Identify roadblocks to parent involvement and pave the way to better relationships with these five tested strategies.
Has this happened to you? The Philadelphia school where Sarah is a first-year science teacher put weeks of planning into a science night for students and their families, only to have fewer than 20 parents attend the event.
“We had a shark dissection. Really they’re dogfish, but the kids get so excited. We had kids making marshmallow and toothpick structures and frozen popcorn. It was awesome. But no one came.”
So why didn’t parents show up? “A couple of moms told me, ‘The school says they want us to come, but they don’t act like it,'” Sarah admitted as one reason.
Clearly, parental inclusion and involvement in school life is an incredibly important part of building a positive school culture. Parents represent a vast talent pool from which to draw on for volunteers, mentors and aides to enrich children’s learning and social experiences at school. Children also have fewer behavior problems and do better academically when their parents are involved in school events and the homework routine. And parents themselves benefit. They learn more about their child’s school and feel more connected. They often also gain useful connections and knowledge about area resources both inside and outside of school.
While few can argue against having parents engaged in school life, many of us struggle with how to make it a reality. Sometimes our efforts miss the mark and breed more suspicion than trust.
Here are five reasons parents give for avoiding their child’s school and what you can do to help.
“Whenever I come to school, they always tell me what they think and never listen to anything I say.”
The roadblock: School-home communication is one-directional.
How to address it: Too often, schools don’t give parents opportunities to share their opinions. Our requests for parents to attend events sometimes sound more like orders than friendly invitations. Start turning this around right now. Survey your parent community whenever you can, both formally and informally. Ask: What school issues are most important to your family? What school events are most valuable to parents? What are the obstacles for attending conferences or events? How can the school help? In conversation with parents, both administrators and teachers should strive to listen more fully and to ask more questions.
“I have three kids in different schools and a full-time job. I barely have time to answer email, much less come in for a conference.”
The roadblock: Ineffective communication.
How to address it: It’s essential for teachers to understand the needs and limitations of their students’ families. Ask parents: How would you prefer for me to contact you? In some cases, texting may be the best option. There are free texting services, like remind101.com, that enable teachers to keep their phone numbers private. A student conference can take place over the phone or in the student’s home. If there’s a will, there’s a way.
“No school ever cared about me or my son.”
The roadblock: Past negative experiences with school environments.
How to address it: Plan “getting to know you” events early in the year for families and staff, such as an ice cream social or game night. That gives parents a chance to meet teachers in a less formal setting than a conference or IEP meeting. Reach out to parents with school information and positive news early and often so that there isn’t that association that an email or call from school means “Uh-oh, trouble.”
“At school, everyone just assumes our family is from Mexico. We’re actually from Uruguay.”
The roadblock: Cultural differences and assumptions.
How to address it: How well does your school understand the cultural, social, economic and religious backgrounds of your students and their families? Are all your school materials available in the languages of the community? Is the reading level accessible for everyone? You can take advantage of the knowledge that all parents offer about their own children and the school community if you work to see differences as opportunities rather than problems.
“They want moms to bake cookies, not to point out problems.”
The roadblock: Defensiveness of school staff, adversarial parent-school relationships.
How to address it: Parents who take an “us against them” stance with school staff can be a true challenge, and it can be tempting to return the rancor. Keep in mind that how you and your school communicate with parents sets the tone for the responses you receive. You may not be able to control whether or not parents give you the support you are looking for, but you certainly can control the manner in which you communicate with them so that instead of feeling intimidated or antagonized, parents feel invited and appreciated.
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