Chapter 1: The Concept and History of Early Childhood Family Education

Program Origin

In the mid-1970s, most state governments were not yet making policy connections between the care and education of young children from birth to age five and their performance in elementary school and beyond. Ahead of its time, the 1974 Minnesota Legislature began the piloting of Early Childhood Family Education with an appropriation of $230,000 for six local programs.
Today, the program is available statewide, serves over 310,000 parents and children annually, and is the largest and oldest program of its kind in the nation. The pilot legislation was spearheaded by Senator Jerome Hughes, then chairman of Minnesota’s Senate Education Committee. Senator Hughes has a doctoral degree in education administration and grounded the legislative intent for the Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) programs in research linking the quality of children’s development from birth to kindergarten with later school success.

Oversight for the early pilot programs was entrusted to the Minnesota Council on Quality Education (CQE), established by the 1971 Minnesota Legislature to provide a source of state funds for research and development in public education. With a majority of gubernatorial appointees from each of the state’s congressional districts supplemented by representatives of designated educational organizations, CQE seemed to be an appropriate “home” for the fledgling pilot programs. Assisting CQE with this responsibility was a legislatively mandated Advisory Task Force for ECFE, which included a majority of parents of young children, plus representatives from the fields of health, education, and welfare. Staff for the Council and Task Force were located within the Minnesota Department of Education. In 1983, after initial development by CQE, responsibility for program administration was transferred to Community Education for statewide implementation. Further details on program development are provided in the History section of this chapter.


Early Childhood Family Education is designed for parents and their children ages birth to kindergarten enrollment. The programs recognize the home is a child’s first learning environment and parents are their children’s primary and most influential teachers. The mission of ECFE is to strengthen families and enhance the ability of all parents to provide the best possible environment for the healthy growth and development of their children. Since all parents need information and support to raise healthy children, participation is not restricted by income level or special need. ECFE does not provide child care or duplicate other available community services. ECFE staff identify and work closely with public and private community organizations to connect participating families with other resources they may need.

The goals of Minnesota’s Early Childhood Family Education programs are:

1. Parent-child relationships support the child’s development in:

  • physical well-being and motor development,
  • social and emotional development,
  • approaches to learning (e.g., curiosity, persistence, attentiveness, reflection, interpretation, imagination, invention),
  • language development and communications skills, and
  • cognition and general knowledge.

2. Parents* understand the importance of what they do with their children and how it changes over time.
3. Parents have the knowledge and realistic expectations to anticipate and meet the developmental needs of their children.
4. Parents demonstrate sensitive and responsive care and interaction with their children.
5. Parents and children experience a smooth transition from early childhood programs and services into kindergarten and the larger school system.
6. Parents are involved in their children’s learning and education in the school-age years.
7. Families participate in formal and informal social networks in their communities that support effective parenting.
8. Families are knowledgeable about and appropriately use community resources.

  • The word “parents” includes all individuals who function in a primary parenting role.


Each ECFE program is administered through its local school district and designed with the assistance of an advisory council, composed of a majority of parents plus other community representatives. Licensed parent educators and early childhood teachers offer program activities in school buildings, homes, shopping centers, public libraries, health clinics, apartment buildings, homeless shelters, faith facilities, and other community sites. Parents and children participate together, typically for about two hours per week throughout the school year. Some school districts provide additional activities over the summer months. ECFE is voluntary, both for school districts to offer and for families to participate. Program offerings are available for a nominal cost on a sliding fee basis, with fees reduced or waived for those unable to pay.

Each program generally includes three central components for children and parents:

1. Parent and Family Education offers adults opportunities to share helpful ideas and alternative approaches to common parenting challenges with other parents of similar age children, often creating long-term friendships in the process. Licensed parent educators facilitate parent group discussion, while offering research-based information on child development, discipline, and practical strategies for parents to promote the healthy development of their children into capable adults. Activities include ongoing group discussions on topics selected by parents, workshops, field trips, speakers on specific topics, and information on and referrals to other community resources. In addition to age-specific groups, programs offer sessions for families with common concerns, such as single parents, teen parents, parents of children with disabilities, English language learners, and others.

2. Early Childhood Education enables children ages birth to kindergarten enrollment to participate with their peers in play and learning activities carefully planned and staffed by licensed early childhood teachers and trained paraprofessionals. Since young children learn by playing and interacting with the people and objects around them, special attention is paid to the activities, toys, and room arrangement in the early childhood classrooms. These are all designed to meet the social, emotional, physical, and intellectual needs of very young children. Early childhood education is held concurrently with center-based parent education sessions and offered for mixed-age groups or for children of specific ages, with sibling care provided.

3. Parent-Child Interaction allows parents to observe their children interacting with other children in the early childhood classroom, to observe other families with similar age children, and to participate with their children in enjoyable learning experiences. A portion of every session is usually planned for interaction between parents and children in the early childhood classroom, before or after parents join a discussion group with other parents. This parent-child interaction includes simple activities easily duplicated at home, as well as hard-to-set-up-and-clean-up activities. All activities are designed for learning and provide opportunities for parents and children to relax and have fun together.

Other program offerings may include early referral to screening and/or assessment for children’s health and developmental problems; special events for the entire family; home visits; and libraries of books, toys, and other learning materials. Program options are locally selected and based on community needs.

ECFE is a universal program. All parents with children aged birth to kindergarten enrollment living within a school district offering an ECFE program are eligible to participate. ECFE is not just for “income-eligible” families. This characteristic distinguishes Early Childhood Family Education from other family programs designed for “target” populations, such as Head Start. Although ECFE is designed to serve all families with children from birth to kindergarten enrollment, different families clearly have different resources and needs. Programs often design specific sessions for families, such as for parents of infants, immigrant families, fathers, single parents, teen parents, parents of children with special needs, and others. Each ECFE program identifies the demographics of eligible families in its service area and, using special outreach and program delivery strategies, attempts to reach a representative cross-section of those families.


ECFE begins at birth because research demonstrates that the quality and quantity of children’s experiences during the years before formal school entrance are highly related to how children learn and perform in school and beyond. Brain research confirms that the first three years are a critical period in a child’s development, especially in the areas of language, social skills, and the roots of intelligence. An infant’s daily interactions with caregivers actually determine the structures of neural pathways in the brain. The challenges of caring for very young children are best met by informed parents who have friends, resources, and positive connections in their communities. These early years are also a time when most parents are receptive to information and support.

Parents are an integral focus of ECFE because research shows that early childhood programs involving both parents and children are more effective than programs focusing exclusively on children. Research also confirms that children whose parents are involved from early on in their education and learning are more successful in school. Changes in society underscore the need for a program such as ECFE. The high mobility of American families means adults are often far from family and friends during their parenting years. High divorce and remarriage rates create a growing number of single parent and stepparent families. Economic pressures result in more families in which both parents are employed and in more families of young children living in poverty. Currently, Minnesota is receiving a new wave of immigrant families from all over the world. These factors, combined with the general complexity of modern life, create intense stress on families of all income levels.


The Council on Quality Education (CQE) administered the grant-funded ECFE pilot programs from 1974 to 1983, carefully monitoring and evaluating their quality and short- term outcomes. During that time, the appropriation grew from $230,000 for six programs to $1.8 million for 36 programs. This growth during the pilot phase was difficult and hard-won. Parents hosted legislators in local programs, wrote letters, made telephone calls, and testified in legislative hearings about the importance of ECFE for Minnesota families. School superintendents also testified to legislators, while a survey of kindergarten teachers reported that children who participated in ECFE were better prepared for school and had more actively involved parents.

In 1978, pilot program staff worked with national evaluation expert Dr. Michael Q. Patton to develop the first version of the Quality Indicators for Early Childhood Family Education Programs to be used for program evaluation and planning. These quality indicators have been revised and expanded several times and are still in use today. Although CQE was unsuccessful in obtaining the funds it sought from a variety of sources for a comprehensive, longitudinal outcome evaluation, ECFE’s high quality implementation and potential for positive long-term outcomes were documented in a wide variety of formative evaluations. See Chapter 12 in this Guide for details on program evaluation. This evidence, combined with high levels of parent satisfaction and parent advocacy over the 10 year pilot period, proved to be convincing.

In 1983, the Minnesota Legislature transferred ECFE funds and administrative responsibility from CQE to Community Education and requested a study of potential funding formula options. After reviewing the findings of this extensive study, the 1984 Legislature adopted a funding formula for statewide implementation of ECFE based upon the birth to four-year-old population, a voluntary local levy, and corresponding supplementary state aid. Between 1984 and 1986, ECFE expanded from 29 to 253 school districts. Within 10 years of the shift from pilot status to state program, over 99 percent of school districts were choosing to offer ECFE. By 2000, more than 310,000 parents and children were participating in the program at a combined state and local cost of over $39 million. ECFE now involves more young children and their families than any other publicly sponsored early childhood program or service in Minnesota.

Between 1984 and 1990, a statewide regional inservice training network was established, two new parent education licenses were developed to complement the existing early childhood teaching licenses, and the first two editions of this Guide were written and distributed to all school districts. State ECFE curriculum and evaluation committees were formed and created a comprehensive resource guide and instruments and strategies for ongoing data collection. In 1987, an Evaluation Round Table featured nationally known researchers Drs. Irving Lazar, Douglas Powell, and Heather Weiss in an intensive evaluation discussion with ECFE program staff and administrators. The statewide School Readiness program for three and a half- to five-year-olds (initially named Learning Readiness and designed for four-year-olds), grounded in ECFE experience and philosophy, was established by the 1991 Legislature. The 1997 Legislature allocated a two-year appropriation for ECFE Infant Development Grants, which heightened emphasis on programming for infants and toddlers. All of these efforts continue today and are revised as needed. Although it has not kept pace with inflation, the per capita funding (based on 0-4 population) has gradually increased over the years, from $79.25 in 1986 to $120 in 2001.

Minnesota’s Early Childhood Family Education program has also garnered national attention over the past 25 years. ECFE has been recognized as a significant and well implemented state program by the Harvard Family Research Project, CBS Sunday Morning, the PBS program “To the Contrary,” the U.S. Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation, the Cornell Empowerment Project, Vanderbilt University authors in the book Strengthening Families, the National Community Education Association, the Education Commission of the States, the United States General Accounting Office, the Civitan International Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and others. Government officials and private entities in other states frequently look to Minnesota’s ECFE program as a model for program and policy development in their own states and communities.

Demographics of ECFE Participants

The demographics of families who participate in ECFE are generally representative of all Minnesota families of children ages birth to kindergarten enrollment. During the 1999-2000 school year, employed parents constituted almost 60 percent of all participants, and families of color constituted over 14 percent of participants statewide and 45 percent in the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. Twenty-four percent of all families had household incomes of less than $30,000; 14 percent had incomes under $20,000; and over seven percent had incomes under $10,000. In the metropolitan areas, these statistics were 50 percent, 40 percent, and 27 percent respectively. Single parents constituted over 16 percent of all participating families and over 33 percent in the metropolitan areas. Almost half of all eligible children in Minnesota (ages birth to kindergarten enrollment), or 45 percent, participated in ECFE during 1999-2000.

Lessons Learned From the Growth and Development of ECFE in Minnesota

  1. Begin slowly on a small scale and carefully evaluate the process before extending the program statewide.
  2. Encourage creation of permissive legislation that emphasizes community-based programs with options for local implementation within clearly stated philosophy and guidelines.
  3. Offer choices to parents in program delivery. Each local program should address the specific needs of families in its community.
  4. Assume all families have strengths and work with them in an atmosphere of mutual respect and responsibility.
  5. Make the program available to all families with young children to avoid the potential segregation, stigma, and labeling frequently associated with targeting populations.
  6. Provide strong state coordination and leadership.
  7. Create quality standards and encourage program self-assessment.
  8. Continue state-level evaluation of program processes and outcomes.
  9. Create or revise state teaching licenses and/or training programs appropriate for parent and early childhood educators.
  10. Collaborate with other programs and resources in the community that serve families with young children.
  11. Form strong relationships with school personnel and policymakers within the K-12 portion of the school system to provide a continuum of learning and parent involvement.

Parent Reactions to ECFE

Since parents are the primary consumers of program services, their comments about Early Childhood Family Education serve as the best illustration of the program concept. The consistency is clear when comparing the results of ECFE interviews conducted with 130 participating parents in 1977 and with 183 parents in 1991.

  • Parents emphasized the importance of sharing views with other parents; establishment of mutual support groups; learning about child development and parenting skills; providing social interaction and stimulation for their child; integrating the child into the school; and having access to toys, books, new ideas, and health screening. (Patton, 1977, p. 48)
  • After participating for one year in ECFE, parents reported five overall change themes:
  1. Increased feelings of support from others, knowing they are “not alone” in their feelings and experiences and that other parents have the same problems and concerns;
  2. an increased sense of confidence and self-esteem as a parent;
  3. increased knowledge, awareness, and understanding about children and child development and the parental role in relation to child development;
  4. (resulting in) changed perceptions and expectations for themselves as parents and for their children; and
  5. changes in behavior. (Cooke, March 1992, p. 1)


Cooke, B. (March 1992). Changing times, changing families. Minnesota early childhood family education parent outcome interview study. Summary. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Education.

Hobbs, N., Dokecki, P., Hoover-Dempsey, K., Moroney, R., Shayne, M., & Weeks, K. (1984). Strengthening families. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Patton, M. Q. (1977) An external review of early childhood and family education pilot programs. Minneapolis: Minnesota Center for Social Research.


1A History of Minnesota Early Childhood Family Education: Program Development
1B Guiding Principles, Mission, and Goals of Minnesota Early Childhood Family