Families are small schools, and parents are children’s first teachers. Every child in America is being home schooled in the sense that children’s expectations, aspirations, and early abilities are shaped at home. Their behaviors, learned skills, and knowledge are forged in the crucible of parent-child interactions. Yet we know surprisingly little about the nature, frequency, or quality of these interactions.

In the New Jersey Families Study, we ask: How do families support their children’s early learning? Our study features a highly innovative “video ethnography.” We use direct observations of parent-child interactions to deepen our understanding of the contextualized strategies that families from a wide variety of backgrounds and in different social and economic circumstances use to build skills in their young children. Unobtrusive technologies in the form of video cameras placed strategically in up to four rooms in participants’ homes (rooms where most interactions occur) and activated continuously throughout the day and evening for two weeks constitute the primary means of data collection.

Interactions that hold particular interest are those that are believed to be linked to cognitive and social-emotional development—the amount of reading and talking parents do with children, children’s sleep routines, their diets and nutrition, their exposure to electronic screen time, structure versus chaos at home, and the way that stress outside the home affects parenting practices. Taking a holistic approach to parent-child interactions and filming families in their natural habitats over an extended period will not only help more children to become school-ready. This unique study will also lead to a better appreciation of the daily struggles facing many families and thereby help schools become more “children-ready.”

We have reached an important milestone. Data collection from 21 families is now complete, including nearly 463,000 discrete video clips representing more than 5,700 hours of in-home video.  In addition, a 230-page Documentation Manual that describes everything we have done since 2011 and documents every piece of data collected is finished. This manual can also serve as a user’s guide to anyone wishing to replicate this study in another site. We are now preparing the data for analysis and will be seeking planning grant funds to carry out several interim steps.