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Child Care and Community Services: Characteristics of Service Use and Effects on Parenting and the Home Environment


High-quality early childhood environments are important for children's school success and their socio-emotional development. Center-based early childhood programs improve child outcomes through high-quality care while children are in the care environment, but also have effects that reach beyond the classroom. Large-scale evaluations of early childhood programs, such as Head Start and Early Head Start, show a positive effect on parenting and the home environment. These programs offer many services that can support the home environment such as volunteer opportunities for parents and referrals to services and supports in the community. However, little is known about the mechanisms through which center-based early childhood programs influence the home environment. Similarly, little is known about the characteristics of people who use services and what specific services they use.

This dissertation aims to improve our understanding of how parents interact with center-based early childhood programs, and the role these programs play in shaping the home environment. The first study investigates parent uptake of services associated with center-based care, and the characteristics of parents who are using such services and supports. Findings from this study indicate parents are using services, and that the most disadvantaged families are utilizing services related to their well-being, such as education and employment services. Study two examines characteristics of parents that participate in volunteer or (other types) of parent engagement activities, and whether parental involvement is associated with improved parenting practices and child development outcomes. In general, parents are participating in children's center-based early childhood programs. In contrast to the findings from the first study, parents who are most disadvantaged are less likely to participate; however, low-income parents who participate in their child's schooling gained the most from parental involvement activities. The third study examines the benefits of various services, such as parenting-related and family well-being supports, and finds that take-up of services and supports has a positive effect on the quality of the home learning environment.

Taken together, the findings from the three studies included in this dissertation demonstrate that parents are utilizing services and are becoming involved in their child's center-based early childhood program, and that doing so benefits the home environment and parenting practices. Early childhood programs and policies should work to further incorporate parents into programming and provide parents with services and supports.

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