The Power of Parents: A Primer on Parental Involvement

Parents play a powerful role in the success of each generation of K-12 students. But these days there are many factors that prevent parents from getting involved. Here, we’ll take a deeper look at these issues—and what we as a society can do about them.

What Happens When Parents Don’t Show Up?

As educators, we talk a lot about the role of teachers in the lives of students and debate the best ways to strengthen the classroom experience for students from all backgrounds. There is only so much a teacher can do, though, particularly with large class sizes and limited resources. Even teachers in the best of circumstances are limited when it comes to hours in the day and the amount of material that must be covered. As K-12 academic standards become more rigorous, parents are becoming an even more integral piece of a student’s success.

The timing couldn’t be worse, though, from a cultural standpoint. A report released by Stanford University that found that the number of U.S. households with two working parents nearly doubled from 25 percent in 1968 to 48 percent in 2008, and that doesn’t even factor in parents who have part-time jobs, health issues or other children that vie for their time. Sending children off to school is a relief for many parents who need a place for their children to go and put their faith in the school to make those hours productive ones.

Asking parents to pick up some of the “slack” for teachers is often perceived as a burden and not as the legitimate parental duty it is. If you look at students living in poverty, whose own parents may not have played an active role in their K-12 learning, the chance of parental involvement in the education process is even slimmer. No teacher would argue the fact that parents ARE needed to maximize student success – so how can educators, and society as a whole, make it so?

How Educators Can Encourage Parents to Get Involved

If you were a parent and found that your child’s teacher didn’t seem to like your student or respect your opinion, would you be likely to visit the school again? Probably not.

James P. Comer, a child psychiatrist, has said, “In the most severely dysfunctional schools, parents, teachers, and administrators don’t like, trust or respect one another.” This distrust leads to a school environment where no one takes the responsibility for the disturbed learning environment, and students do not gain much from school. This failed environment will just worsen the situation where teachers and parents blame each other.

Without a doubt, low-performing schools, in particular, would benefit from developing strong parent-school partnerships. However, let’s be honest. It is not always easy to promote such a culture of shared responsibility. Schools may face difficulty in collaborating effectively with stakeholders, which include teachers, parents, students, the community, and the administration.

Education and school leaders try to create an environment where teachers, administrators, and parents can resolve their differences peacefully. And if teachers and parents improve their relationships with one another, student performance can also improve as a result.

Education leaders can encourage parental involvement by improving the structural environment of schools that directly affects teachers, administrators, students, and parents. Historically, American culture has tried to promote a locally inspired, community-based school structure; however, most of the calls for decentralization of schools and district school systems have not made schools any less bureaucratic. Schools often have a structural division of responsibilities, a strict set of laws and regulations, and hierarchical control over the functionality and operation of schools.

What’s wrong with bureaucracies, exactly? Well, bureaucratic systems often create barriers that prevent teachers from developing effective student-teacher relationships and discourage parents from taking part in helping students develop their learning skills. (After all, parents have enough on their plate without having to worry about jumping through hoops at their child’s school.) Centralized schooling systems under the burden of stern bureaucracies can also alienate teachers and obstruct student development.

On the other hand, bureaucratic systems help teachers control and use their expertise to guide students effectively. Getting rid of the bureaucracy means more administrative tasks for teachers, which would then have a negative impact on their performance.

The middle ground? A bureaucratic system which is based on flexible formulae that will guide the teachers, administrators, and parents in helping students learn. The centralized or hierarchical authority of schools can be used to implement these supportive regulations and policies to enhance parental involvement. But remember, the wrong set of policies or the lack of flexibility may harm the process of teaching and learning.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning this: schools must be prepared for the fact that when a parental involvement program is effective, parents will want to become partners in the decision-making process existing in schools. Thus, school personnel must genuinely believe that shared responsibility for multiple aspects of the educational enterprise will result in improved learning environments for children and youth.

Understanding the deep-rooted importance of family involvement for the child’s academic performance means recognizing the fact that parents are children’s first teachers. Home is the first school. This is where children learn an abundance of skills, knowledge, and attitudes, some of which supports what is taught in schools.

When parents get involved with their children’s education, they tend to succeed academically and perform better on exams. They miss fewer school days and tend to be more conscientious about completing school-related work outside of school. Conversely, children, whose families are not as involved in their school experiences are often unable to compete academically with peers, have irregular attendances, and are less likely to graduate from high school.

Because of the positive impact that parent and family involvement in education has on the performance of children, schools often try to encourage parents and family members to increase their participation in the educational process. To increase partnership of parents with schools, schools must create an environment that offers enough incentives and support for parents.

Furthermore, schools cannot expect that all parents and family members will increase their level of parental involvement on their own. School staff, including teachers, other school personnel, maintenance staff, and administrators, must work together to develop an environment that encourages parents to ask questions and share their feedback with school personnel. Some parents will need to be invited to schools. They need to be taught to view schools as places where they may seek advice, receive suggestions on any number of school/student related issues, and understand it is a place where their inputs and thoughts are welcomed.

Some parents may be dissuaded from getting involved with what they perceive as a group of close-knit educational professionals who use language and practices meant to discourage parents from setting foot on school grounds.  School districts must make sure parents understand state standards and assessments so that parents can be more involved in monitoring the progress of their children. Schools are required to make sure that communications with parents are in a language and format that are understandable to parents. For America’s children to succeed academically, educators must do more than pay lip service to the crucial role of parental involvement. We need to embrace this idea wholeheartedly.

Some Dos and Don’ts for Getting Parents Involved

To increase parental involvement, many schools invite parents for open meetings with other parents, arranging social programs, asking parents to volunteer during a school social and sports events,  issuing regular newsletters, connecting with parents through phone calls, and arranging for parent and teacher conferences.  Any school using these methods needs to tread with caution. These strategies may seem manipulative, and often fail to involve parents in the educational system.  And school administrators and teachers may use these types of initiatives to increase parental involvement while excluding parents from serious decision-making processes. Do not be the type of administrator and teacher who is not open to real input from a parent.

Often school administrations do not allow parents to raise their concerns about ineffective administrative policies, substandard teaching, and faulty grading systems. Regulated initiatives by schools to involve parents in the learning process of their kids often remain lopsided and ineffective because such activities restrict parents from interacting with the education system in a meaningful way.

School administrators and teachers often exploit regular parent-school collaboration methods by providing limited and biased information. They rely on parents being unquestioning and passive and believe that only education professionals can truly improve student learning. Often they ignore the rights and abilities of parents to make decisions, as well as the ability of parents to contribute information and suggestions for improving the schooling process. Additionally, some administrators are unwilling to make accommodations for parents unable to take part in regular parent-teacher meetings and similar activities because of their work schedules.

No school needs to be that deceptive. In fact, many schools do not engage in unprincipled measures to restrict parental involvement. Most genuinely value the input parents potentially provide. To improve parent-teacher collaboration, many have experimented with innovative ideas and have open door policies which allow individuals to observe school processes. Parents can visit at any time to scrutinize teaching methods, and how their children perform within the school structure. Such initiatives demand a flexible structural bureaucracy that allows parents to play a meaningful part in the decision-making process.

Finally, teachers need to learn to respect different types and different levels of parental involvement. For example, a study recently found that immigrant parents prefer not to actively involve themselves with children’s schools.  They saw that they would only interfere and saw teachers as independent and respected figures. Instead of actively getting involved at school, some parents especially African-American, Asian and Mexican parents see their roles as helping a school by assisting children with school work at home.  Bear this in mind and do not be inclined to interpret this reluctance to get involved in their children’s school as disinterest in their child’s school life.




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