Four Principles for Supporting Family Learning During the Global Health Crisis: Research-Based Reflections for Teachers and Educators

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April 22nd, 2020

Contributing authors: Maureen Callanan, Phyllis KatzLaura Huerta MigusSmirla Ramos-MontañezGina SvarovskyLori Takeuchi

During the current health crisis, the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education community has rallied to provide tools, resources, and activities to help parents and families support their children’s ongoing learning while schools and other educational institutions remain closed. This may be one of the first times ever that our nation’s entire educational enterprise is focused solely on learning outside of school.

This situation represents a unique opportunity for the informal STEM education (ISE) community to help lead the efforts to support STEM learning. We believe that there is a vital need to expand ideas about what education can look like outside of school and to reinforce the unique strengths of family learning that educators should keep in mind as they reach out to children and parents.

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To support these efforts, we offer a preliminary set of principles for supporting family learning at home for teachers, ISE professionals, and other educators. These principles are drawn from current research on family learning and informal STEM education, as well as our own collective experience working with and studying families across a diversity of learning contexts and topics. They are written particularly for those working to support STEM education and learning for children, pre-K through high school, and their families. But we hope the ideas will resonate across ages, learning contexts, and content domains. We also hope that this initial set of principles will inspire a field-wide conversation, motivating others to share their perspectives and input so that we can continue to refine these ideas as a core resource for the STEM education community.

Principles for Supporting Family Learning at Home

  1. Be aware of and help families attend to basic needs first. Only after they have met these needs for survival, security, and well-being will families have the time, energy, and resources to support learning at home. Stress and anxiety make it all but impossible for children and adults alike to focus on higher-order tasks and goals, problem-solve, and retain information.[1] Therefore, it’s essential in these challenging times that we support families in meeting their basic needs. We also need to maintain reasonable expectations for ourselves and our education goals as we adjust to the new realities of the health crisis.​
  2. Learn about and build on families’ knowledge, skills, interests, and values. This is a central tenet for creating learning experiences that are relevant and engaging.[2] But with family learning at home it’s even more critical, since children and parents have much more control over how they spend their time and how they engage with learning materials. [3] Research shows that families already engage with STEM in their own ways outside of schools.[4] These experiences, as well as the long-term impacts of STEM experiences, are guided by the interests, values, and identities that children and adults bring with them.[5] This includes the diversity of cultural beliefs and approaches across families related to learning, parenting, and child development, which may or may not align with educators’ own beliefs and assumptions.[6] Learning about and with families will enable us to create more powerful educational experiences that build on rather than undermine the resources and strengths within families.[7]
  3. Work with parents and other significant adult caregivers as partners in children’s education. Parents are their children’s first teachers, and they remain one of the most powerful influences on their children’s educational trajectories throughout the school years.[8] Parents are uniquely positioned to support their own children’s learning because of their intimate knowledge of their children’s abilities, prior experiences, and interests.[9] They are also learners themselves and are continuously working to understand and respond to new topics of interest and learning that they encounter through their children’s experiences.[10] If we want to support learning at home, we must remember that our audience is the whole family, not children alone, and that parents are our collaborators in guiding children’s education. There is also much we have to learn from families about their children and about approaches to learning that we don’t yet understand.[11] Of course, when we think about parents, we must consider the variety of different family configurations and structures across communities, such as single-parent households, grandparents caring for grandchildren, extended families living together, and older children teaching younger siblings.
  4. Celebrate and support the unique nature of learning outside of school. Most learning throughout our lives happens outside the classroom and looks very different from traditional school instruction.[12] Family learning outside of school is often highly social, including adults and children of different ages, and may be motivated by goals and interests that are not directly connected to school topics, such as spending time together, solving everyday problems, building personal identity, or exploring a topic or activity of interest.[13] Learning may seem intermittent and disjointed and may take the form of a brief conversation between a parent and child, a short explanation offered during a car ride or neighborhood walk, or a quick internet search.[14] But these small moments can add up to powerful learning trajectories over time.[15] Therefore, it’s important for us to let go of our expectations about what learning should look like and think about the small ways we can support family learning as it happens every day. We also need to get the message out to families that learning, including STEM learning, is happening all the time, with or without official educational structures and resources, a message that may bring them some relief.

Clearly, these are broad principles to help guide our approaches to supporting families. We hope these will complement the many resources that educators and organizations across the country have been assembling and sending out over the last several months, including CAISE’s online learning resources page. We also hope that others will share their feedback and continue to refine and improve these principles, especially as we learn more about what families truly need in these strange times.

Underlying these principles is a call for us to self-reflect as an education community—about our relationships with parents and families and the ways that our own beliefs and experiences as educators shape our approaches to learning and teaching. Through this process, we can deepen our connections with families and envision a future of learning in which schools and other STEM education organizations are just one part of a broad learning landscape, with children and families at the center.


Many of the ideas presented here build on work funded by the National Science Foundation, including Head Start on Engineering (NSF Grant No. 1543175, 1515628), My Sky Tonight (1217441), Explaining and Exploring (1420259), and Lupe’s Story (0741583). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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