Learning Leader

Supporting Parents with the Play & Learning Strategies Program

Parenting style, geography, personal finance, community economics, cultural concerns, family characteristics—all these factors and more contribute to where and how children are cared for in their earliest years. One thing is consistent: most children spend a majority of their time with a parent or primary caregiver. How can researchers, practitioners, and policymakers support the profound influence parents have on their children’s development? This edition of the LEARNING LEADER looks at Play & Learning Strategies, a nationally recognized parenting program that has proven to positively impact parenting behaviors and child outcomes.

What is PALS?

Play and Learning Strategies (PALS) is a program developed at the Children’s Learning Institute, under founder and director Susan Landry, PhD, that helps parents of children ages birth to five years in supporting their children’s social-emotional, cognitive, and language development. Developed through numerous federal grants over the course of about 25 years, PALS has continuously shown significant gains in parental behavior and child outcomes as compared with similar families in control groups without PALS.

At its core, PALS emphasizes a supportive and responsive parent-child relationship. Parents learn specific behaviors to help them tune in to their children’s needs, respond in sensitive and contingent ways, and provide appropriate cognitive and language stimulation. Multiple research studies speak to PALS’ effectiveness, and the program is listed in four national “What Works” clearinghouses.

How does it work?

The PALS curriculum is structured around a series of sessions facilitated by a trained coach. Each session dives deeper into a general parenting concept with very specific strategies. For example, PALS takes the universal advice in the early childhood field—read with your child—and teaches parents how to engage children with exercises like plot prediction and relating the story to the family’s own experiences. These types of strategies get more mileage out of shared reading time by effectively engaging skills like critical thinking and vocabulary development. Beyond the skill implementations, PALS always connects each concept with the continued enhancement of the parent-child relationship. While these skills are useful on their own, their long-term effectiveness depends on parents maintaining a warm and supportive connection to their child.

How do you go about teaching adults new behaviors, you might ask? The meat of the PALS curriculum is its collection of short video segments that show real-life parents demonstrating key PALS concepts. After parents have an opportunity to view the positive parenting behaviors, the program then asks them to practice these behaviors.

The primary benefit of PALS coaching comes from the self-reflection aspect after the parents record themselves practicing. The coaches set up a simple camera, often around a kitchen table or on the living room floor, and video parents practicing PALS concepts with their children. The PALS coach and parent then watch the practice video together. When parents watch the 5-10 minute videos of themselves, they are often surprised at their own behavior. Many parents fail to realize the subtle signs they give off (through facial expression, tone of voice, or body language), signs which their child may interpret as more negative than intended. The video reflection time allows parents to re-experience an interaction with their child from an outside perspective and brainstorm ways in which they might be able to respond better in the future.

New models

PALS has achieved national recognition with large-scale adoption by organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and the Believe 2 Become program in Grand Rapids, Michigan. PALS works well in home visiting programs where staff resources already exist to support personalized coaching; however, organizations are experimenting with PALS delivery to meet community needs. For instance, the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas in Austin conducts PALS group training, bringing multiple caregivers together for viewing and guided reflection.

Technology is also increasing opportunities for a scale-up of PALS trainings. A current study at CLI, Parents and Teachers Together, implements PALS concepts in the home, while the Texas School Ready program incorporates many of the PALS tenets in the classroom. Although the implementation of these two programs was first studied in a face-to-face model, coaching both teachers and parents, it was expensive to scale. Currently, we are implementing a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to see if similar results can be effected through a remote model with both teachers and parents utilizing tablets for online training and coaching interactions. As technology becomes more ubiquitous in everyday lives, this may be a more cost effective option. What makes these projects unique is bridging the gap between home and school environments by providing training in responsiveness and instructional approaches specific to each setting. Early analysis indicates that combining effective approaches in both environments results in better school readiness outcomes. And to further bring PALS to scale, CLI is exploring ways to use online course interactives to simulate the coaching relationship where there aren’t resources for staff coaches. 

The PALS program has also been adapted for parents of children with physical disabilities, as well as incorporated into a nutritional program emphasizing children’s health. Coaching has been implemented in both home and remote environments, utilizing online tools to foster communication between parents and their coaches. Furthermore, we are currently conducting a pilot program to determine the effects of parenting on the development of children’s brain structure through the use of MRIs, and preliminary results indicate that nurturing parenting styles make significant impacts on brain development.

Looking ahead

While the setup of the PALS program may seem like a fairly typical parenting class, it’s really quite different in its approaches and aims. Rather than direct teaching, PALS is more focused on making parents aware of the positive skills they already use, encouraging them to develop new parenting skills and helping them to make a habit of implementing them. It is our core belief that emphasizing a supportive parent-child relationship, above all else, will allow for the most successful implementation of practical skills. Although participating parents must be willing to enact change, the supportive coach-parent bond (which, in many ways, provides a supportive-relationship example for parents to model) appears to give parents the motivation and encouragement they need to deepen their bond with their children and generate more successful parent-child interactions.

The utility of these concepts has been consistently demonstrated across a variety of implementations. Because of the versatility and demonstrable effectiveness of PALS, there is a bright future for programs adopting this approach. Future programs may adapt to the needs of their participants by utilizing technology or in-person coaching without compromising the successful outcomes they desire. Parenting will never be an easily-directed experience, but through PALS parents can strengthen their bonds with their children and ensure they have the skills necessary to raise their children in sensitive and effective ways.

For more information, visit the PALS webpage


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