increased personal knowledge and confidence in assuming playcentre roles (88 percent), in themselves and their abilities (79 percent), and interactions with other adults (75 percent).

The English preschool group study reported that those who left school at 16 were most likely to report increases in self-confidence and enhanced communication skills, social skills, and practical skills, and wider aspirations to undertake learning.

The national evaluation of SSLPs found no benefit for maternal wellbeing in mothers being in an SSLP community compared with a Sure Start-to-be community.

Family functioning

Two studies are useful in providing insight into how ECE participation could support family functioning. Duncan, Bowden, and Smith (2005) studied three ECE centres in low-income New Zealand communities. All the centres in this study met criteria for being of high-quality on measures of quality and according to external review. Parents identified a range of stress factors associated with finances, work pressures, health issues, family dynamics, and isolation. ECE centres were able to support family resiliency through helping families to help themselves, providing a protective environment that was neutral and valued by parents, and offering families access to information, social resources, support personnel, and encouragement. These roles were harder to enact when ratios or group size were unfavourable and teachers were too busy working with large groups of children to engage with families. Flexibility of hours, a private space for adults to talk, mixed age groupings of children where parents could bring more than one child, and stable staffing were regarded as supportive conditions. Most important were the interactions between teachers and families which needed to be non-judgemental and support family strengths.

In their evaluation of Early Head Start's national infant–toddler programme, Love et al. (2004) found favourable impacts of participation on parenting-related stress and negative feelings and on family conflict, but these did not persist a year later. (Early Head Start families were compared with controls.) There were more and larger impacts in a mixed approach where centre-based education was combined with home-based services, compared with impacts from one or other service on its own.


Parent life course outcomes were associated with parent participation within the ECE centre community, and in formal learning opportunities, involvement in the education programme, and taking up positions of responsibility within the centre. Parent/whānau-led centres and integrated centres seemed to offer wider opportunities for these types of participation.

Mitchell, Royal Tangaere et al. (2006) compared parent/whānau-led centres that were rated more highly in providing parents with mutually supportive networks with those that were rated less highly. Those that were rated more highly made sure there was comfortable provision for adults as well as children, and shared leadership responsibilities. They offered opportunity for parents to participate regularly and were mainly sessional centres.

In language immersion centres, cultural connectedness was enhanced through parents participating in the centre with others from their own culture. Language learning was supported through parents participating in the education programme alongside fluent speakers or taking part in language education courses.

Duration and timing

Powell's (2006) playcentre study found parents who had been in playcentre for more than five years were more likely to have learned about teaching approaches, and organisation and management skills than those with less than five years' experience. The study did not report percentage differences.



Parenting outcomes associated with participation in ECE services were improved interactions with the child, including greater acceptance of the child's behaviour and positive parenting, activities to help the child learn at home, father involvement in the ECE setting and in parenting, and parental knowledge of child learning, development, and behaviour.

Parenting outcomes were stronger in some contexts and were linked to good operational standards. The more effective services for parenting were rated as good quality for early childhood education and other services offered, worked in an "empowering" or partnership approach with families and communities, and had effective leadership. Integrated ECE centres that provided ECE services consolidated with family support, health, and advocacy services, and parent-led centres, where parents participated regularly in the education programme and undertook training courses, were likely to have positive associations with a wide range of parenting outcomes. In all service types, involving parents in assessment and curriculum, and sharing educational aims, was associated with greater parental understanding of learning processes and could positively impact on home learning activities. These services tailored ways of communicating about learning to the interests and understanding of parents.

There was support for Yoshikawa's (1995) review finding that family support interventions may be especially beneficial during prenatal and early infancy periods when parental stress may be high. Integrated and parent-led services which combine good quality ECE with family support/ parent learning opportunities can offer social and practical support at that time.

ECE services that help enhance parenting are likely to impact also on child outcomes through the home learning environment.

Parental life course outcomes

Gains for parents were reported as:

  • learning and undertaking study through the ECE service for a qualification;
  • making social networks, community, and cultural connections;
  • increasing confidence and self-esteem; and
  • favourable impacts on parenting-related stress and family functioning.

These parent life course outcomes were associated with parent participation in the ECE community, in the education programme, and formal learning opportunities, and parents taking up positions of responsibility within the ECE centre. Parent/whānau-led centres and integrated centres seemed to offer wider opportunities for these outcomes.


  1. Empowerment referred to specific procedures, e.g. users on the board, community volunteers, training for volunteers, a balance of voluntary and paid staff, built-in features to develop local people's involvement, clearly defined exit strategies for users, and services that included self-help groups or other services run by users.
  2. Maternal acceptance was rated through observation of whether or not parent displayed scolding, physical restraint, and slapping/spanking.

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