Are you satisfied with your level of involvement in your child’s education? As part of our State of Parenting Poll, sponsored by Pearson, we polled parents across the country and found out that about half of them are actually dissatisfied with their overall level of involvement. They cite being too busy, not understanding the material being taught and not feeling like schools support their involvement as the biggest barriers to getting more involved. While some of these barriers may seem insurmountable, schools can play an important role in helping parents overcome each one of these issues. Research continues to show that parent engagement is a critical pillar in helping students achieve academically and support them as they work toward their lifelong goals. We chatted with two family and community engagement experts, John’s Hopkins Professor Joyce Epstein, and Harvard’s Karen Mapp, to find out what they think schools should be doing to engage all parents.
Focus on the Relationship
It’s important for schools to acknowledge that every parent, no matter their background or life circumstances, brings unique strengths and perspectives to the table. “Schools need to have the attitude that families are the first teachers of children,” said Karen Mapp. “We all know the difference of being talked at versus truly being engaged in a conversation.” For schools, it starts with forming solid relationships with each parent at the beginning of the school year. Mapp believes that parents need to have the opportunity to express their hopes and dreams for their child and also a venue to provide feedback and express their opinion about the school in general. School staff should focus on building strong relationships of trust and mutual respect. “It isn’t about business all the time,” Mapp added. “Most of us respond when we know someone. When we trust them, we are more likely to follow through.”
Provide Timely Information
“Parents want good, timely, and helpful information about how I can help my child do better in school with these teachers and these subjects so that he will meet his full potential this year and will be promoted into the next grade level,” explained Joyce Epstein. Instead of sending a newsletter with general advice, Epstein says it’s more important to provide parents with grade specific guidance on how they can use their limited time to support their child this school year. The Parent Toolkit growth charts, broken down by grade level, are a great place to start looking for timely information about supporting a child’s overall development.
Different Entry Points
Mapp and Epstein agree that schools should think critically about the opportunities that they offer parents to get involved and ensure there are a variety of entry points. “Every family is different in terms of their engagement. We have to provide a nice portfolio for our families,” said Mapp. “If you have a parent that is working two or three jobs, expecting them to be involved in the PTA is unrealistic.” Mapp also warned that schools need to be careful not to create a hierarchy where certain families are rewarded because they can always be at school. “Some parents will think ‘If I can’t be a power broker, then I’m going to disengage.’”
One of the easiest ways for schools to improve their engagement efforts overnight is to focus on creating a welcoming environment for families, says Mapp. It’s a clear way to show families that the school wants them to be fully engaged in their children’s education. Teachers and other building staff can ensure that there are clear signs welcoming families into the building and explicit instructions for what they need to do when they first come in.
Empower Teachers’ Creativity
A key aspect to parent engagement is sharing student progress and data. While most schools host a report card night or open house to disseminate this information, Karen Mapp says it’s important to remember that parents may need additional help making sense of the reports and their child’s scores. “One of the things that I have learned from this work -- teachers are the best people to explain the unexplainable,” said Mapp. “We have handcuffed teachers saying you have to do this parent teacher night the same way that they have done it for years. When you give them creativity and flexibility, they come up with all sorts of workshops for families.”
Stop the Blame
In communities where positive engagement isn’t the norm, schools and parents are sometimes quick to blame each other for problems. In fact, our poll found that 78% of parents agree that sometimes parents unfairly blame schools for things that should actually be the parents’ responsibility. Conversely, 58% of parents agree with the statement that “schools sometimes unfairly blame parents for things that should really be the schools’ responsibility.” Experts recommend that parents and schools alike should focus on shared responsibility. “It’s important for schools to set up a partnership for shared responsibility so that every parent knows that the school sees them as a partner in their child’s education,” said Epstein.
Karen Mapp added that parents need to offer help before pointing the finger. “If you go into an environment where family engagement hasn’t been a norm, the first thing you want to do is let them know that you are there to help. A lot of times, we get this picture of an adversarial group with pitchforks that want to tell them what to do.” Always start with the positive because starting from the negative approach makes people defensive, says Mapp.
For more ideas on how your school can enhance your parent engagement efforts, check out Karen Mapp’s book Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships or the work of Joyce Epstein and her colleagues at the National Network of Partnership Schools.