This podcast is an interview Dr. Sarai Coba-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her research, she uses a family resilience perspective to learn about school readiness and family involvement among low-income Latino and African American families, including their beliefs and practices that promote young children’s successful transition to kindergarten.
Introduction: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project’s staff members.
In this podcast, we interview Dr. Sarai Coba-Rodriguez from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her research, she uses a family resilience perspective to learn about school readiness and family involvement among low-income Latino and African American families, including their beliefs and practices that promote young children’s successful transition to kindergarten. She joins us to share stories and insights from her research.
Dr. Swartz: Dr. Coba, thank you so much for joining us on the Illinois Early Learning Project podcast. We’re excited to have you here to talk about how families support their children during the kindergarten transition. So I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to research how families from diverse backgrounds help their children through the transition to kindergarten.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Sure and again, thanks so much for having me. Well, I think the way that I got started with my line of research was that for the majority of my childhood I was raised by a single mom, who reiterated every day the importance of an education and really who supported me and supported my education and well-being in many, many ways. But it really wasn’t until college that I got into research, that everything I kept reading was that, you know, low income ethnically or racially diverse families one, are not involved in their child’s education, and it’s because they don’t care and really that’s the reason so many children of diverse backgrounds don’t do well in school. And I knew that wasn’t true, it wasn’t true from my experience. It wasn’t true from friends who I know were also raised from single families. So I really just wanted to change the story line of how families of color were viewed. Much of the research on parental involvement and school readiness is really focused on these school-aged children. Very few is done in early childhood, which for me makes little sense, since early childhood education is really the foundation for later learning.
Dr. Swartz: Okay, great. So you’re interested in finding out more about how families from diverse backgrounds, both culturally and economically, and also family structure, so whether they have a single parent or two-parent, support their children in their schooling. So how do you find out about this topic? What methods do you use?
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: I consider myself to be a qualitative researcher, which really means that my goal is to obtain first-hand knowledge of my participants’ beliefs and perspectives. And to do that I do in-depth interviews, observations, and recently I started utilizing the photo-elicitation technique to capture participants’ voices on a given topic. And in addition to the qualitative framework, I use a family or strengths-based family perspective. And it really just shows that in order to better understand how low-income, racially diverse families promote their children’s school readiness, or children’s education, that one has to challenge this deficit-based perspective, that for too long has categorized low-income families of color. So I really focus on what families are doing in opposed to what they’re not doing. So much of the literature really focuses, oh you know low-income families who are racially and economically diverse don’t do x, y and z. And I think there’s too much of that and there’s very little, if any, on really understanding what families are already doing. Because they are doing a lot.
Dr. Swartz: So that’s really interesting. You’re trying to tell the stories of what families are doing and that potentially gives practitioners and schools and communities something to build on. So you mentioned photo-elicitation? Can you tell us a little bit more about what that is?
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: So what I do is really photo driven or participant driven. And what I do is I give parents a disposable camera and I just tell them, you know, you have 30 pictures here. I want you to take pictures of what you’re doing to help your child get ready for kindergarten. I give very few instructions just because I don’t want to control much of their pictures. So they have about a week to take pictures of whatever it is they think that they’re doing. I develop them and then I sit with them, and I go through every picture and I ask, who is in the picture, what are they doing, and why are they doing this. And it’s been pretty amazing to see the range of pictures that I’ve received. But it’s also a lot of fun because one, the participants or the parents get to take these pictures home with them. But also, that they’re able to visually see what they’re doing.
Dr. Swartz: That’s so interesting. So what kinds of pictures do parents take?
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: There are so many. So … and again, I absolutely love the analysis of these pictures, but there’s a range of photos. I’ll get photos of siblings reading, writing, coloring, doing puzzles together with the target child. Families going out for walks that really emphasizes kind of physical health. A child reading to someone, reading to themselves. Children using an easel or a white board to help identify letters, put words together. Children playing with their iPads, building Legos. I had pictures that parents took of all the school supplies they just bought and the backpacks. I had some kiddos who were waiting for the bus, you know ready to pick them up. My favorite one was really one of a mother whose young child liked writing on the walls in their home. And she kept getting in trouble by her landlord.
Dr. Swartz: Oh dear.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: So she went to the dollar store and bought a piece of white board and taped them across her living room so that her preschooler could still write. So not only was that really creative, but I thought, okay well, this is something we haven’t seen in the literature before, kind of the family agency or the other ways that parents are involved besides, you know, sitting down and reading to a child. So …
Dr. Swartz: Sure, and those are all developmentally appropriate ways that families can help their children get ready for kindergarten, and a lot of them are ones that are suggested to families, but they came up with it on their own, which is really neat.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Exactly, exactly. And again, the interview I wasn’t able to capture that, but the pictures, that was something else that this particular mother did to help her child.
Dr. Swartz: So maybe families aren’t able to tell us as much as they are able to show us what they’re doing.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Correct, correct, and I think that often times families … One, I think families have a lot to say and a lot to share, and that’s really through getting to know them and kind of giving them a voice to share what they’re doing, but … what’s new about this is that parents, at least from my experience, parents are doing a lot and these pictures really put in focus. There’s a visual representation of look at how much they’re doing, look at what my child, you know, is reading and doing that …
Dr. Swartz: So do you think families were surprised by the amount of things that you captured that they were doing?
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: I do. I do. You know, when I asked them to explain to me what was happening, why they were doing this, I think in the beginning, they were never asked that before. So it took a while for them to really realize, okay, well, you know, they’re reading, you know they’re this book because it’s their favorite book. But once, you know, you continue probing, I think parents begin talking nonstop and it came to their attention, it was self-realizing of how much they were doing. And many again, were very honest about, you know, they do this once a week or they don’t do this as much because now they started work…
Dr. Swartz: Sure, families have multiple demands.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: but it brought a lot of perspective.
Dr. Swartz: Do you think teachers or the schools know all the kinds of things that families are doing to help their children get ready for school?
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: So within my sample and my study, my answer is no. When I interviewed the teachers, I also interviewed preschool teachers. When I asked them, what do you think families are doing? Many said you know what, I don’t think they’re doing very much. Maybe they might be reading to them, but a lot of the teachers, if not all of them, did not know, that there is a mother putting a whiteboard in her living room. Or that they bought school supplies, or that they’ve gone to the dollar store and bought all these worksheets and workbooks. So I do not think that teachers know or are aware of all the supplies and all the materials that parents have at home, but also how they’re utilizing them.
Dr. Swartz: So teachers really need to kind of expand their thinking about what families are doing and maybe ask some more open-ended questions to find out from families what they’re doing and help families come up with new ideas.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Correct.
Dr. Swartz: So there’s really a give and take that you would hope to see occurring with teachers and families and schools and families to help children start kindergarten on the right foot.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Correct, and I think often times the way we view families has been very school centric, right? That a parent cares about a child if they’re at the PTA meetings, if they volunteer a lot. Well, a lot of low-income racially diverse families have multiple jobs that they can’t take off. So I think that teachers and staff really need to look at how parents are involved in various, and different ways, but also in culturally responsive ways as well. So perhaps you know the parents are not going and volunteering. It’s not because they don’t care, you know they’re working, but they might be doing other stuff at home. So, research really shows that for a lot of families of color, they’re not as involved in school as they are at home. But the way they are involved at home, it’s not just sitting down and reading with them. There’s other ways that parents are involved that the literature hasn’t really ventured out to that.
Dr. Swartz: Yeah, so that’s really interesting. So essentially, if we view involvement in school and supporting children in school only as being at those school events, we’ve already created a barrier for families, because not all families can be there because of their work schedules or other commitments or family caregiving. There’s just so many reasons why families may not come even if they wanted to be there. So we really have to change our perspective and think about ways that families can connect with school and appreciate all the things they’re doing at home to help children get ready for school.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Correct. So I think it’s not just appreciating but also realizing that there are some school policies that really kind of prohibit parents to come. If you’re asking parents to volunteer or even report card pick-up where, from 12 to 5 or 12 to 6. If a parent doesn’t get out of work until 5, they can’t come. So schools, I think need to be very flexible. How is it that their policy is impacting all families? Not just kind of the middle-class families who are able to have more flexibility.
Dr. Swartz: Sure, that’s really interesting. And you mentioned that you talked to prekindergarten, families with prekindergarteners and prekindergarten teachers. Any other strategies teachers use to communicate with families that came up or that families or frustrations that families had about communicating with school that came up?
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Here is what I think I would say about this, is that the study or the projects that I have focused on, and that I’m actually doing, is with, it’s with Head Start centers. And they’re in urban areas and suburban areas. And I think in these centers there are bilingual either staff or teachers. Which I think helps with the communication. So not so much, at least with my research did I find that, teachers and parents are not communicating as much. I hypothesize that once the child goes to kindergarten, kind of enters this formal schooling where there’s less bilingual people, whether it’s staff or teachers, I think that’s where the communication issue might happen. But again, every center is different.
Dr. Swartz: Sure, so these Head Start centers, which maybe have more support services for families, are able to keep the communication going in a way that maybe is more difficult in the public school when there’s more children in the classroom and perhaps less family support staff. So you’re going to be finding out more about that next in your research.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: That is what I’m hoping. I’m hoping to do longitudinally to follow kiddos from kindergarten to first and second grade and really to see how family practices change as the child gets older. I assume that the practices are going to change. The expectations for the parents will change based on the schools. And really, you really have to look at every family different, but understanding the policies of the school and what they’re expecting from parents is really important.
Dr. Swartz: This has been a really interesting conversation, especially to hear the idea of looking at families’ strengths as a way to think about how children transition to kindergarten and all the things that families are doing to support them in that big step forward, when they become big kids. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us. Is there anything you’d like to leave our listeners with to think about? A charge, perhaps, for the new school year.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Well one of the first, I guess, suggestions I would have is that we need to stop looking at families through a deficit perspective or through a deficit lens. That all families are doing something that we might not be aware of, and it might need some fine tuning. And I think that’s where teachers and family workers could come and support, whether it’s through modeling or providing different types of materials. But I think, really do think that’s the first thing that we need to do, and the most important one, is to not look at families through this deficit lens but through this strength-based perspective and understand that they are doing a lot. I would also say that the transition to kindergarten is not just happening with the child but also with the parent. That the parent, particularly their first child, that they may not know kind of the rules and regulations regarding, formal schooling. So when we look at the transition, it’s the transition for the entire family. Not just the child who is going to a new classroom with new peers, but also for the parents who are going through this transition.
I think the last piece is that when we think about the transition to kindergarten, we mostly focus on parents, right. What are parents doing and not so much on what other family members doing? So what are father, siblings doing? And my research has shown that extended kin do play a really big role, an important role that needs to be more, that we need more information on. And lastly that we also need to talk to the preschoolers. My future research is actually talking to preschoolers and asking them, hey, what do you think about kindergarten, what are you excited for, what are you afraid of, what have your parents told you? And learning kind of these perspectives from the preschool children themselves is going to help us at least understand what are they thinking? You know, if they’re excited for the school supplies and the books, what can we do to kind of get those ahead of time. So talking to preschoolers, too, I think is an important way of understanding this transition, that hasn’t really been done.
Dr. Swartz: Oh really interesting. So really involving the entire family. Looking at that family in a broad sense, not just parent and child but the whole extended family and probably even friends who become like family. Think about how they are all starting this new exciting journey in kindergarten.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Exactly. We have to look at it holistically, because again the transition is not just for the child, but it’s for the entire family. So what can teachers and staff and schools really do to support the whole family through this transition, capitalizing on their tool kit. They have agency, and they have resources. It’s just a matter of understanding, what those resources are, and taking a step back and saying okay, so what is it you’re already doing and building and capitalizing on that.
Dr. Swartz: Alright, well thank you so much for joining us for this podcast. We appreciate your time and look forward to potentially speaking with you again when you have new research to share.
Dr. Coba-Rodriguez: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.
The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.illinoisearlylearning.org is a source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.