Facilitating parental support

My school wants to encourage more parental involvement. Any suggestions?
—Madeleine, Lafayette, Louisiana

“Parental involvement” is a term we think we all understand, but it might help to discuss what “involved” parents are. On the one hand, they might be the parents/caregivers who come to open houses or conferences, belong to the Parent Teacher Association, read aloud to their child, volunteer in the school, call with questions about their child’s learning, and make sure their child does homework. On the other hand, there are the parents who do the homework for the child, question you repeatedly about grading, second-guess instructional decisions, make unreasonable demands on your time, or assume their child is always correct. And don’t forget about the parents who work multiple jobs to pay bills, have difficulty communicating in English, are experiencing their own personal or medical problems, or stay away because of negative experiences when they were students.
I prefer the term “parental support” to describe the positive things parents can do to be a part of their child’s education. Surprisingly, some parents may not know how to be supportive. Communication and positive experiences with schools can be the first steps in promoting parent support.
If we communicate only negative information (behavior issues, low test scores, missing homework), it can be understandable why parents/caregivers might not want much contact. A high school I worked in had a “Good News” project. Teachers were encouraged to send postcards (provided by the school) to parents to share positive student events: an improved grade, helpful behaviors, or an interesting activity. The school secretary would address and mail them (e-mail works, too, if parents/caregivers have accounts). Many parents would call to thank us for the good news.
Parents also should be able to find information easily on the school website. Class newsletters, webpages, or blogs could describe activities and assignments. An elementary school added a twist to the traditional school calendar. In addition to sporting events and holidays, every day had a suggestion—simple things such as “help your child write a note to a relative or friend” or “tell your child a story about when you were his/her age.” The calendar also had information about the local public library and museums. Some schools have take-home kits that include books, science mini-kits, or puzzles and games.
It may be hard to believe, but many parents get nervous when they have to visit their child’s school, and non-threatening, pleasant experiences can help them overcome their anxiety. A middle school I know switched from a teacher-centered Back-to-School Night to an Open House concept, encouraging students and other family members to come along. The students introduced their parents and teachers, showed their families where their seats were, what was in their lab notebooks, and how to open the lockers. If parents wanted to talk about their child in detail, they left their names and the teacher contacted them.
Some elementary schools are including students in the parent conferences, so students can share their work. At an elementary school in a neighborhood where many parents/caregivers walked their children to school, the principal offered coffee and doughnuts in the lobby every Friday morning and invited the parents to stay and chat with each other and some staff members.
A statement attributed to Shimon Peres may be applicable here: If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time. We can wait for external solutions to what we perceive as the “problem” of a lack of parent involvement, or we can cope by communicating with parents/caregivers, providing non-threatening opportunities for parents/caregivers to visit the school, and helping them learn how to be supportive.

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