contributed by Carol Goedken, CEO of Families & Schools Together
Improving the academic trajectory of disadvantaged children is a high priority in education, and there is no shortage of philosophical approaches to solving the problem. One particularly effective approach involves engaging parents as partners in their children’s learning.
Getting parents engaged in school leads to improved academic outcomes for students, but many schools aren’t equipped with the staff or resources to truly establish meaningful, collaborative partnerships with them. For a school’s parent engagement strategy to be successful, it must be based on a solid foundation. To that end, the following six ideas to help your parent engagement strategy begin on the right foot.
1. Know your audience and their needs.
As educators and professionals, we sometimes overlook reaching out to the very people we’re trying to engage, and, in doing so, end up creating afterschool activities or programming that parents don’t want, don’t need or simply can’t attend due to other priorities. The first question you have to ask is whether your parents value the programming offered at the school; do they find it useful?
According to the Health Beliefs Model (HBM), engaging in certain behavior is a function of both value (desire for their child to do well in school) and expectation that engaging in this behavior will be helpful (this program will help strengthen my relationship with my child).
Listen to parents and then articulate how your strategy will benefit them, and their children.
2. Set expectations early
What do parents see as their role in their child’s education? Do parents know the benefits of supporting their child by helping out with homework and being present at the school for activities? While expectations may vary slightly by culture, parents who see themselves as their child’s first teacher will likely be more collaborative with you, the teacher, and will then be more involved in educational programming.
3. Know the barriers to participation, and how to get around them
Providing parents with a platform to discuss the barriers that may prevent them from engaging in your school programming is a critical early step. Depending on your resources, providing both ideas and the means for overcoming such barriers is the natural follow-through. Barriers can be external (transportation, work schedule, childcare) or internal (family discord, family stress) and are often weighed against the benefits of a program.
Some schools and programs have the resources to provide transportation or childcare stipends for families, while others may seek more creative ways of overcoming barriers.
As an outreach strategy, schools might consider sending a social worker or other activities coordinators door-to-door with detailed information about the program, as well as information about community resources. In doing so, school staff are able to make a personal connection with families, while helping to provide information on solutions to common barriers (like transportation).
4. Make relationships the priority
The quality of relationships is often overlooked as an important factor in parent engagement programming. While difficult to measure, retention in parent engagement programs is often linked to the quality of what is called the therapeutic alliance, which generally exists between school social workers and families, but can certainly extend to all school staff.
While not all parent engagement programs have this ‘therapeutic’ component, the importance of providing training on positive communication, empathy, and listening skills can benefit all parent-facing school staff. Relationship skills training provides a toolset for school staff to respond appropriately to resistance and challenges, therefore building and strengthening the working alliance with parents.
Teacher attitude affects parent-teacher relationships. School staff who enter the parent-teacher relationship with the basic assumption that parents want the best for their children, want them to learn and get good jobs, no matter what circumstances they live in find more success in engaging parents.
5. Create a culture of self-efficacy
Self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s capacity to achieve something, is linked to higher levels of parent engagement. Does the parent programming at your school build parent self-efficacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem? Do parents feel comfortable attending events or speaking up about planning events?
Parent self-esteem (related to self-efficacy) and confidence in their own academic ability also supports their tendency to get involved in their child’s academic endeavors. Researchers suggest creating flexible programming and involving parents in the planning of programming supports parents’ confidence and higher attendance.
6. Focus on fathers, too
While both parents play a crucial role in child development, recent attention has been placed on the integral role of fathers, and the need for fathers to be involved in parent programming. A recent study focused on what successful programs have done to not only recruit fathers but also keep fathers engaged in family programming.
Some effective strategies found for recruitment were: connecting with trusted community-based organizations that primarily serve men, promoting the program in ‘male spaces,’ having male staff whenever possible, and highlighting program benefits, as, according to the study “men were regarded by professionals as more outcome-focused.”
7. Make it a matter of pedagogical design
One way to make it a matter of ‘pedagogy’? Use place-based education or project-based learning. Design lessons or units full of learning experiences that can work without parents, but that are way, way better with their presence and support.
For decades, researchers have exhaustively studied the elements of effective parent engagement programs, highlighting the importance of the issue and the role it plays in child development. The consensus of this body of research is that the importance of collaboration, discussion, and partnerships are hallmarks of effective parent engagement and academic achievement.
As educators, we must value our parents and their insights as much as those of our colleagues and students. Then, and only then, will parents truly be engaged in their child’s learning.
Carol Goedken is a former educator and CEO of Families & Schools Together, a parent-engagement non-profit transforming communities nationwide; image attribution flickr user usarmycorpofengineers;