The Parents Involved in their Children’s Learning (PICL) approach

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Early Years
  • Families, Parents and Carers
  • General resources

Basic details


Organisation submitting example

Pen Green

Local authority/local area:

Northamptonshire County Council

The context and rationale

Pen Green describes PICL as a way of working rather than a parenting programme. One of the core aims of the PICL approach is to increase parents’ and workers’ understanding of children’s learning and development using video reflection and sharing key concepts for understanding and analysing children’s learning and development. By engaging with parents and developing strong and equal partnerships, the PICL approach helps parents and workers support children both at home and in the setting. 

Parents Involved in their Children’s Learning (PICL) is an approach, a way of working that has been developed across the Pen Green Centre for Children and Families over the last 28 years. It is an approach underpinned by a strong ethos which respects parents as co-educators of their children, redressing the imbalance of power between parents and professionals. It emphasises the importance of achieving an equal relationship between parents and workers, where parents are acknowledged as knowing their children best and wanting the best for them. Parents and workers share information through reflecting on video of the child and support the child’s learning in a ‘developmental partnership’. The development of the PICL approach and the research project that led to its development is described in ‘Involving Parents in their Children’s Learning’ (Whalley, 2007). 

Workers use information about the child’s learning and play at home to offer the child rich learning experiences in the setting and parents use information about the child’s learning and play in the setting to provide a rich home learning environment. This flow of information between parents and workers is what we call ‘The Pen Green Learning Loop’. 

Feinstein (2003) has identified a gap at 22 months between the attainment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to those more advantaged. This gap widens as children get older. Blanden (2006) has shown, using the same 1970 birth cohort data, that parental involvement in their children’s learning is the key factor that enabled some children to buck the trend and do well despite disadvantage. There has been a wealth of evidence produced which confirms the benefits of involving and engaging parents in their child’s learning (Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003; Sylva et al, 2004). PICL is different from a content-led parenting programme. It is a way of working that aims to:

• challenge and support workers to find ways of involving all parents (mothers and fathers) and to develop effective parent-worker relationships where knowledge about the child is shared in an ongoing dialogue
• increase parents’ enjoyment and confidence in being with their child, 
• increase parents’ knowledge about their child’s interests and how to support their child’s learning and their ability to be an advocate for their child
• promote an effective home learning environment
• support the child’s learning and development over time and improve outcomes for children across the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). 

Pen Green has developed a professional programme to support children centre and early childhood workers to work with the PICL approach. They have engaged workers from over 15 different local authorities in the last 10 years. This is a three-day programme which involves two days exploring beliefs and values about working with parents and how to work together to support children’s learning. Participants are then asked to engage in project work over a three- month period, which includes work in the setting with their staff team, an audit of current practice and a child study with one family using video. Participants return for a final day to share the project work and action plan for the future. Four local authorities are currently offering PICL under licence to Pen Green and have their own accredited PICL trainers.

The practice

By engaging with parents and developing strong and equal partnerships, the PICL approach helps parents and workers support children both at home and in the setting. 

One of the core aims of the PICL approach is to increase parents’ understanding of their children’s learning and development using video reflection and key concepts for understanding and analysing children’s learning and development (Frameworks for Thinking – 2012.pdf available from 
at Pen Green or These include: 

• Involvement (Laevers, 1997) – this concept is used to establish when a child is involved in what they are doing, with deeper level involvement showing deep level learning. 
• Well-being (Laevers,1997) – the concept of well-being is central to a child’s educational development, where low well-being can prevent a child from learning. 
• Schemas (Athey, 2007) – these are repeated patterns of action which children show when they are exploring the world around them. These repeated patterns help them to develop theories about how things work and to develop an understanding of concepts. 
• ‘Adult pedagogic strategies’ (Pen Green 2005) are also shared – these strategies enable parents and workers to reflect on how they interact with children and how their approach can support and impact on a child’s learning. 

The use of these frameworks allows parents and workers to develop a shared language about learning.The PICL approach also uses several key models of engagement, which are opportunities for professionals to initiate, maintain and reflect on dialogue with parents. These contribute to developing ongoing relationships between children, parents and practitioners to foster an equal partnership, enabling both parents and workers to enrich their understanding of their children’s learning and interests. 

Pen Green PICL Models of Parental Engagement

1. Attendance at key concept sessions – these sessions are a way for parents/carers to learn about some of the key concepts that underpin the PICL approach. 
2. A sustained settling in period in a setting (nursery, crèche or group) – this gives workers the opportunity to discuss the key concepts that are shared with parents in order to be able to analyse the child’s learning. A settling in period also allows workers to get to know all the important adults in the child’s life and provides parents with a reassuring understanding of the environment in which their child will be spending time. 
3. Informal chats – communication with parents is maintained through ‘daily chats’, either during home visits or when parents or carers are dropping off or picking up their children attending a setting. This is also seen as an opportunity to share information on their children’s learning and it develops a stronger partnership between parents/carers and workers. Informal chatting about children’s interests also happens during groups. 
4. Home visits – workers carry out visits to the home of each child and share video and documentation on the child’s learning
5. Home/setting exchange – parents and workers exchange videos of children learning at a deep level at home and in the setting or for outreach workers during the contact visit. They also share information through the portfolios that are developed by parents and workers on each child. 
6. Attendance at an event – a range of events and sessions are held which can be used for workers and parents to support the child’s learning. 
7. Supporting children on trips - parents/carers join workers in supporting their children’s learning on trips
8. Parents and workers share information to make assessment judgements across the EYFS about the child at three times in the year. They look at progress between the first and second assessment and discuss the child’s strengths and how to best support the child’s learning. 
9. Attendance at a PICL group where video is shared and discussed by a group of parents and workers and ideas for supporting the learning are explored.
10. Attendance at a Growing Together group where video is shared and discussed by parents and workers in a drop-in group on a one-to-one basis. This group is offered to parents with children aged 0-3 and there is a stronger focus on supporting the child’s learning through the parent-child relationship.

The PICL approach encourages parents and workers to support their child’s learning and development through ‘The Pen Green Learning Loop’. This involves the flow of knowledge, through dialogue between parents and workers, from the home into the setting or during the contact visit or group, where workers act on this knowledge to better support the child’s learning. Correspondingly, knowledge flows from the setting to the home and enables the parents to support their child more effectively within the home learning environment. 

Video clips from home and in the setting or group are shared by parents and workers to support the dialogue about the child’s learning. Parents and workers notice what is significant in the video and discuss what the child is doing and how it relates to prior learning and experiences. They discuss how they can support the child’s learning at home and in the setting. 

Weekly PICL groups of up to 10 parents facilitate parents coming together to look at video clips of their children and help to analyse the child’s learning with workers. A shared understanding is maintained and parents and workers offer support to each other about how to extend the provision for the child. NOCN accreditation is offered to parents through these groups in which parents can produce a portfolio of their child’s learning and gain credits at level 2 and 3. This is often a first step back into further education for parents, many of whom go on to study childcare and enter the workforce. 48 per cent of workers at Pen Green came initially to the centre as parents and engaged in the PICL approach.

Part of the PICL approach is to involve parents in self-evaluating the impact of working in this way in terms of what they themselves gain from the partnership with workers. Pen Green parents have developed a PICL self evaluation tool. (The ‘Parent Self-EvaluationTool’ is available from Pen Green or;). The tool consists of 5 strands:

• Being with my child 
• Supporting learning 
• Understanding children’s interests 
• Advocacy
• Parent-worker relationship

Reflecting on these strands supports and promotes the processes that parents say have been the significant aspects of their own learning and development in supporting their children to make good progress. Asking parents to reflect on the parent–worker relationship can also be used as a measure of outcomes for workers and is a useful way of promoting the need for workers to get to know families and to develop good working relationships with parents. 

The PICL approach is an integrated way of working. Nursery workers, family support workers and health workers who are working in this way contact colleagues with parent’s permission and work in integrated teams to meet the needs of families. At the Pen Green centre, nursery workers work in partnership with parents who share knowledge about their children with other professionals who might also be supporting them through family support, a crèche or through the voluntary organization Home Start. The principles of the PICL approach require all referrals and professional discussions to be carried out with parents and for all workers to be able to share a respectful dialogue and an understanding of issues around safeguarding (‘Principles for Engaging with Families’ (ELPPEG, 2010) is available from Pen Green or

Evidence and evaluation - making a difference to children, young people and families

Pen Green has gathered a great deal of impact data which is available via It is not possible to reproduce all the data in this summary therefore, set out below, is a description of the PICL Self-Evaluation tool, followed by an explanation of how the use of this tool links to the five aims/outcomes of the PICL approach.

Parents at Pen Green have developed their own tool for measuring outcomes for parents. It is called the PICL self evaluation tool and is currently being validated through its use on a larger scale in selected Early Years Teaching Centres as part of the DfE funded EYTC project. Parents rejected the measures commonly used in family support as they found the wording on them patronizing and the indicators did not reflect the outcomes that they had experienced through PICL. The five strands of the self evaluation tool are:

• Being with my child 
• Supporting learning 
• Understanding children’s interests 
• Advocacy
• Parent- worker relationship

The parents’ own words are used as a guide to select a point on a 1-10 scale for each strand, 1 being the bottom of the scale and 10 being the ultimate aim. 
Parents are asked to record how they feel at the beginning of their partnership with workers. In acknowledgement of the fact that a baseline rarely captures the true account of a person’s feelings because they are new to the organization, we also ask parents to moderate this baseline score once they have worked with us for at least six months. Parents are then able to look back and make a different judgment that is in their view ‘more accurate’. We also ask parents to make another assessment of themselves against each strand as their child moves on to school or at the end of the year. Data demonstrating progress made in chart form is available via

The data from this tool is linked to the five outcomes stated for the PICL approach:

a. challenge and support workers to find ways of involving all parents (mothers and fathers) and to develop effective parent–worker relationships where knowledge about the child is shared in an ongoing dialogue

The PICL parent self-evaluation tool also acts as an indicator of outcomes for workers. The fifth strand, Parent-worker relationship, is a telling signifier of the success workers have in engaging parents. On average, parents increased their assessment of their relationship with their worker by 2.1 points between their first and second assessment. On a ten-point scale, this is a significant improvement of 21 per cent. 

Pen Green has many case studies illustrating the impact PICL has had on parents. An example is given here, completed by a practitioner and parent who have been using the PICL way of working following PICL training in Stoke-on-Trent. 

“I was a bit shocked seeing the video of Marie. I was blown away. I didn’t understand that making a mess was learning. I liked watching the DVD, it’s like being a fly on the wall. My house is Marie’s little art box now. I also take videos, it’s so exciting to show the workers. I really enjoy it. I lived with my mum and dad for the first two years of Marie’s life – they have a big impact. There’s always been a strong bond between me and my daughter, being a single mum, but understanding her a bit more has made us unbreakable.” Nicola 
“I did a home visit and met grandma and great grandma. It shifted me to go and talk about why Marie was doing things. They related what she was doing at home and how she was learning. It helped me to put all we know about Marie into context. I asked Nicola what she wanted for Marie and she told me she wanted her to be Prime Minister! PICL has helped Nicola to gain confidence and be an advocate for her own child and also other parents within the centre.” Anne, Crescent CC Meir, Stoke-on-Trent.

Nursery workers make a special effort to learn the names of all parents, mums and dads. If the father does not live in the family home, the worker will visit him in his own house and copy all the documentation of the child’s learning for each parent. Sometimes this means copying the file several times for the parents, step-parents, biological parents and grandparents who care for a child. 

PICL also encourages workers to work effectively across staff teams, in different groups within the Children’s Centre, and work alongside other areas of social care, health care, and education: 
John attends the Dad’s Club at Pen Green. He has found it difficult at times to be in the group due to his mental health issues. His child, Becky (aged 2 ½), attends the Nurture Group at Pen Green and her workers discuss her learning with John. John is also supported by a Homestart volunteer who visits regularly at home. On a recent visit, John had made a wonderful play environment for Becky in their garden, with water in bowls and floating flowers, and was talking excitedly about her learning. 

b. increase parents’ enjoyment and confidence about being with their child

The first strand, Being with, explicitly refers to this outcome. The statements parents use to evaluate their own enjoyment of being with their child are: 

• I enjoy being with my child. We share things together, have fun and talk a lot about the things we are doing together. 
• I try to spend time with my child but it’s a struggle. Some days are better than others. 
• I find my child difficult to be with. I worry about going out of the house with my child.

This strand showed a 22 per cent improvement in parents’ self evaluation - an average of a 2.2 point increase between the first and second assessments. 

c. increase parents’ knowledge about their child’s interests and how to support their child’s learning and their ability to be an advocate for their child

Strands two, three and four on the parent self-evaluation tool are relevant for this outcome. Supporting learning displayed an increase of 21 per cent and Understanding interests, 18 per cent. The slightly lower increase for Understanding interests may be explained through Chart 1(available via, which shows that most parents assessed themselves as 6 or above for this strand at their first assessment, an already high score on initial assessment. Advocacy was the most improved outcome, with parents assessing themselves, on average, 2.8 points higher on their second assessment. Research has shown that a parent’s ability to be an advocate for their child as they progress through the education system has a marked impact on the child’s educational attainment. 

d. promote an effective home learning environment

For the purposes of this evaluation, a sample of 27 children were selected who were assessed at below their chronological age on entry, and their progress analysed alongside their parents’ engagement with PICL. 

Case studies were collated for the children in this sample, detailing some family background , and the interventions put in place by their Family Workers in order to promote an effective home learning environment. For example: 

Case Study A

Child: A 
Category: 3 - started below in more than 50 per cent of aspects and made good progress. Level of complexity 2
Context: Mother and Father separated. Child lives in two houses and sometimes with paternal grandmother. Emotional issues - found it difficult to self-regulate. Limited progress in many areas during first three months. Made some progress in all areas overall.

Intervention: Daily chats with all family members and home visits, separate documentation for each household. Mother and maternal grandma involved in research project on group learning as was father but they attended at different times. Mother and grandma engaged in video reflection with family worker around friendship groups. Home visits to both homes - five in total. Child was supported through settling in, key concepts session attended.

Case Study B – parent’s voice
“Lachlan went through a phase of being really interested in “Captain Hook” and therefore pirates. This was picked up on by Margaret during a chat with me and also the interest he displayed at nursery. So I made sure that at home I continued to supply Lachlan with various “piratey” things to do. I started buying Papo figures which he loves to play with at nursery and frequently talked about at home. I also bought a pirate ship. I noticed that this really fuelled Lachlan’s imaginative role play at home and I loved to listen to what his “pirates” were saying to each other.” Tess, parent

Further case studies are available from Pen Green via

e. support the child’s learning and development over time and improve outcomes for children across the Early Years Foundation Stage 

With reference to ‘narrowing the gap’ (DCSF, 2007) and knowing that parental involvement is the key factor in allowing children to buck the trend and do well despite disadvantage (Blanden, 2006), we have focused on the children who are assessed as being developmentally below their chronological age on entry into nursery. We have devised our own assessment tool as part of our ‘Making Children’s Learning Visible’ (MCLV) programme where family workers judge children to be ‘emerging’ ‘developing’ or ‘confident’ against the development matters statements in a particular age band (irrespective of their chronological age) in each aspect of each area of learning in the EYFS. This is done at three times during the year. These judgments are made with parents and the corresponding graphs produced on the progress made by individual children are shared. 

Example MCLV graph: 

Case studies were collated for the children in this sample, detailing some family background, and the interventions put in place by their Family Workers in order to promote an effective home learning environment.
To illustrate the above, further documents are available from Pen Green via

Nursery Cohort Data: 

• Data on children achieving below their chronological age band at first assessment – 
2010-11 Cohort Data – C4EO Selection.pdf
• Making Children’s Learning Visible graphs for the above children –
2010-11 MCLV Graphs – C4EO Selection.pdf
• Case studies on parental engagement for the above children – 
Case Studies – C4EO Selection.pdf
• Analysis of progress made – Average Steps Made – C4EO Selection.pdf
Self Evaluation Tool Data: 
• Example of PICL self-evaluation tool –
Parent Self-Evaluation Tool.pdf
• Parent self evaluation data & analysis – 
Parent Self-Evaluation Data -Chart 1.pdf, and 
Parent Self-Evaluation Data – Chart 2.pdf

In addition, Pen Green commissioned IPPR to evaluate PICL at Pen Green during 2010/11. The summary of their findings and their full evaluation report is available via

In 2008, Oxford University also conducted an external evaluation through the ELP programme funded by the DfE, evaluating the PICL professional development programme (for more information, see the reports Kumari, V (2008) NCB Evaluation of PPEL Project, Leeds, and Smith, T (2008) Oxford University Evaluation, ELPP). Through ELPP, PICL was offered to workers in four local authorities through two different consortia in strands 1 and 3 (evaluation documents available via

Sustaining and replicating your practice

Pen Green is constantly learning from its practice and the feedback from other workers who are engaging with parents in the PICL approach. There is a comprehensive feedback system through our programme evaluations (‘PICL Training – Sample Evaluation.pdf’ is available via and the documentation that workers and parents are asked to carry out detailing their learning and developments through PICL. 

The IPPR evaluation has highlighted the need for workers at Pen Green to discuss with fathers the experience of home visits and the possible benefits for children, mothers and fathers. Engaging fathers in different ways will also be explored. There are two active dads’ clubs on Saturday and Sunday at Pen Green and workers are finding ways of engaging more fathers of nursery children in these groups. They are also seeking ways of involving dads in the development of information sharing through different technologies. They have had a successful project on sharing video by Bluetooth from father’s phones in the family room so that the child’s learning can be discussed. More fathers have been actively involved in the forest school this year. Nursery workers are also currently exploring ways of exchanging information through email and text with mothers and fathers and, in particular, those parents who do not see workers day-to-day because of work commitments. 

Costs and benefits: PICL as a way of working has no additional costs. The main focus is on building a relationship with parents where information about the child can be shared on a daily basis and acted upon in the home and in the setting. Video reflection helps with this dialogue and the costs for the provision of a video camera and ways of recording video footage are outlined below (the cost of these will be the commercial value of equipment). Practitioners need time to enable effective dialogue with parents to happen on a regular basis. This is context-specific and is often managed within the working day. Home visits are an essential part of relationship building with families at Pen Green. They are offered at least three times a year and the cost of additional staff time for this will be context-specific, but would involve at least an additional hour for workers per home visit. 

Estimated Costs The IPPR evaluation of the PICL programme indicated a number of cost benefits as a result of engagement with the PICL approach. (‘IPPR – Calculating benefit.pdf’ for details of these savings is available

The cost of attending the PICL professional development programme is £675 per person. This includes a comprehensive folder detailing the approach and support materials for participants to complete the programme (Pen Green Framework for Engaging Parents is available via The PICL programme is also available for local authorities to offer through a licence agreement. Details available via

Learning from the experience: 
Pen Green believes that the achievements through PICL can only be sustained if parents are constantly consulted about the approach and engaged in reflection on the evaluation measures that illustrate the difference PICL is making. The measure of children’s outcomes through Making Children’s Learning Visible has, over the last four years, provided us with detailed information on children’s progress. The engagement of parents through PICL in the process of making assessment judgements and reflecting on children’s progress has made a significant difference to tuning to children’s learning needs and improving provision for children at home and in the setting (see 2011 evaluation set out above). Pen Green will be building on this success and improving the support for children through this process.

The development of a self-evaluation tool by parents for parents has proved to be essential in the demonstration of outcomes through PICL. This is a golden thread. Parents at Pen Green were not impressed by outcomes given for parenting programmes that could not currently be demonstrated. Attendance at a parenting programme is not an outcome. Parents and workers wanted to develop a tool that was current, relevant and developmental. Pen Green have had a lot of interest in the use of the PICL self-evaluation tool, as the wording and format have been tried and tested by parents and shown to be effective in capturing the developments parents have said make a difference to them and their child (see evaluation outlined above). Pen Green will continue to gather evidence from the use of the PICL evaluation tool and have submitted a paper on its development, use and effectiveness to the European Early Childhood Education Research organisation for presentation at the annual conference in August 2012.

Challenges: Working with practitioners in other organizations and having the time to work in this way is often cited as a barrier. However, following the child study using video to reflect on the child’s learning with parents, workers often reconsider the way they are spending their time in settings. They realise that a greater emphasis on spending time working with parents would have more impact on outcomes for children than some of their current practices. We encourage participants to notice, recognize and respond to children more effectively through dialogue with parents. This can cut down on the ‘post it note’ type observations that can take up a lot of time and have relatively little impact on children. 

Replication: The PICL programme is offered as a three-day professional development programme as outlined above. PICL is a way of working not a parenting programme. Local development is supported to meet the needs of parents within the context in which professionals are working. The fidelity to the approach is through a principled engagement not through a content-driven rigid ‘course’. PICL has been successfully developed in many different local authorities following engagement in the three-day professional development programme by workers in early education. Further documents relating to three areas are available via

C4EO golden threads: 

• Together with children, parents and families
• It takes a community to raise a child
• Shape up and keep fit
• Prove it

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