Home-school connection, cultural responsiveness bridge kindergarten racial/ethnic gaps – Early Learning Network
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Home-school connection, cultural responsiveness bridge kindergarten racial/ethnic gaps

Parents and young student have conference with teacher

Home-school connection, cultural responsiveness bridge kindergarten racial/ethnic gaps

Strong connections between home and school, especially trust and partnership between parents and teachers, play a significant role in reducing kindergarten gaps for students from minoritized communities. Early intervention and culturally responsive practices are key to ensuring all children receive equitable learning opportunities.


Research shows that racial and ethnic gaps in school achievement, behavior and social skills emerge early on in a child’s life and persist through kindergarten. Closing these gaps through early intervention is crucial to ensure all students have access to the same quality education and opportunities for future success.


A recent Early Learning Network study, led by Iheoma U. Iruka, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, shed light on factors that may help narrow gaps at the end of kindergarten, specifically among Black, White and Latine students.


The findings, published in the Elementary School Journal, underscore the importance of the home-school connection — positive communication between parents and teachers and shared feelings of affiliation with one another — as one of the key levers to mitigate gaps, especially for Black students. The results also emphasized the need to identify culturally responsive practices in early learning to better serve students and families from minoritized communities, particularly for Latine families for whom English is a second language.


Why it matters


Economic disparities and systemic inequities embedded within the education system disproportionately affect Black and Latine students compared to White students. While differences in socioeconomic status and family income explain why some racial/ethnic groups might perform differently in school — there are other factors at play.


Research shows that gaps persist between different racial/ethnic groups even after accounting for economic factors, prekindergarten experiences and skills assessments.


Therefore, it is essential to look beyond individual characteristics and economic indicators, and to identify other aspects of the learning experience we can change or influence to close gaps in the early school years.


“Unfortunately, Black and Latine children are more likely to attend less-resourced schools and experience lower-quality early education programs compared with White children due to a legacy of racism and segregation,” Iruka said. “There is a dire need to understand what is causing these pernicious gaps and to identify factors that have potential to reduce or eliminate them, even before children enter school.”


The study


This study examined malleable factors associated with reducing language, achievement and social-emotional development gaps among Black, Latine and White children in Nebraska. The sample included 300 kindergarten students in both rural and urban settings, with 54% of students identified as White, 32% identified as Latine and 15% identified as Black. About 70% of students had attended a center-based pre-K program, 73% were in low-income households and 40% had parents with a high school degree or less.


The team assessed malleable factors within and between children’s home and school contexts, including parenting practices, home-school connections and classroom environments.


Variables were measured at the end-of-kindergarten and included outcomes for expressive vocabulary, reading achievement, math achievement, social skills and problem behaviors.



  • Do Black-White, Latine-White and Black-Latine language, academic and social-emotional skill gaps exist at the end of kindergarten, before and after controlling for child and family demographics, pre-K attendance, and academic and social-emotional skills?
  • Are there racial/ethnic differences in malleable factors, specifically parenting practices, home-school connection and classroom environment, that may reduce gaps?
  • To what extent do these malleable factors reduce identified racial and ethnic gaps?


Key findings


The following key findings emerged at the end of kindergarten:

  • Gaps persisted between Black and Latine students in teacher-reported problem behaviors.
    • Whether teacher-reported problem behaviors were due to actual problem behavior or pro-White implicit biases was unclear.
  • Strong home-school connection, including trust and partnership between parents and teachers, was associated with reducing the gap between Black and Latine students in teacher-rated problem behaviors.
  • Significant gaps were evident between Latine and White students in expressive language skills.
    • Parenting practices, home-school connection and classroom environments were not associated with reducing Latine-White gaps in expressive language.
  • While an emotionally supportive classroom environment was associated with better behavioral outcomes overall, it did not significantly mitigate racial/ethnic gaps.
  • Differences in achievement and social-emotional skills were primarily a reflection of pre-K experiences.


What this means


Strong home-school connections and collaboration between parents and teachers are important for all students to be successful; however, this study suggests that they may matter more for students and families from minoritized communities.


“When parents, especially Black parents who have a history of being disenfranchised, experience positive communication with their child’s teacher, it can reduce misperceptions and biases that get in the way of their partnership,” Iruka said. “Positive things can come from the dialogue that occurs between home and school — two essential contexts for early learning and development.”


The finding that Black students’ teacher-rated problem behaviors widened compared to Latine students by the end of kindergarten reflects national trends showing the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of Black students compared with Latine and White students. This troubling pattern warrants immediate attention to understand its causes and how to address it.


This study also highlighted the importance of considering language acquisition and home language in understanding and addressing racial/ethnic achievement gaps. The lack of a malleable factor to explain the Latine-White gap in expressive language indicates the need to identify culturally relevant factors associated with Latine children’s learning (e.g., familismo, respeto) rather than solely focusing on Eurocentric values.


Even with its limitations, this study advances the field’s understanding of factors we can change or influence to reduce racial/ethnic achievement and behavioral gaps at the end of kindergarten, while emphasizing the critical need for early intervention and trusting home-school partnership.




Below are some equity-focused recommendations to support students and families from diverse backgrounds:

  • Schools can provide more culturally responsive resources, support and training to educators to strengthen the home-school connection and build trust between parents and teachers.
  • Schools and educators can provide more authentic and flexible opportunities for parents to authentically engage with educators and school staff.
  • Schools and educators can ensure students have positive and affirming experiences that build their academic competencies and social and emotional skills, especially a healthy racial and ethnic identity.
  • Schools and educators can build positive relationships with parents by treating them as partners, making early learning programs and schools more culturally relevant and sustaining, such as:
    • Exploring families’ funds of knowledge and their approach to supporting their children’s learning at home and school;
    • Having high expectations that treat parents as their child’s first and most important teacher and providing supports and resources to help parents enhance and extend what children are learning at school;
    • Educating parents about how schools and educational systems operate and how they can create peer relationships and networks to support their engagement in schools and beyond; and finally,
    • Empowering families to advocate for their child to support their learning.
  • Researchers should further investigate how racial and ethnic gaps persist beyond kindergarten and discern whether the malleable factors identified in this study continue to play a role in reducing gaps while identifying other factors that may be more meaningful for Latine families and other minoritized families.


Dig deeper



Read the full research paper: “Examining malleable factors that explain the end-of-kindergarten racial/ethnic gaps” Elementary School Journal, March 2022
Iheoma U. Iruka, Susan Sheridan, Natalie Koziol, Rachel Schumacher, Hannah Kerby, Amanda Prokasky, and Dong-ho Choi.



Watch Dr. Iruka’s Early Learning Network webinar presentation outlining key points from this study: “Beyond Achievement Gap Gazing: Examining What Matters.”


Upcoming work

Stay tuned for more information exploring the links between culturally responsive practices and Black and Latinx student outcomes.