Parent Engagement: Beyond Volunteerism

A growing body of research underscores the connection between parent engagement and student outcomes, clearly indicating that parental involvement has a positive impact. Schools have attempted to encourage parent engagement in a variety of ways ranging from parent/teacher conference participation to mandatory school volunteer programs. But these “volunteer” opportunities aren’t the only solution. In fact, it’s what takes place outside the school that may have the greatest impact on student outcomes.

Parent Engagement Defined

International research from the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth for the Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau states “parental engagement consists of partnerships between families, schools and communities, raising parent awareness of the benefits of engaging in their children’s education, and providing them with the skills to do so.”1

The key term in this definition is “partnership.” Student success is dependent on a variety of factors, and having an integrated support system which extends beyond the walls of the school building is a critical factor in long-term student success.

Consider the “partners” that contribute to each and every student. In addition to teachers there may be coaches, parents, grandparents, siblings, even neighbors. Each partner has the ability to impact the student. Each partner can introduce new concepts, encourage progress, enforce discipline and instill a sense of responsibility in the student, collectively nurturing that student’s development inside and outside of the school building. But this nurturing can only be achieved if the partners communicate.

Communication between partners should be driven by the needs of the student. Changes in behavior (positive or negative), praise, disciplinary actions and things that need work are all examples of things partners should know to effectively play their role. Facilitating this communication is perhaps the most effective way for schools to help parents and other members of the student’s support system engage in the learning process to help drive student success.

Impact on Student Outcomes

The Harvard Family Research Project published a series of research briefs outlining the benefits of family involvement in all stages of a child’s education, from early childhood education to elementary, middle and high school. The briefs synthesized the outcome-based empirical research published over seven years (1999-2006) catalogued in the Family Involvement Network of Educators bibliographic database.2

Many families believe parent engagement starts and ends with elementary school, however the briefs clearly emphasize the benefits of parent involvement in all stages of a child’s schooling. Engaged elementary school parents might encourage quality work over quick work by checking nightly homework assignments. Engaged middle school parents might assist their children with understanding proper time management skills. Engaged high school parents can help with setting long-term educational goals and navigating the college application process.

It’s up to parents to recognize and implement the appropriate amount of involvement for their child’s needs at home, and input from the school can play an important role in that decision. Families and school leaders must also recognize there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ parent engagement strategy, and successful implementation must focus on local needs and contexts.1 Additionally, while many schools might focus their efforts on volunteerism and involving parents inside the school building, take note that the process of engaging parents in learning at home has shown to have the greater impact on student outcomes.

1 Emerson, L., Fear, J., Fox, S., Sanders, E., (2012). Parental engagement in learning and schooling: lessons from research. Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth. Retrieved January 2016 from this source.

2 Kreider, H., Caspe, M., Kennedy, S. and Weiss, H. (2007). Family Involvement in Middle and High School Students’ Education. Harvard Family Research Project. Boston: Harvard Graduate School of Education.