What happens when parents push back on efforts to improve preschool quality? My colleagues and I stumbled across this issue while conducting research in Ghana.

Ghana has been a pioneer in expanding children’s access to preschool—or what Ghanaians refer to as kindergarten. In 2007, the government introduced two years of kindergarten (for 4- and 5-year-olds) as part of the free, universal, basic education system. As a result, Ghana now has some of the highest enrollment rates on the continent (approximately 75%) and has achieved more than 94% enrollment in some areas of the capital city.

For the last four years, my colleagues and I have partnered with Innovations for Poverty Action and the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of these two years of early schooling by developing a teacher training and coaching program.  This program aims at helping teachers integrate more child-centered and activity-based learning approaches, as well as positive behavior management practices.

Such educational approaches are in stark contrast to traditional teacher-led methods, where children repeat and memorize what the teacher says. There is even a popular saying in Ghana that captures this older approach: “Chew, pour, pass, forget”—memorize what the teacher says, pour it out to pass the test, and then forget it.

When teachers push forward and parents push back

Because teachers told us they were concerned parents wouldn’t like these methods, we also developed a program to engage parents and explain these new approaches to them. We hoped that parents would respond to our outreach by better supporting teachers and maybe even using some of these practices at home.

Ghanaian parents care deeply about their child’s education. They see education as key to their child’s success in life, and they spend a lot of money on preschool. We assumed that engaging both teachers and parents would be better than just working with teachers. But we were wrong.

“Children in these classrooms performed better in both literacy and numeracy.”

I’ll start with the good news. Training teachers led to improvements in classroom quality. Teachers shifted away from the “chew and pour” methods and instead supported students to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills, and teachers created a more positive emotional climate in the classroom. These changes led to improvements in children’s social and emotional development and in their academic outcomes. As a matter of fact, children in these classrooms performed better in both literacy and numeracy.

Now here’s the bad news: All of the gains for children were erased in schools where, in addition to providing the exact same teacher training, we engaged parents in similar messages through video screenings and discussions during Parent–Teacher Association (PTA) meetings. While teachers in these schools did improve some aspects of their teaching practice, they maintained the “chew and pour” approaches to teaching, and all positive gains for children were counteracted. Clearly, our efforts to engage parents as positive participants in the teaching process were not successful.

When confronted with unexpected findings, researchers must dig deeper. My colleagues and I went back and interviewed teachers and parents who had participated in these PTA meetings. We were not surprised to learn that Ghanaian parents want to offer their children the best start to their education, but we were surprised by how strongly they held on to their ideas of what constitutes quality education. Parents were concerned that their child would not learn enough if these new educational approaches were implemented, and some urged teachers to revert to the old approaches, particularly those concerning behavior management, and using intimidation and fear as a strategy to support learning.

“Parents were concerned that their child would not learn enough if these new educational approaches were implemented, and some urged teachers to revert to the old approaches.”

In response to these findings, a Ghanaian colleague of mine asked: “Why don’t you just forget parents and work with teachers? Let the parents focus on making sure the child is fed and cleaned and school fees are paid, and work with the teachers to provide better quality learning.” This, after all, is the approach Ghana’s education system has taken to date. But we know that parents play a major role in their child’s development, and that they are already doing things to support their child’s development at home. To cut parents out of our approach would be doing a disservice to them and their children.

 “How to get the parents on board?”

How can we build on the foundation parents have already laid in ways that are also productive for learning? We are heading down two paths that we hope will lead us to the answer to this question. The first path is taking us outside of the field of education to see what community-based approaches have been effective in changing behaviors. The second is taking us back to the parents themselves, to better understand their needs and desires.

The health sector has developed many successful community-based approaches to alter health-related perspectives and behaviors. A recent study found that community-based theater was an effective way to teach about the prevalence and social predictors of stroke and change behaviors. On a larger scale, nationwide public awareness campaigns have helped countries successfully vaccinate entire populations.

Perhaps we need a similar approach in education, with both national campaigns and community-based strategies to relay information about best practices in early childhood development and education. Such approaches related to parenting and early education have never been tried before, but they are worth considering.

“Perhaps we need a similar approach in education, with both national campaigns and community-based strategies to relay information about best practices in early childhood development and education.”

My colleagues and I are also planning to spend more time listening to Ghanaian parents. What do they desire for their child? How do they see their role in their child’s education, and what would they like help with?

Nearly everything we know about how parents can support preschool children’s early learning comes from high-income countries, where parents are more likely to be literate and have higher levels of education. In countries like Ghana, where some parents may only have a few years of schooling and may have never learned to read, what types of interventions can help them find their role in their child’s learning?

While we don’t yet have the answers, perhaps Ghanaian parents will.


  1. I am a developmental scientist in the Philippines and we have encountered similar parental attitudes about children’s education and beliefs about the best ways for children to learn. We think these beliefs – which can be largely “authoritarian” and quite unidirectional from parent/teacher to child – are in part founded on parental beliefs about children and how they think and develop. For instance, that young children cannot learn anything on their own, or need adult control and supervision to regulate their emotions and impulsive behavior. There are also challenges in involving parents in schools, when they believe that the school is the teachers’ domain and that they are interfering in what they do not know (esp if their education attainment is low).

    In our context, when low-resource parents are asked to be part of school activities or are called to interact with teachers, it is usually taken to mean that their kids are not doing well or that there is a problem with their child’s behavior. So these fundamental cultural beliefs about children’s development and the roles of parents vis-a-vis teachers may clarify some of the challenges you are experiencing in Ghana. Good luck on your very good work!

    1. Liane, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think the issues we encountered were very similar to what you outlined. Follow-up qualitative interviews with teachers revealed that parents asked the teacher to use corporal punishment to ensure their child learns, and our interviews with parents revealed that they felt teaching was the job of the school and teacher — that’s why they pay school fees, after all — and that they didn’t know how they could help their child learn. Have you found any successful strategies you have used that have changed parents sense of efficacy in their child’s education, or the way they see children’s learning processes?

  2. Fascinating article, changing cultural practices and beliefs is no simple feat. Maybe if they started with parent education on ECD and nurturing care, the next steps to evolving preschools would be led by the parents and therefore more sustainable.

  3. Thanks for your good work—I’ve been following it as you collected data and the IPA folks have shared information. Our team has been working deeply in Ghana (and other low and middle income nations) for several years. I like the two new areas you are investigating…but if you want a school’s culture to truly be transformed—why not include a strong focus on the school leaders? within schools-after teachers- their impact is more important than other factors. The literature always discusses teachers and parents and forgets the principal/head teacher yet that body of literature and their role in improving a culture of learning is considerable.

    1. Thank you for your comment, and I agree completely. We did involve the school leaders in the teacher trainings: head teachers attended the sessions alongside the teachers, and received reports from the coaches after each visit. We think this made a big difference in their acceptance and support of teachers trying out these new methods. However, they were not as directly involved in the parental-awareness meetings, which may have been part of the issue.

      Another project I worked on in Ghana found that a 4-day training of head teachers had no measurable impact on kindergarten teachers use of similar methods, who had received intensive training and showed big gains the previous year. Many of the gains teachers (student-teachers at the time) made the previous year in using more child-centered methods faded out when they were placed in new schools, where we heard that head teachers who did not support these methods: https://www.poverty-action.org/study/mentoring-and-experiential-learning-early-education-student-teachers-ghana.

      This was puzzling to me too, but clearly we need a better training of school leaders. Can you direct me / other readers to where we can find best practices for engaging school leaders / head teachers?

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