(Part 1 of a three-part series)
Despite a growing body of research on how parental engagement positively impacts student outcomes, many schools struggle to actively engage parents. In fact, a 2015 Gallup poll found that just 20% of U.S. public school parents are actively engaged with their child’s school, while 57% are indifferent and 23% are actively disengaged.
This result can be partially attributed to the confusion between engagement and involvement (The Buzz on Parent Engagement), which are two different methods of interaction with two different outcomes. But perhaps the more critical factor to consider is that schools (administrators/teachers) and parents don’t know how to engage with one another.
Both parents and schools bear some responsibility for their engagement efforts, but before they can be held accountable for these efforts, or lack thereof, each party needs to understand its role. It is important to note, however, that while parents and schools have different roles to play these roles coincide with one another, and collectively they help students reach their highest level of success.
Teachers are on the front line when it comes to making parents feel welcome. As discussed in our August blog Back to School; The Importance of Building a Connection With Parents From Day One, relationships are built over time, something that is hard to come by in a single school year. Therefore, to maximize your impact with each student, teachers need to start building parental connections at the earliest opportunity.
The first step is to understand who you are, not just as an educator but as a person. Your credentials and teaching philosophy are important elements, but they are only part of who you are. Where are you from? What are your hobbies? Do you have children? Choose some personal details that you feel comfortable sharing to increase the number and types of connections you can establish with parents.
While teachers can share their bio in a handout or on a classroom web page, both of which are great reference tools for parents, face-to-face sharing is recommended because it presents opportunities for a conversation to evolve. Sometimes all it takes is a small connection to the personal information for the relationship to begin. Therefore, teachers should strive to engage in personal interaction whenever possible.
One way to establish a personal interaction if to engage in home visits, which are often regarded as the most effective form of face-to-face interaction, not just because they provide the opportunity for conversation, but because they offer insight into the home environment that may help or hinder learning outside the classroom. Home visits afford teachers the opportunity to learn about what motivates the student, help identify designated spots for homework, and suggest alternatives to access technology that may not be present in the home. If home visits aren’t an option open houses or office hours can bring parents into the school, which provides them with insight into the curriculum and daily schedule their child will participate in.
Regardless of whether a teacher utilizes home visits, school visits or both, face-to-face events create a welcoming environment that facilitates communication, where both the teacher and the parent feel comfortable asking questions and expressing their ideas.
When all parties feel comfortable with each other confidence and trust are more likely to be established, which are the basis of a solid partnership. Mai Xi Lee, Assistant Principal and Co-Coordinator of Parent University at Luther Burbank High School, said, “Parents will listen to a teacher if they are connected to that teacher and feel as if they, too, have been heard. People instinctively listen to those they respect and trust.”
Though teachers often have the greatest influence when it comes to making parents feel comfortable and heard, the school must provide support to help the teachers in their efforts. This starts with school leadership.
Principals and other leaders should be mindful of the needs of students, teachers, parents and the community, and strive to create an atmosphere where all parties feel included. For students and parents this means offering a safe learning environment where students are appropriately challenged and parents can access tools and resources to support their children. For teachers this means supporting their efforts to connect with and engage students and parents; for the community this means facilitating interaction between local businesses and school families.
For parents, each school year brings new teachers, new classroom policies, new curriculum and new communication procedures for every child and every teacher. Depending on the number of children and teachers associated with any given family, that could be anywhere from one to 20 new people and practices parents need to become familiar with.
Teachers can help families transition to the new environment by clearly defining all roles, responsibilities and procedures they utilize in their classroom. Setting expectations at the outset can help parents adjust, and identify where their contributions will have an impact. At a minimum, teachers should set expectations for the following:
- Curriculum – what students will be learning
- Homework policy – frequency, time students should spend on homework, consequences for not completing homework
- Grading policy – how students will be graded (i.e. effort, progress, final score), what constitutes a passing or failing grade
- Behavior/discipline – acceptable classroom behavior and process for correcting behavior that doesn’t meet the minimum requirements
- Resources – websites and materials available for supplemental learning
- Celebrations – whether celebrations for birthdays and/or holidays are permitted and acceptable food or favors to bring to class
- Communication – the best method for reaching the teacher with questions or concerns, and procedures to resolve any conflicts that may arise
- Parent role – volunteer opportunities in the classroom, classroom materials or donations, supporting the child outside the classroom (homework, time management, etc.)
The above items should be documented in writing for reference, however, elementary educator Camille Cavazos, writes in eSchoolNews that, “educators should use face-to-face events to their advantage as much as possible,” particularly to help establish expectations for parents, students and teachers alike from the beginning of the school year. This is because parents have their own expectations, and teachers need to hear those as well.
Parental expectations are likely to revolve around what they want for their children, such as more instruction on writing or computers, or more classroom involvement. Many parents also want to know if their children participate in and enjoy class. Thus, it’s important for teachers to both share their expectations and listen to those of the parents. Being receptive to parent’s wishes can further solidify the connection between parents and teachers.
It’s important to note, however, that it’s not just teachers who need to send and receive messages on expectations. Schools have multiple policies covering attendance, safety, discipline and a whole host of items designed to facilitate student success. Some classroom expectations will be a direct result of school expectations, while others will apply only to the classroom. Thus, all policies need to be communicated to parents at the outset, and should questions or concerns arise the teacher and the school should be receptive to parent feedback. Therefore, a policy for escalating classroom concerns should be available to ensure all parties have a voice when it comes to addressing and resolving any conflict.
Communication is defined as “sharing and exchanging ideas.” Too often communication with parents is reduced to sharing, such as a weekly newsletter, a calendar reminder, or urgent notices about weather, security or student safety. These are all important items, but unless you are exchanging ideas you are not communicating.
Parents expect teachers to share information, but they don’t always expect to exchange it simply because they don’t know where, when or how to speak up. Thus, it’s up to the teacher to set the tone by inviting parents to share their thoughts and concerns.
Larry Ferlazzo, educator and parental engagement expert, believes one simple question, “Can you please tell me about the times in your child’s life that he/she has seemed to be learning the most and working hard in school, and what you think their teacher was doing at that time to encourage it?” makes all the difference when it comes to establishing a partnership between parents and teachers.
An invitation to exchange information, such as with the question above, should take place at the beginning of the year, and needs to be reiterated throughout the year to truly engage parents, which can be done with very little effort.
Each time a teacher shares information, such as in a weekly newsletter, they can invite parents to contact them with questions, ask for feedback on the assignments that come home, or suggest a topic for dinner conversation that the kids will also discuss in class. These activities help all parents participate in the learning process regardless of whether they can be in the classroom or not.
The simple act of inviting parents to share helps them feel like a valued team member. Says Katy Ridnouer, teacher and author, “we teachers need to work at creating opportunities for parents to become thirsty for a relationship with teachers just as we work to create opportunities for creating a thirst for learning in our students.” When teachers shift from trying to make parents listen and instead listen to them, relationships follow.
Lastly, teachers need to remember that sharing information shouldn’t just be limited to recounting what was done in class, reminding parents of important calendar items, or notifying them of problems. Sharing should also focus on the student’s personal growth.
Many parents have never received a phone call from their child’s teacher to tell them about a positive development, such as the student raising his or her hand in class for the first time. Milestones like these are important to parents, but they often go unnoticed unless the teacher makes it a point to share. Doing so further enhances the parent/teacher relationship, and inspires parents to fulfill their role in the education process.
Schools can support the exchange of information between parents and teachers by incorporating policies and tools to facilitate dialogue. Interactive teacher web pages, recommended apps that support messaging, or recommendations for the frequency and type of information to share are all ways the school can help teachers and parents find ways to communicate.
Additionally, when communicating directly with parents schools should strive to provide clear and concise messages rather than lengthy newsletters to help ensure receipt of important information.
Evaluate Your Results
Parental engagement is achieved when the relevant parties view each other as partners. Mai Xi Lee suggests teachers ask the following questions to determine whether they are successfully engaging parents:
- Do you have a relationship with the parents, aside from the fact that their child is in your class/school?
- What mechanisms have been put into place to foster a relationship?
- What is your level of engagement with the parent?
- Have you talked to this parent before?
- When you did converse, was the call about a positive or negative thing?
If the answers to these questions indicate sufficient and varied communication with the parent, you likely have formed or are forming a partnership with them. If the answers suggest limited contact it’s likely the parent doesn’t feel welcome, doesn’t know what is expected of them, or doesn’t feel comfortable communicating. Reaching out to them could alleviate any misgivings they have and turn them from a parent into a partner.
Many teachers report feeling unprepared to engage parents (Ferlazzo, 2015), which schools can counter by educating teachers on engagement strategies and incorporating tools to facilitate engagement. For example, teachers in Sacramento, California, have been trained to participate in structured visits to their students’ homes. The visits help establish trust and identify ways parents can support learning, and are credited with a reduction in discipline problems, increases in attendance rates and achievement gains.
Another program, as recorded by The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, is Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS), which forges a three-way relationship between teachers, parents, and their children through a creative approach to homework. The program, created at Johns Hopkins University, encourages parents and children to interact and share ideas about schoolwork.
School sponsored programs like these help teachers develop the skills to interact with and engage parents, ultimately leading to student success.
Join the Conversation
Though parents and schools alike are responsible for engaging with one another, many parents will take their cues from the school. By proactively seeking a relationship with parents schools can make the most of their time with each student.
How does your school encourage parental engagement? What tools and resources do teachers want their schools to provide to help with engagement efforts?
Ferlazzo, L. (2015) Response: The Difference Between Parent “Involvement” and Parent “Engagement” (http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/classroom_qa_with_larry_ferlazzo/2012/03/response_the_difference_between_parent_involvement_parent_engagement.html)
Hodges, T. and Yu, D. (2015) Critical Drivers of Parent Engagement in School, (http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/186245/critical-drivers-parent-engagement-schools.aspx)
Hodges, T. and Yu, D. (2015) Crucial Element of Successful Schools (http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/186026/crucial-element-successful-schools-parent-engagement.aspx)
Riddell, R. (2017) Starting the Year off Right Means Building Strong Parent Communication (http://www.educationdive.com/news/starting-the-year-off-right-means-building
Sample Best Practices for Parent Involvement in Schools, 2016 (http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Other-Resources/Family-and-Community-Engagement/Getting-Parents-Involved/Sample-Best-Practices-for-Parent-Involvement-in-Sc)
The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. (August, 2005). Meeting the Challenge: Getting Parents Involved in Schools (http://www.readingrockets.org/article/getting-parents-involved-schools)