There is a dearth of research examining what parents in MENA region know about children’s brain development and the type of activities they engage their young children at home to promote their cognitive development. This article describes and compares the views and behaviors of parents with children 0–6 years old from Casablanca, Morocco, the US, and the UK on early parental engagement. Seventy-eight Moroccan parents were compared to 1066 US/UK parents. The study utilizes survey data and explores parents’ understanding of and support for their children’s early cognitive development. Results reveal that more than fifty percent of Moroccan parents do not see themselves as having an impact on brain development until after the first year of their child’s life compared to 10% of US parents, in part because they believe that babies’ capacity for learning in the earliest years is limited. Yet Moroccan parents reported higher frequencies of teaching their young children letters and numbers and reading a book to them than US parents. These differences in at-home teaching practices may reflect the higher percentage of US/UK children who participate in early learning programs outside their own homes; such programs are not culturally accepted in Morocco. The belief that there is little capacity for learning in children’s earliest years among Moroccan parents may minimize parents’ motivation to function as their child’s first teacher in the absence of early education programs. Policy implications and interventions are discussed concerning ways to change parents’ knowledge and beliefs to motivate early learning activities.
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School-age children in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) on average underperform academically compared to those in other countries with similar levels of economic development. This is evidenced by international student assessment programs, including Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Academic achievement is particularly low in Morocco. For example, on the 2015 TIMSS, Morocco was ranked 47th out of 49 participating countries in both math and science (Mullis et al. (2016a; 2016b) with similar low ranking on the 2019 TIMSS (TIMSS & PIRLS, 2019). There are several reasons that may explain suboptimal academic achievement in MENA countries, including poorly trained and underpaid teachers, weak school systems (World Bank, 2018), and school curricula that do not encourage critical thinking (UNICEF, 2019).
Research suggests that cultural beliefs and norms about learning in the MENA region may also contribute to academic underperformance (Zellman et al., 2013; Zellman et al., 2014). Notably, widespread views that the earliest years of a child’s life do not represent an important learning period may lead policymakers and parents to ignore opportunities for early learning at home and in out-of-home settings (Young, 2015). Available data suggest that there is little investment in supports such as early childhood education and care (ECEC) programs for young children. Indeed, participation in ECEC programs in the MENA region is approximately half of the international rate (EL-Kogali and Krafft (2015)). These findings are concerning given the growing body of evidence that investments in early childhood have higher rates of return than investments during any subsequent developmental period (Heckman, 2011).
Research findings on early brain development highlight both the importance of the early years for cognitive development and the importance of parental behavior and policy during this period. Indeed, this substantial body of research demonstrates that the earliest years of a child’s life are critical for establishing important skills such as literacy and critical thinking that promote later success in school (Cannon et al., 2017; Heckman, 2011). Children’s cognitive outcomes are enhanced in environments in which parents engage in warm and supportive interactions with children, in which literacy is emphasized through the presence of books and engagement in reading, and in which children have opportunities to actively engage in a variety of activities and settings (Cannon et al., 2020; Davidov & Grusec, 2006).
An extensive research literature has examined how parents in the US and UK view their role as teachers of their very young children and the nature and frequency of the activities parents undertake during their children’s early years to promote their cognitive development. A number of studies have analyzed cognitive stimulation and emotional support by family type (Heckman, 2011), relationships between home literacy and learning environment and children’s reading ability, language, and both readiness for school and longer-term academic outcomes (Crampton & Hall, 2017; Sammons et al., 2015; Son & Morrison, 2010), and parent scaffolding of their very young children during problem solving and literacy development (Conner et al.,1997). Further, there are a substantial number of research studies that have evaluated parents as teachers models and the effects of interventions with parents to improve their skills and the home learning environment (Albritton et al., 2004; Goldstein, 2017; Heinemeier and D’Agostino (2017)). Considerably less is known about how parents in the MENA region view their role as teachers and what they do to promote the cognitive development of their very young children. Published studies examining parental styles in the MENA region generally focus on practices related to prenatal and health care or more general parenting styles or typologies or on evaluating specific interventions (Aref, 2020). Studies specifically exploring parental knowledge and practices related to brain development are limited and not comprehensive (Al Shami et al., 2013; EL-Kogali and Krafft (2015)). Such studies tend to focus on older children or on formal education systems and the role of teachers in developing children’s cognitive skills (Al Shami et al., 2013). Further, to our knowledge there have not been any benchmarking efforts concerning MENA region parents’ attitudes and behaviors around children’s cognitive development in the early years or on best practices. Such benchmarking would enable MENA countries to examine the extent to which their policies and practices are aligned with best practices and would help them determine which areas could most benefit from increased efforts to improve parental knowledge and practices around early child cognitive development.
The pilot study was implemented in Casablanca, Morocco. Morocco faces important challenges with regard to children, including poor student education performance and underinvestment in early childhood development programs and early childhood education that are similar to those of other Arabic-speaking MENA countries with similar economic development levels (Masood et al., 2012; Tessler, 2000). It also shares with other Arabic-speaking countries a patriarchal social structure and traditional family values. Casablanca is a cosmopolitan city that includes many recent migrants from rural areas of Morocco, as well as a wide range of income levels (Zellman et al., 2014). Families from different income levels might have differential access to resources on child cognitive development and thus may vary in their knowledge.
The survey from which we derived our Casablanca data adapted questions representing best practices from nationally representative household surveys administered in the US and UK (we discuss measures and survey development under “Methods”). The approach undertaken in this paper enables the identification of those attitudes and behaviors that are similar across the three nations (recognizing that the Morocco sample is not representative of the country) and areas in which parents in Morocco diverge from parents in the US/UK. Highlighting such similarities and differences may help Moroccan government agencies and other organizations in Morocco and other MENA countries of similar characteristics to better understand how social/cultural norms and government policies, which generally focus little attention on the early childhood period, affect parents and their young children. The work may also identify areas that deserve attention and resources to encourage improvements in academic performance.
Framework Guiding Benchmark Item Selection
As part of the study, we developed a theoretical framework published in a previous paper (Zellman et al., 2014). This framework guided our selection of the survey items and constructs that we would use as cross-national benchmarks. The framework draws from several theories, such as Theory of Planned Behavior and Theory of Reasoned Action, which posit that behavior changes in any domain begin with accumulation of knowledge in that domain (Ajzen et al., 2011). As knowledge accumulates, beliefs are modified; these modified beliefs lead to changed practices. While this paper does not examine relationships among knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors, it does utilize such frameworks to identify important constructs for benchmarking. Specifically, the survey constructs address: (1) what parents know and believe about child development in the early years and their sources for this information; (2) how they see their role as teachers of their very young children; and (3) what parents do to create learning environments at home to facilitate child cognitive development during the early years. While we did not collect child development outcomes as part of this study, our model draws on previous empirical research that links these constructs to a range of child cognitive development outcomes (Bornstein & Cheah, 2013; Foster et al., 2005; Zellman et al., 2014).
As Fig. 1 shows, parents’ knowledge of their role in shaping early development can affect their expectations of their children and the way in which they engage with their children in the early years (Bornstein & Cheah, 2013; Bugental & Johnston, 2000). Parents who view infancy as a time of active learning are more likely to support their children’s development in the early years, which in turn influences children’s later school success and adult achievement (Cannon et al., 2017; Heckman, 2011). For example, such parents might expose their children to language-rich early environments or musical activities to develop better vocabularies, better expressive and receptive language abilities, better listening and oral language skills, stronger phonological awareness, and enhance abstract thinking. The conceptual framework also posits that parents’ knowledge of and views about the importance of their children’s earliest years may be influenced by the amount and sources of information about child development to which parents have access (Zellman et al., 2014).
In developing the model and selecting items for benchmarking we focused on promising practices that are less sensitive to cultural context. For example, “what parents should know about young children’s cognitive development” relies on facts that have been empirically linked to improved child outcomes. Similarly, sources of promising practices emphasize the need of parents to obtain information from a trusted source; to avoid cultural assumptions, there is no specification that the source be a professional health expert: it could be a family member or another parent.
Thus, from the conceptual model described above, we derive the following research questions which are addressed in this paper:
Q1. To what degree do Moroccan and US/UK parents view child cognitive development in similar ways?
Q2. What type of activities do Moroccan and US/UK parents engage in with their young children that support cognitive development and literacy?
Q3. How do Moroccan and US/UK parents of young children view their role in child development?
Q4. To what types and sources of child development information do Moroccan and US/UK parents have access?
This study collects survey data on 78 Moroccan parents’ understanding of and support for their children’s early cognitive development and descriptively compares this information with existing international survey data, namely from What Grown Ups Understand, National Household Education, and Home Learning Environment surveys, that assesses the early parental engagement and education-focused activities of 1066 US and UK parents with their children aged 0–6 years.
Survey participants include Moroccan parents who lived in Casablanca and had at least one child who was between 0 and 6 years of age. Participants varied in their profession, level of education, housing type, and income as we wanted to capture groups of parents with diverse socioeconomic status (SES) background.
Thirty-eight mothers and 40 fathers completed our survey in 2014. About 57% of parents had at least some college experience, with fathers being better educated than mothers. The distribution of reported monthly income was nearly identical for the mothers and fathers, with just over 40% of parents falling into the higher income category (Table 1).
Selected demographic characteristics of participating parents
(%) (n = 78)
(n = 38)
(n = 40)
Years of education
Less than high school grad
High school grad
Monthly family income
Low (<3501 dhs)
Moderate (3501–7000 dhs)
High (7001–10,000+ dhs)
Age at first child’s birth
Number of children
Morocco data were derived from the 2014 RAND survey. Moroccan dirhams are valued at ~9.5 to the US dollar. Parents in the low-income category are reporting monthly incomes of under $450. Those in the moderate category are reporting monthly incomes up to $860. Those in the highest category report monthly incomes above $860; some in this highest category report incomes well above that figure
Moroccan parents’ survey responses were compared to parent benchmark data derived from international surveys, mostly What Grown Ups Understand (WGU) (see discussion under “Measures”). The average age at the time of participation in the WGU survey was 34 years; average age when survey participants had their first child was 26 years of age, which is slightly younger than the age at first birth of Moroccan parents in our sample (28 years). The WGU survey also indicates parents had on average two children which is similar to the number for Moroccan parents: 1.8 children. Thirty-seven percent of the WGU parents had a high school diploma or less as their highest level of education. Thirty-seven percent were college graduates, and 24% had some college. Combining these two latter categories, 61% of this sample had any college exposure, compared to 47% of the Moroccan sample. Similarly, education levels in samples from National Household Education (NHE) and Home Learning Environment (HLE) surveys from which we adopted several items indicate that rates of parent exposure to college were higher by about 10% than in the Moroccan sample.
The survey developed and piloted with Moroccan parents included measures adopted from three international surveys. Two of these surveys were conducted in the US: WGU, and NHE Survey. The third, HLE, was conducted in the UK. These surveys relied on nationally representative samples of parents and children (Information on survey samples is included in Appendix A). The US and UK were selected for defining international benchmarks because: (1) the two countries invest in high quality early education and parenting programs (Council of Economic Advisors, 2015); and (2) collect in-depth nationally representative data on promising early childhood cognitive development practices. The WGU survey from which most of our survey items were adopted was developed and fielded by Zero to Three, a global nonprofit focused on child development. The second US survey, NHE, is conducted by the US National Center for Education Statistics; it collects nationally representative, descriptive data on the educational activities of children and adults in the United States. The third survey, HLE, was developed in the UK as part of the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project, a longitudinal study of a national sample of young children’s development between ages 3 and 7.
Survey development involved several steps to ensure face validity. First, we reviewed the literature on children’s cognitive development in the early years as well as the theoretical literature concerning pathways from knowledge to beliefs and behavior change. Second, based on these reviews we identified core domains that are essential to investigate to understand parent roles in their young children’s cognitive development. The domains include parent knowledge of child development, parents’ understanding of their roles and responsibilities in child-rearing, parent engagement and interaction with their young children, parent involvement in their children’s education, and parent sources of information regarding child development and child rearing. Third, we conducted focus groups with Moroccan parents in Casablanca to investigate these domains in more depth. Fourth, we reviewed the three international surveys then available. We identified and adapted relevant items that addressed the core domains, slightly modifying response categories for five questions based on focus group findings. We chose to create separate surveys for fathers and mothers so that the instrument could be shorter. Appendix B lists the items for which we modified response options. Fifth, the survey items were translated by a local Moroccan firm into standard Arabic. Sixth, we conducted a series of cognitive interviews and piloted the survey to ensure that the items we selected and adapted were culturally, contextually, and linguistically relevant and appropriate. Finally, we revised the survey based on the results of the piloting phase.
The survey we developed was designed with scalability in mind to enable comparisons across countries in the MENA region and against other countries. Thirty of these items were informed by the theoretical framework and literature and international survey reviews that comprised the benchmarking effort. The survey included 47 items encompassing the following measures: (1) parents’ views about the importance of early years; (2) parents’ views about the importance of different activities for promoting children’s cognitive development; (3) parent knowledge of child development; (4) number of books available at home; (5) frequency of parental engagement in activities with their 0–6 year old children; (6) parents’ beliefs about their roles in their children’s education; and (7) parent sources of information related to children and parenting. The question and item wording are presented in Tables 2 through 8.
Parent views about the importance of the early years
First year has major impact on later school performance.
At what age can parents begin to impact a child’s brain development?
First year of life
After the first year of life
US data were derived from the 2000 WGU National Benchmark report. Morocco data were derived from the 2014 RAND survey
Parent views about the importance of different activities for promoting child development
How important do you think play is
in supporting a young child’s intellectual
development, including the development
of language skills?
People have different ideas about what can help a 2-year-old child develop intellectually and become a better learner
Watching educational TV
Sense of safety/security
Reading to child
Talking to child
Quality of childcare
Playing music the child enjoyed
US data were derived from the 2000 WGU report. Morocco data were derived from the 2014 RAND survey. US data are reported as the % of parents who rated each of these activities as an 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale (indicating that the activity is crucial to child development). Morocco data are reported as the % of parents who rated each activity as “Extremely important”
Parent knowledge of child development
Should a 15-month-old be expected to share his/her toys with other children, or is a child this age too young to share toys?
Yes, 15-month-old should be expected to share
No, too young to share
Will picking up a 3-month-old every time he/she cries spoil them if done too often?
Yes, it will spoil them
US data were derived from the 2000 WGU report. Morocco data were derived from the 2014 RAND survey. According to the WGU report and child development literature children need to be 3 or older before they can reasonably be expected to share toys
Number of books available in the home
More than 50
US data were derived from the 2007 NHE Screener. This question was derived from the NHE screener where respondents’ options were limited to ‘1–50’ and ‘More than 50’. Among the Moroccan parents, 63% reported that their children own between 1 and 10 books. This information is not available for US parents. Morocco data were derived from the 2014 RAND survey
Frequency of parental engagement in activities with their children
Once per week
Few times per month
Taught them letters or words/alphabet
Taught them songs/poems/
Painted/Drew with them
Taught them numbers/counting
Read them a book
UK data were derived from the 2008 HLE survey. Morocco data were derived from the 2014 RAND survey. Totals may not sum to 100% due to rounding error
Parent beliefs about their role in their children’s education
I know how to help my children do well in school
It is the parents’ responsibility to teach their children to value education and success in school
It is the parents’ responsibility to attend meetings with teachers or other school staff
US data were derived from the 2007 NHE screener. Morocco data were derived from the 2014 RAND survey. Totals may not sum to 100% due to rounding error
Parent sources of information related to children and parenting
US mothers (%)
Your friends and neighbors
Your child’s doctor/pediatrician or other medical personnel
US data were derived from the 2000 WGU report. Morocco data were derived from the 2014 RAND survey
Our Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved a waiver of documented consent for this study. Using this approach, local data collectors, part of a Moroccan marketing firm, used a database of individuals who had previously agreed to participate in their agency’s focus groups and surveys. The database is specific to Morocco. The data collectors randomly selected prospective participants from the database in waves and contacted them by phone. Prospective participants were initially asked by the data collectors if they are willing to participate in a general survey and that they will receive an incentive if deemed eligible. Those who agreed were screened over the phone for eligibility through a series of questions including the city of residence, presence of children between 0 and 6 years, their profession, level of education, housing type, and income level. This enabled data collectors to identify parents with children 0–6 years and classify them by SES, as we wanted survey respondents to include a wide range of economic backgrounds. Those who were found to be eligible were invited to take the survey in one of the firm’s offices. Data collectors obtained participant oral consent at their offices where they explained to participants the purpose of the study, that it is voluntary and confidential, and that if they complete the survey they will receive an incentive. All surveys were completed in the offices of our Moroccan partners. Recruitment stopped after the sample size and economic diversity were reached.
Prospective participants were told only that they would be asked to express their opinions on a range of topics: parenting was not explicitly mentioned. Consequently, there is no reason to assume that participating parents were particularly interested in parenting topics or that they differ from other parents on this dimension. Parents were offered a voucher worth ~$25 for their participation.
The RAND Corporation Review Board (IRB) served as the IRB for this study. The IRB reviewed and approved the study protocol, protocol amendments, informed consent documents, recruitment and data collection materials, and protections for participants.
To carry out the benchmarking, we analyzed percentages for each response category on the Moroccan survey. The percentages then were compared with published percentages of US/UK parents on the same items; we did not have access to the comparison datasets. This allowed us to descriptively compare aggregate responses to each survey items that assessed parent knowledge, beliefs, and expectations concerning child cognitive development as well as parental behaviors to support cognitive development. The US/UK surveys varied in times when data was collected. The NHE data was collected in 2007, while the HLE data was collected in 2008. The most recent WGU survey, fielded in 2016, published its data after the data collection for this study took place. This later WGU survey wave addressed many of the same issues as the earlier 2000 WGU survey from which we drew items. However, question wording was modified from the earlier 2000 version. Consequently, we use findings from the 2016 survey only as a means of examining trends and providing additional context for our findings.
Although the Moroccan sample varies in many respects from the US and UK samples and thus findings are not strictly comparable, given the lack of availability of this type of parental data in the MENA region, these comparisons provide critical innovative input to understanding how Moroccan parents view child cognitive development issues compared to parents in other nations. Results from our small sample shed light on how Moroccan parents in our sample compared to US/UK parents in terms of how they think about these issues and how they engage with their young children in activities that support their cognitive development.
In this section we present our findings without differentiating between mothers and fathers or between sons and daughters as our analysis did not show notable differences. The one exception to this was for the survey question, ‘how often do parents turn to the following sources and people for information and advice on children and parenting’. For this item we present mothers’ and fathers’ data separately as we found substantial differences between their responses.
To What Degree Do Moroccan and US/UK Parents View Child Cognitive Development in Similar Ways (Q1)?
This section presents comparative information on parental knowledge and beliefs about child development. Tables 2 and 3 present parental knowledge and views on the importance of the first year of a child’s life, what sorts of development occurs during that first year, and the kinds of activities likely to promote cognitive development in young children.
Over two thirds of Moroccan parents in our study and three quarters of US parents view the first year of child’s life as having a major impact on children’s later school performance (Table 2). However, <50% of Moroccan parents view themselves as having an impact on their children’s brain development until after the first year of their child’s life. In contrast, the vast majority of US parents believe they can impact brain development prior to the first birthday (88%); indeed, nearly one-third (29%) of US parents who imagine an impact before the first birthday believe their impact extends to the prenatal period; only 8% of Moroccan parents believe this.
Furthermore, only half of the Moroccan parents in our sample view playing with their young children as being important for stimulating their cognitive and linguistic growth, compared to over 85% of US parents (Table 3). The 2016 WGU survey does report that the majority of fathers responding participate in playtime and other quality time and read to their children more than their parents read to them. This suggests a growing cultural norm in the US about the value of parents’ active participation in the lives of their young children and the value of such participation by both parents.
Consistent with their views about the lesser importance of play in stimulating cognitive and linguistic growth, Moroccan parents attach less importance than do US parents to having their children participate in a wide range of activities. A much lower proportion of Moroccan parents compared to US parents believe watching educational TV, having their children participate in physical activities, reading to their children, talking to their children, or playing music to their children contributes to their intellectual growth. Furthermore, only half the parents in our Moroccan sample view the provision of quality childcare outside the home as a benefit for young children compared to more than 70% of US parents.
Table 4 presents information on parents’ knowledge of expected child behavior in the early years. Believing that children can do things earlier than they actually can contribute to unrealistic expectations by parents of their children’s behavior and may lead to parental frustration or disappointment; believing that children are first able to do things later than they actually can risks unrealistically low parental expectations and reduced efforts to support age-appropriate development.
Those Moroccan parents with an opinion about when children develop the ability to share were more likely than US parents to be correct in their view: 58% Moroccan parents described a 15-month-old as too young to share; 47% of US parents expressed this view. The 2016 WGU survey suggests that the views of US parents are no more realistic in 2016 than they were in 2000, and possibly less. In this more recent survey, parents were given more age options for the sharing question; more than 40% thought children could share by 1 year of age. At the same time, Moroccan parents were more likely than US parents to view developmentally appropriate behaviors such as frequently picking up their 3-month-old baby as likely to spoil them.
What Type of Activities Do Moroccan and US/UK Parents Engage in with Their Young Children That Support Cognitive Development and Literacy (Q2)?
The number of books children have in their homes has been found to be a proxy for engaging in activities associated with development in the early years.
Moroccan parents reported that their children owned substantially fewer books than US parents (Table 5). Half of the US parents reported that their children own more than 50 books, while none of the Moroccan parents in our sample did.
Table 6 presents information on how frequently parents reported engaging in various activities with their children that promote cognitive development.
A much larger proportion of Moroccan parents reported spending time with their children daily teaching them letters or words or numbers compared to UK parents. This may be because many UK parents rely on early education centers or programs to teach their young children words and numbers while they work outside the home; very few of the children represented in our Moroccan sample attended such programs. Moroccan parents reported engaging with their children in other activities such as painting and singing less frequently than UK parents.
The surveys also asked parents at what age they thought it appropriate to begin to spank a child for misbehaving and second, whether regular spanking might result in children becoming more aggressive themselves. These items address parental expectations for child behavior from a slightly different perspective.
Sixteen percent of Moroccan parents thought that it was never appropriate to spank a child compared to 29.5% of US parents. Both US and Moroccan parents reported the 1–3-year-old age bracket as the age at which they believe it to be most appropriate to begin to use spanking as a form of discipline.
As a follow-up to this question, parents were asked to indicate whether they believe that children who are spanked as a regular form of punishment were more likely to deal with their own anger by being physically aggressive. Similar proportions of parents in the two samples (59% and 61% for the Morocco and US samples respectively) believed this to be true.
How do Moroccan and US/UK Parents of Young Children View Their Role in Child Development (Q3)?
Parents were asked to indicate the extent to which they agree with the following statements pertaining to their involvement in their children’s education.
Most Moroccan and US parents believe that parents are responsible for instilling the value of education in their children, and for actively engaging with school personnel once their children are enrolled in school (Table 7). They also share a sense of their own importance in their children’s school success. More than 90% of parents in both groups indicated that they believe (most believe strongly) that they are responsible for teaching their children to value education and school success. Nearly all the parents in both groups agree or strongly agree that it is the parents’ responsibility to attend teacher and other meetings at school. A similar proportion of each group of parents indicated they either agree or strongly agree that they know how to help their children do well in school.
To What Types and Sources of Child Development Information Do Moroccan and US/UK Parents Have Access (Q4)?
Finally, parents were asked about where they turned for information and advice about children and parenting. As noted earlier, because mothers and fathers responded quite differently to this series of questions, we report these data on mothers and fathers separately.
Across all but one of the subsamples, one’s spouse was the resource about child development and child-rearing on which both US and Moroccan parents reported they most often relied (Table 8). An exception was Moroccan mothers, who reported their own mother to be the person they most frequently turn to for information, although the difference between mother and spouse was small. Moroccan mothers and fathers tend to turn to their extended family more than US parents do. US parents, on the other hand, were more likely to turn to each other, friends, neighbors, and their children’s pediatrician when compared to Casablanca mothers and fathers.
Children in the MENA region underperform academically when compared to children in economically similar countries outside the region. This may reflect, at least in part, limited parental knowledge of young children’s brain development which in turn may lead to limited engagement in activities that support cognitive development from birth. However, there is a lack of research examining what MENA parents know about child’s brain development and the type of activities they engage in with their young children at home to promote their cognitive development. This study attempted to fill this knowledge gap by collecting detailed information about how Moroccan parents of young children living in Casablanca view their children’s cognitive development during their earliest years. The study is descriptive in nature, exploring the extent to which Moroccan parents engage in promising practices that support their very young children’s cognitive development.
As reported elsewhere, we developed an Arabic-language survey of parent knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and practices to explore these issues with a small number of parents of children 0–6. We compared responses to this Arabic-language survey with survey responses of much larger samples of US/UK parents.
Consistent with the limited literature on parent knowledge of child cognitive development in the MENA region (Al Shami et al., 2013; EL-Kogali and Krafft (2015) study data paint a picture of gaps in Moroccan parents’ child development knowledge. Many parents in our Moroccan sample, regardless of their own education level, believe that little learning does or even can occur in a child’s earliest years. Almost half of mothers and fathers believe that parents can only begin to impact brain development after the first year of life. These responses differ substantially from those of US parents, more than 80% of whom believe that parents can impact their children’s cognitive development beginning either before birth or in a child’s first year of life. US parents are also more likely to believe that what happens to a child during the first year of life can affect later school performance.
Moroccan parents also perceive cognitively stimulating activities to be less important to their child’s cognitive development than US parents. This is not surprising as research has documented that parents’ lack of knowledge about early cognitive development can diminish parental efforts to engage with their children in stimulating activities (Bugental & Johnston, 2000; Zellman et al., 2014). Thus, Moroccan children may be missing out on learning opportunities because their parents underestimate the impact that they and the learning environment they create in their child’s earliest years can have on early brain development and later academic performance.
Moroccan parents reported higher frequencies of teaching their young children letters and numbers and reading a book to them than UK parents. However, Moroccan parents were less likely than UK parents to spend time with their children on other kinds of stimulating activities that contribute to cognitive growth (e.g., reading poems, singing, and painting) despite the fact that Moroccan parents, who only rarely enroll their children in Early Childhood program, spend much more time with their children than US/UK parents.
In addition to downplaying the importance of learning in the early years, a smaller percentage of Moroccan parents compared to US and UK parents “strongly agreed” that they know how to help their children in school. Our research in the MENA region suggests that often, parents see themselves as unqualified to be their children’s teachers (Zellman et al., 2009; 2013; Karam et al., forthcoming). This reported lack of efficacy to teach may deprive children of important learning opportunities in their earliest years and throughout their schooling.
Finally, Moroccan parents reported turning to their extended family more than US parents do for child-rearing guidance. US parents are more likely to turn to experts such as their children’s pediatrician when compared to our sample of Moroccan parents. But even though US parents relied more often on expert sources, parents in both samples, and particularly mothers, turned to their own mothers as an important source of information about child development and child-rearing. Thus, from a public policy standpoint, grandmothers may be an important avenue for informing parents of young children about child development and how to support it. But grandmothers are even less likely than parents to be aware of advances in early development research and best practices. Relying on grandmothers would necessitate exposing them to new information.
These results suggest that one reason for the poorer academic performance of MENA children may be found in societal and parental views that the earliest years of a child’s life are not a period when much learning should or even can occur. As a result, the enormous learning capacity in the earliest years revealed in research on brain development (Tierney & Nelson, 2009) is not reflected in the institutional and parental support offered to Moroccan children. Lack of high-quality early care and education programs outside the home, limited education for parents about the importance of early interventions to promote cognitive development, and a greater reliance on the advice and child-care services of grandparents, whose own children were raised before the recent brain development research was widely available, all contribute to a less rich learning environment for young children. It is challenging to contemplate how to instill new ideas about parenting in a traditional family-focused society that accords substantial prestige to trained teachers but little teaching efficacy to parents (Zellman et al., 2009; 2013). Research demonstrates the importance of empowering parents to believe they can be their child’s first teachers, and to help them perform this role. Our results suggest a need for parents to improve their knowledge and adopt attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that promote optimal cognitive development in their young children. Government and schools can play an important role by providing supportive policies and interventions, as we discuss in the “Conclusion and Implications” section below.
The small and non-representative nature of our Casablanca sample is an obvious limitation of our work. In addition, the time frames during which data were collected (2014 for the Morocco sample; 2000 and 2016 respectively for the US one and 2008 for the UK sample) make direct comparisons difficult. In our attempts to adapt our survey to the MENA context we added response options to some survey questions to capture what we had learned in our focus groups about Moroccan parents’ sometimes more extreme and sometimes more nuanced views. This may explain some of the differences we observed between the US/UK and Morocco samples. For example, in Table 3, which reports on parent views about the importance of different activities for promoting child development, we compare behaviors that Moroccan parents identified as “extremely important” with ones the US/UK parents rated as 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale. Although the differences in reporting options might explain some of the smaller observed differences, they are unlikely to fully explain the large differences (25–30% on some items) that were observed. Formal tests of differences, which we were unable to do, would clarify the significance of the smaller ones. Finally, while the study suggests that poor cognitive and academic outcomes may be partially explained by parental views that the earliest years of a child’s life are not a period when much learning occurs, the lack of child cognitive outcome data for young MENA children precludes the possibility of confirming this relationship.
As indicated earlier there is no research that we are aware of that has explored these attitudes and compared MENA parent knowledge and practices to international benchmarks, aside from the works of the authors of this article. Thus, despite the limitations noted above, the current analysis provides insights and advances our understanding of parents’ beliefs, knowledge, and practices in the MENA region surrounding cognitive development in children’s earliest years.
Conclusions and Implications
Moroccan parents clearly are engaged with their very young children. But beliefs about early brain development, particularly the belief that there is little capacity for learning in children’s earliest years, may minimize parents’ motivation to function as their child’s first teacher. The lack of infrastructure for ECEC facilities in Morocco may also reflect, at a societal level, views that early childhood is not an important period for learning.
The comparisons between Moroccan and US/UK parents highlight areas in need of policy responses in Morocco and likely other parts of the MENA region to improve parents’ knowledge and practices so that they are more involved in intellectually stimulating activities with their very young children. As a starting point, this could include media and parent education campaigns that stress the amount of learning that occurs in the early years and its relevance to later success. A recent meta-analysis (studies included in the metanalysis did not include any from the MENA region) found home visits could be effective in improving parents’ knowledge, beliefs, and practices if structured to include developmentally appropriate activities and opportunities for mothers and fathers to practice and respond to their children’s actions and vocalization (Jeong et al., 2021). Home visiting programs or classes could teach Moroccan mothers and fathers through modeling how to create a stimulating environment for their children and how to interact with their children in cognitively supportive ways. Within the context of Morocco, our data suggest that grandmothers play an important role in both providing and guiding child-rearing and thus such interventions might also target grandmothers. These types of programs or interventions are particularly important because ECEC programs, which support early learning for many children in the West, are limited in Morocco and are culturally discouraged (Zellman et al., 2014).
While the paper focuses on Morocco, the findings in this paper are likely to be applicable to other similar Arabic speaking countries. For example, findings regarding parents’ lack of confidence that they could be their children’s teachers is documented in another research conducted in Qatar (Zellman et al., 2009). However, the questions raised in this paper regarding parent knowledge about their very young children’s cognitive development should be explored more fully with larger and representative samples, ideally in additional countries in the MENA region. This paper provides a framework that draws from Theory of Planned Behavior and Theory of Reasoned Action. It also operationalizes the measures within the context of early childhood cognitive development and provides benchmarks to facilitate comparison across different countries. Specifically, our Arabic-language survey, available online, represents a promising tool for gathering important information about parents’ views of the early childhood period. Using the survey, it would be possible to efficiently explore in-depth parental attitudes and beliefs in other countries in the region. These data would enable the critical next step in this line of research: to examine patterns of parenting behaviors in the MENA context and their implications for optimal early—and later—cognitive development.
The authors would like to express their appreciation to TNS Global’s Morocco office for its critical help in recruiting parents and collecting survey data. We also acknowledge the reviewers and editorial team of the Journal of Child and Family Studies for its support and guidance throughout the preparation of this paper. The authors also thank RAND’s Center for Middle East Public Policy for funding this study.
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Conflict of interest
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Appendix A. Characteristics of Comparison Survey Samples
What Grownups Understand (WGU) Parent Sample Characteristics
A total of 3000 telephone interviews were conducted in the U.S. from June 12 to July 5, 2000. One thousand and sixty-six parents of children aged newborn through 6 years were interviewed. To ensure that the quota of parents was met, targeted sampling was used to reach the final 10%. The sample was nationwide and statistically projectable. The average age of parents at the time of the interview was 34 years old; the average age when they had their first child was 26 years old. Eighty-four percent of the sample was married, 9% were single, 6% divorced and 1% widowed. Thirty-seven percent had a high school diploma or less as their highest level of education. Thirty-seven percent were college graduates, 24% had some college, and 2% refused to answer. The median household income was $48,000. Seventy-eight percent were white (European), 8% African American, 6% Hispanic, 1% Asian, 2% mixed race and 5% either fell under another category or preferred not to answer. About half of parents used a daycare/childcare arrangement that they paid for.
National Household Education Survey Parent Sample Characteristics
The National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES: 2012) is a U.S. study that examines early care and education arrangements and selected family activities of children in the United States as reported by their parents. Interviews are conducted with parents or guardians of a nationally representative sample of children from birth through the age of 5 who are not yet enrolled in kindergarten. A total of 21,674 children’s parents were interviewed. Seventy-eight percent of the sample was comprised of two-parent families; of these, 24% had two parents who were working full time. Of the single-parent households (21%), almost half of parents (41%) were working full time, 26% were not in the labor force, 17% were working part-time and 15% were looking for work. Nearly all parents had at least a high school diploma or GED, and most had at least some exposure to college. Twelve percent had not finished high school, 19% percent had a high school diploma or GED, 27% had completed some vocational or technical college, 23% had a bachelor’s degree and 15% a graduate or professional degree. Most parents (50%) were of White, non-Hispanic background, followed by Hispanic (25%), Black, non-Hispanic (13%), Other (6%) and Asian or Pacific Islander (5%). In most families, both parents spoke English (85%). Most parents’ household incomes were between $20,001–$50,000. Twenty-four percent of the sample was reported to be ‘poor’ i.e., households with incomes that were below the poverty threshold (Mamedova et al., 2015).
Home Learning Environment Parent Sample Characteristics
The Home Learning Environment survey study is a large-scale, quantitative study conducted in the U.K. that longitudinally tracks a sample of 3000 children, aged 3+ to 7 years, from 141 different preschool settings. An additional sample of 500 children who had no significant preschool experience were followed to examine the impact of no preschool provision. The largest group of mothers was aged 26–35 years (60.5%), but a quarter of mothers were aged over 35. The majority (three-fifths of children) lived with married parents; about a quarter of children’s mothers were separated/divorced or classified themselves as ‘never married’ and a ‘lone parent’. In terms of highest qualifications, 18% of mothers and 14% of fathers were reported to have no qualifications. A substantially higher percentage of mothers’ than fathers’ highest qualification level was given as academic qualifications at age 16. Just under a fifth of mothers and a similar proportion of fathers had obtained either a degree or higher degree. Far fewer mothers than fathers were in full-time employment (17% compared with 54%). Working mothers were more likely to be in part-time work (31% of all mothers) and nearly half said they were not working or were currently unemployed (46.5%). Most of the parents (75%) were of White (UK heritage) background. The next most numerous ethnic groups were of mixed heritage (6.5%), followed by those of White European (4.1%), Black Caribbean (3.5%) and Pakistani (2.7%) heritage. Just over a tenth (10.5%) of the sample spoke two or more languages, although English was the first language of nearly all of the children (92.8%).
Appendix B: Survey Questions/Items from US/UK surveys for which responses were modified
Original response options
Modified response options
When does a child’s brain begin to develop and learn?