Community, home, school, peers, and media exert a greater or lesser influence on children’s learning, depending on the age of the children concerned. Many theorists have described the stages in children’s development from dependency to independence and have theorized how children learn. In practice, parents, teachers, and community people rarely subscribe to one particular theory, but the decisions they make about children’s learning will reflect a stronger belief in one viewpoint. As you develop strategies to promote partnerships for children’s education, it is helpful to keep in mind that the perspective others may have on development may differ from your own.

The Early Years- Strong Home Influence

Early researchers such as Maslow (1970), Erikson (1963), and Piaget (1967) all emphasize the strong need for attachment and environmental support of infants and toddlers. Developing children require a physically and emotionally supportive environment in which their basic needs can be met. Infants must first develop trust in others so that they can explore their surroundings. According to Piaget, it is this exploration that enables them to construct knowledge about themselves and their world (Piaget, 1967).

Neuroscientists have discovered links between brain structure and brain activity, and brain research substantiates the notion that a child’s knowledge develops because of an interactive process, beginning even as the brain develops before birth. Heredity may determine the framework of a developing child’s brain, but researchers point out the many ways in which genes, environment, and infant responses interact to develop the connections between the brain cells that account for learning (Brynes, 2001; Pinker, 2002).

Because of this brain–environment interactive development, we can see that myriad events will affect growth, some positively and some negatively. Type of housing, presence of caregivers, and lifestyles associated with different homes influence children’s lives in profound and dramatic ways. Some environments are extremely supportive and nurturing, whereas others are dominating, negligent, and even dysfunctional. For example, affectionate interactions, consistent practices, organized schedules, and high-quality nourishment bring support and security to young children (Carnegie Corporation, 1994). Such nurturing environments have secure caregivers who respond to their children by touching, cuddling, talking to, and reading with them. Most authorities agree that emotional support and interactions with the child provide building blocks for intellectual competence and language comprehension.

On the other hand, the trials of homelessness, highly mobile families, absentee parents, and poverty often mean that parents are unable to provide positive and secure environments. The lack of a responsive environment, which stems from the parents’ own life experience, will affect a child’s intellectual, social, and emotional competence. The young brain is quite resilient, however, and later stimulation or strong emotional bonds can help many children overcome some of the negative results of early deprivation (Bruer, 2002; Newberger, 1997).

Regardless of family configuration, American society expects all families to provide economic and emotional support for infants and toddlers. With more single-parent and dual-income parents, and fewer extended family members available to support them, families face many challenges in providing optimal care for their children.

Preschool and Kindergarten Years- Increasing School Influence

As children develop a sense of autonomy, they need to learn the boundaries within which they can operate, and they must learn to identify new ones they will encounter as they separate from home. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1993) bioecological model accurately explains the transitions from the intimate microsystem of home to the mesosystem of outer linkages that come to bear on the developing child’s perceptions and behavior. As parents give their children necessary support, they must also give them freedom to try things on their own.

As we noted, one’s sense of self first develops in the home and then extends into the neighborhood, child-care center, and larger community. At school, the teacher and the children’s peers begin to alter or reinforce this sense. Children modify their behavior in school in response to various rules and regulations and to perceived teacher and peer expectations. At the same time, significant others in the home setting continue to influence development as the early schoolers move from basic trust to autonomy and independence.

Many children have school-like experiences in their preschool years. For other children, school as a culture first comes into focus when they enter formal public or private elementary school. In the preschool years, children may encounter several different types of school-like experiences. Head Start programs, child-care centers, and nursery schools all demonstrate somewhat different philosophical orientations. Some programs seek to introduce children to school through a more structured curriculum, others try to extend the nurturance of the home, and still others combine facets of both. The current movement toward universal preschool for children is an indication of the growing awareness of the importance of this developmental stage. Although it is difficult to conduct rigorous studies to determine the influence of different programs on developing children, we have evidence that quality preschool programs do have a lasting, positive effect on children’s academic growth and on subsequent life-skill development (Campbell & Ramey, 1995; Weikart, 2004).

Primary Years- Growing Community Influence

Community influence appears early in children’s lives and progresses steadily as children mature. The effect of community depends, however, on how families use neighborhood resources. The nature of that effect is not simple; it derives from the many subsystems within the community (Bronfenbrenner, Moen, & Garbarino, 1984). For example, the family may live in a neighborhood that provides positive social and physical support or in an area where parents are afraid to take their children outside.

As children expand their horizons, the living conditions of the neighborhood and community give them experiences on which to build their linguistic, kinesthetic, artistic, spatial, and interpersonal skills. Children who can visit zoos, museums, libraries, business establishments, parks, and other natural settings are better equipped to deal with the many mathematical, scientific, social, and language concepts discussed in schools than are children who can’t. Recent decades have produced a rich mix of cultural and ethnic diversity in many American communitieswhich contrasts starkly with the situation that existed in the mid-20th century. Inclusive schools, ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and transcultural events in most vicinities all produce a positive effect on young children.

Traditions, cultural values, community mores, opportunities for recreation, and other social and cultural activities all play a part in children’s development. Experiences interacting with adults in clubs, sports, and art and music activities open up children to differences in communication styles and offer them a range of experiences. Coleman (1991) called this type of involvement with adults a child’s social capital and stressed that this capital is as important as financial capital in determining school performance. Maeroff (1999) pointed out how childrern living in poverty may have fewer opportunities to participate in interactive incidents with different adults than those children who do not. Although socialization practices are learned at home, children who participate in community activities have greater opportunities to practice their negotiating, problem-solving, and intellectual skills. Steven, in the following vignette, begins to learn some of these important lessons.

Steven, in third grade, signed up for tae kwon do sessions but was unhappy because the instructor was “always criticizing” what he did. “I don’t even know what I do wrong,” he told his mother.

“And what do you do when he tells you something?” she asked.

“Oh, I get so mad, I just grit my teeth.”

“Are you sure he never compliments you?”

“Uh, uh, hardly ever,” pouted Steven.

“Well, want to try an experiment?” his mother suggested.

“The next time he even suggests something is good, smile at him and say, ‘Oh, that really helps me know what I should be doing,’ and just ignore the criticisms.” Steven reluctantly agreed to give it a try.

Two weeks later, a jubilant Steven returned from a practice session saying, “Hey Mom, he really does tell me lots about what I’m doing right!” Whether Steven or the instructor changed behavior patterns isn’t clear, but certainly Steven was learning new ways of working with adults so that he could profit from their instruction.

Positive interactions between community and family give a sense of security and well-being to all. This situation helps families provide the kind of nurturing that children need. Regrettably, not all communities provide healthy conditions for children. Community tolerance for gangs, illicit activities, or establishments with erotic content will have unhealthy and negative influences on children’s growth and the experiences they have. Violence in the streets limits everyone’s sense of security. Yet, even in neighborhoods besieged by poverty, extended family, churches, social and service organizations, and neighborhood groups can make a positive difference in children’s lives and support and extend the work of families and schools (Ramsey, 2004).