When families are engaged with their children's school there is a positive impact on student learning, attendance and student aspirations for their future. There's a powerful connection that's been found again and again. While virtually all teachers and principals recognize the value of having parents and families engaged with their school they often struggle to figure out how to promote engagement particularly among families of limited means and those who are recent immigrants.
There's lots of evidence for building productive partnerships with parents and families. There's also a lot of really good resources available for teachers and principals to consider when developing plans to improve engagement. I recently wrote a Research Into Practice brief for principals in the Oregon GEAR UP program and after a review of the literature on family engagement identified six things to consider. The complete brief is available here and on the Oregon GEAR UP website.
Here are the six strategies that can be used to improve engagement of parents and families at your school.
1. Check Assumptions and Stereotypes – Be careful about assumptions and stereotypes about families. Most teachers and employees share a middle class background and view the role of parents through their own experience. Recognize that a diverse parent community reflects a variety of values, beliefs about the role of parents and their relationship to school, and comfort in interacting with school personnel. Often Latino and poor families feel unwanted and unwelcome in their child’s school. Be cautious about relying on training, books and other resources that makes generalizations about poor families or families of diverse cultures. Do not organize your parent engagement program around majority, middle-class norms and values. A single approach to parent engagement will not succeed with all parents.
2. Build Trusting Relationships – Personal relationships are important when working with families. Many parents are more comfortable interacting with school personnel in smaller, more intimate settings where it may be possible to share information and ask questions. Latino parents are often concerned about being dismissed due to language or cultural barriers. They are aware of the stereotypes present among school employees and other parents and may resist participating in parent activities where those stereotypes may be displayed. Identify ways to meet and talk with families at churches or community centers off campus. Your outreach must be culturally sensitive and specific to each cultural group. Similarly, parents of limited means share these concerns and resist participating in programs where involvement is measured by the economic resources you can contribute to the school.
3. Value Robust Two-Way Communication – All parents want to be active partners in their children’s education. An important part of parent engagement is their sense of efficacy, believing that they can contribute to their child’s education. The literature repeatedly discusses the importance of both learning from families about their children as well as sharing information about their children’s schooling with them. Too often school communication occurs just one way, school to family and just about problems rather than successes. Parents, particularly parents of limited means, but also parents from diverse cultures, perceive that the school may not value their knowledge about their own child. They may resist sharing information that re-enforces assumptions they believe school employees hold about their family and their child. Schools often create structures for parents to share information but those systems are built on middle-class norms about when and how to interact with the school.
4. Identify Authentic Opportunities to Learn From Families – Just as two-way communication is essential, so is creating opportunities for families of diverse backgrounds to share their knowledge and skills. Parents enjoy the opportunity to contribute their knowledge to the school’s program. Don’t rely on a parental engagement program based solely on fund-raising or other resource-based programs. Many parents are eager for an opportunity to provide leadership. Seek opportunities for Latino parents and parents of limited means to participate in decision-making groups. That may require working with community leaders to identify parents comfortable with that role.
5. Train Teachers and Other Staff – It’s important to work with teachers and other staff to become knowledgeable about the diversity present in your school community. The most effective learning occurs when members of these diverse communities are part of the training. Their involvement makes the training more authentic and signals the community that you are committed to learning about and respecting the diversity present in your school. As stated earlier, do not rely on a single book or training session to form generalizations about poor or Latino families. Those materials may only re-enforce negative assumptions and stereotypes.
6. Develop and Implement a Plan – Improving parent engagement requires an intentional plan of action. Good intentions are noble but a systematic, sustained commitment requires planning and resource allocation. The best plans are developed with parents and community. Current governance structures like the School Improvement Team or the PTO may not adequately reflect the diversity of point of view central to a successful plan. Assure that your planning team is diverse and involves each group that will be part of the plan.