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Engage Every Parent: Identifying Goals for Parent Engagement

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By Nancy Tellett-Royce & Susan Wootten [Guest Article]

If you’ve ever asked a group of teachers, coaches, clerics, and youth leaders about their experiences with parents, you’ve probably received a great variety of responses:

• “The same parents always volunteer for everything.”
• “My team parent coordinator is key to our success. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
• “I asked for Parent Night volunteers, but only one parent signed up.”
• “I sent home volunteer sign-up sheets with the kids, and almost every parent sent one back.”
• “While we only have two concerts a year, some parents never seem to make it.”
• “Our program relies on parents to share transportation to ‘away’ games, and I’m happy to say the parents don’t let me down.”
• “Four parents said they would chaperone the field trip, but only one came. It was a nightmare!”
Engage-Every-Parent Book
               All forms of parent engagement, no matter how small they may seem, are beneficial for your students or program participants. Almost every school, congregation, sports association, or youth program has parent volunteers who know how to “make a difference.” Other parents need little encouragement, reassurance, and information about what they’ll be expected to do in order to tip the balance between staying home and getting involved.

               While it’s true that some parents rarely show up and don’t respond to sign-up sheets sent home in backpacks or posted on bulletin boards, there are ways to draw them in to attend school or program functions and volunteer on-site. Many schools and programs that have successfully recruited volunteers say the first step is to identify the specific goals for parent engagement, and act on effective strategies that will help meet those goals.

What Do You Need from Parents?

Public Agenda, a national nonprofit organization, surveyed 1,220 parents of children in public schools and 1,000 public school teachers about parental involvement. Among the findings was this point of agreement:

Both parents and teachers believe that the most fundamental and indispensable job for parents is raising well-behaved children who want to learn. For both groups, the same basic lessons—respect, effort, self-control—emerge again and again as the essentials that every child must master before academic learning can even begin.1

               This information doesn’t apply only to the classroom—these social skills are necessary for success in all areas of life, including team sports, musical groups, and youth groups. It is best if both you and each child’s parents help the child build these skills with an eye to healthy interaction within a peer group, whether this interaction occurs in a classroom, on a team, or in a program. (See handouts “Goal Setting: What Do You Need from Parents and Families?” on page 79 and “Getting Organized for the School Year” on page 80.)

Goal: Clear, Two-Way Communication

When you think about the communication skills you work on with young people, it’s likely that you spend time at the beginning of the program year clearly naming the rules that will guide how they should communicate with you and their peers. Being intentional about laying the ground rules for interaction helps you keep misunderstandings to a minimum and encourages direct, respectful, and complete communication of information.

Many communication problems involving parents and schools or youth programs are rooted in the first contacts that teachers or program providers initiate to alert parents to their children’s academic or social issues. When a child or teen is having a hard time showing respect, demonstrating effort, or exhibiting self-control, the teacher, coach, or other program leader often initiates a conversation with the young person’s parent. While you won’t be setting communication “rules” for parents at the beginning of your academic or program year, you can model good communication skills by sharing complete, concise information with them and letting them know what forms of communication they can expect from you (for example, through newsletters, phone calls, e-mails, and Web postings). 

Invite parents to communicate with you, and make it easy for them by providing your contact information in writing. Offer your phone number and e-mail address on paper that can be posted on the refrigerator or included in a three-ring binder. List phone numbers you feel comfortable sharing, whether that means your work number, cell phone number, or your home number as well, and your e-mail address and times or days when you are most likely to be available.

Be sure to name the reasons you want to keep open lines of communication with parents. Tell parents in direct terms how clear, complete communication between them and you will have a positive influence on their child’s progress. For example, when you both have a common understanding of a concern, you can work together to come up with a plan that suits everyone. It’s reasonable to let parents know you’ll respond to their calls or e-mails within 48 hours. Prompt communication on your part also means parents can expect to receive any important last-minute changes from you that might affect their schedules, transportation arrangements, and expectations for the program. And clear, appropriate oral and written communications will help establish the conditions necessary for building genuine and lasting relationships based upon your mutual interest—the personal growth and success of the kids in your program.

Goal: Solving the Parent-Child-Homework Equation

The amount of homework students receive has increased dramatically in the past decade as schools increase the rigor of their academic programs to address more stringent test performance benchmarks, higher achievement expectations, and the demands of a 21st-century workplace. Forming a family/school partnership that focuses on homework completion may be one of the most critical goals you have for parent engagement.

Parents name fights with their children over homework as one of the areas they like least about parenting. And it’s no wonder. Teachers express considerable frustration when students come to school unprepared. It is likely that there is a direct connection between the two situations. Because there have been so many changes in the amount and type of homework expected of students in recent years, it will be critical to explain to parents why you assign the homework you do, and what your expectations are for parents in helping their children complete assignments. Parents need to know how and why expectations for homework have changed, and why it is important to have parents “buy-in” to the process. Their homework support roles will vary, depending on a child’s grade level and individual characteristics.

               In some cases, parents must work late shifts or multiple jobs to support their families. Children may often be enrolled in after-school activities or programs, or must care for younger siblings and help prepare meals when they return home. It is all too easy for homework time to be squeezed out of a child’s day if time is not intentionally set aside for it. In addition, parents may not think they know enough about a particular subject to feel competent when it comes to helping with homework. Parents may not speak English as their first language, making it very difficult for them to assist their children when they become “stuck” with a problem or need help with a reading passage. And at any time, a family that has been doing well may suddenly suffer a major family illness, job loss, or a relationship separation that pulls everyone’s attention away from children’s daily activities, including their homework.

               Finally, a less-obvious barrier to homework completion can arise when parents become over-involved in children’s homework assignments. Parents who plan, direct, and complete their children’s assignments for them penalize their children without realizing the long-term consequences of their actions. If you notice that a student has done a wonderful job on homework but rarely knows the answers in class or fares poorly on tests, her parent may be too hands-on with homework.

               All children, regardless of ability, talent, interest, and circumstances, need time to practice new skills and learn from their mistakes, an opportunity that homework offers them in the first place. In addition, completing homework allows children to gain a more complete understanding of the subject and the motivation to pursue knowledge for its own sake. If you notice that a student consistently fails to complete assigned homework, be sure to notify parents promptly so you can work together to find a solution. Don’t wait for multiple missed assignments to bring this situation to a parent’s attention. (See pages 82 and 83 for more information on homework solutions.)

Goal: Volunteers

Parent volunteers are more commonly found in elementary schools than in middle or high schools. In fact, parents of older children often mention they are told by school staff that “your child won’t want you around during the school day” now that they are in middle school. While children begin to express an appropriate and growing need for autonomy as they enter the middle school years, it is important to find ways to continue bringing caring adults into the lives of young people as they move through the upper grades. Parent volunteers are a prime source for these relationships. Once the basics of your plan to recruit volunteers are in place, you can begin thinking about how parent volunteers can best help you meet the needs of your classroom or program.

What tasks do you have for parent volunteers to take on? Some teachers, coaches, and program leaders prefer not to have parents observe them in action, while others welcome the audience. Regardless, both types of teachers and program leaders can use the support and assistance of parents willing to take direction and act as supporting cast members. Are you willing to assign tasks that might not be done exactly the way you would perform them? Think about the range of volunteer assignments you could assign, and be flexible about how parents might actually carry them out. Remember, your goal is to empower parents to join with you in creating conditions that lead to their children’s successes.

If you talk to peers to get their parent involvement ideas or brainstorm your own list of ways engage parents, you’ll probably generate a long list. Consider whether you’ll have volunteer outreach and management help from a parent coordinator, school staff member, or district employee to accomplish your wish list. This will help you determine a reasonable set of high-priority tasks that parents could do.

Perhaps your top priorities as a classroom teacher include boosting reading and math test scores. If you’re a drama coach, your primary need may be for someone to manage costumes or props so that you have more time to work with your young actors and actresses. Or perhaps you’ve set goals for individual youth that can best be reached by spending concentrated one-on-one tutoring time with them. Whether a parent volunteer works with that young person individually or with the larger group while you offer the individual assistance, your volunteer’s help can allow you to meet your goal.

               Additionally, parent volunteers can provide youth with cultural awareness opportunities, positive male and female role models, and various types of enrichment activities. Getting to know parents’ special talents, skills, and interests will allow you to uncover additional ideas that fit your program goals. One way to do this is to simply ask parents to send you an e-mail or give you a call to express their interests or availability. More formally, you can send parents a brief skill and talent survey and ask open-ended questions that they can fill in with their particular areas of interest.

Goal: Positive Outcomes for Young People

After you identify intended parent involvement outcomes for your program, review your original goals to see if they remain relevant. Most likely you’re trying to engage parents not only because education research says you should, but also because you expect certain positive results. Some of your goals for parent involvement may relate directly to intended outcomes in the parent-child relationship. Your other goals and hoped-for outcomes may relate to the progress of the entire class, school, team, or youth program, or to your own sense of well-being. Reprioritize any goals that won’t help you reach your intended outcomes. Add other goals where you identify gaps.

For example, if the outcome you are working toward is to have a student consistently finish and turn in his homework, then include as one of your goals engaging his parents in the homework process. If, as a coach, your desired outcome is a positive team attitude, identify and make parent attendance and upbeat cheering at sports events your goals. If you see these outcomes occur, you’ll know your parent engagement efforts are paying off.

What Do Parents Need from You?

The majority of parents want their children to experience success and perform well in school and extracurricular activities. They want their children to be loved, appreciated, and recognized for the great individuals they are. Most parents realize this individual recognition is tougher for an adult to offer in a group of 30 than in a family of four. Nevertheless, they pin their hopes on caring adults who will treat their children with fairness, communicate clearly with them, ensure their children’s safety, and make learning an engaging experience—both inside and outside the classroom.

Parents also have other hopes: that their children are able to give them the full story when they say everything is going fine; that when they say they have no homework assignments, that really is the case; that the songs for their next piano lesson have been mastered; or that their youth group has never been better. But beyond these hopes, parents count on teachers, program leaders, and coaches to fill in the inevitable communication gaps and make sure all is really going well.

Parents’ desire to be helpful and supportive of their children is tempered by many other demands on their time. If they are to become engaged, they need to have the following information from you:

• The specific tasks and what they involve.
• The estimated time commitment for the tasks.
• Positive feedback from you.

Parents’ motivations for volunteering range from the most altruistic (wanting to help all children learn and benefit from school, sports participation, service opportunities, or faith exploration) to closer-to-home (desiring a closer relationship with their child’s teacher or observing how much individual attention their child is receiving). You can address much of what parents want by communicating to them that their participation not only strengthens their own child’s commitment to school, sports, music, or other program areas, but it also supports the commitment of other children. In the same way you discuss your expectations with young people in your classroom, program, or team at the beginning of the year, you can share with parents your hopes and expectations for their own involvement at home, at school, and in extracurricular activities.

Finally, remember that the primary reason for engaging parents is that it has a positive impact on young people’s lives. Of course, some youth will feel conflicted over their parents’ involvement in their activities. When children are young, they’re generally thrilled to have their parent visit the class, lead their Brownie troop, or coach their Little League team. As they grow older, and particularly as they reach the preteen and teenage years, they are less likely to express enthusiasm about having their parents directly involved in their activities. But that doesn’t mean there are no good ways to engage parents. It does mean you’ll need to look at the types of parent involvement that will work best for all concerned.

When youth are prepared and excited to learn, practice, or perform, your job becomes easier and more rewarding. Instead of managing unruly or uninterested kids, you will be able to focus on the task at hand—teaching, coaching, and guiding young people!

 Reaching Every Parent—In the Classroom

You’re probably accustomed to working with many different kinds of learners and their various levels of comprehension, enthusiasm, and attentiveness. Just as your students have unique personalities and situations, so do their parents. How can you engage all parents, not just those who eagerly volunteer their time before you even have a chance to ask for help?

Some parents have the ability to go above and beyond an expected level of involvement in their children’s activities and education, assisting not only their own children, but acting in the interests of all students at the school. Others have so little free time that they barely have time to talk to their child, let alone help with homework, attend games or concerts, or participate in parent-teacher conferences. It’s understandable to feel frustrated and saddened by the situation these students face, but it’s important to take into account a family’s individual needs and circumstances.

When a student rarely finishes the homework you assign, it’s reasonable to talk to the student and to the student’s parents. You may discover the reason the student is doing poorly in school is more complicated than you might imagine or assume. Perhaps the student lives with an ill, single parent, and so the student must spend his evenings assuming household responsibilities—cleaning, shopping for groceries, making dinner, or babysitting younger siblings. The challenge is to find innovative ways to make school an enjoyable and meaningful experience for this student.

Unfortunately, there are some situations in which you will never be able to engage a student’s parent to the point that they will be available to volunteer inside or outside the classroom or help with homework. When you realize this, you’ll need to go beyond the parent’s physical presence and come up with creative solutions that will ensure your student’s academic success.

While you never want to give up trying to engage a parent’s attention and focus on her child, in the meantime that child needs to establish a homework routine that works and perhaps get extra academic help or tutoring. This is where available parent volunteers come in. Although a parent may volunteer his time to help his own child, it is often the students who do not have such engaged parents who need the most help and attention in the classroom—and beyond.

 Reaching Every Parent—On the Field, after School, and in the Pews

If you work with students after school as an athletic coach, play director, program director, or youth pastor, you may find that some young people face obstacles in meeting the time commitments necessary for the whole group’s success.

The first step to solving these problems is to sit down and have a private conversation with the individual. But don’t stop there. It’s possible that parents don’t know their child hasn’t been attending regularly or on time, and they might have insights to help you understand the child’s poor attendance record. Work with parents to identify barriers to full participation and come up with creative solutions.

If you discover that parents are uncomfortable with their child’s participation, find out why. There could be any number of reasons, and you may be able to convince parents of the importance of their child’s involvement in extracurricular activities. Perhaps the team sport or program is cost-prohibitive, or the parents are originally from a culture that doesn’t understand or support the activity. Perhaps parents need their child at home in the evening to help with chores or younger siblings, care for an ailing relative, or work a part-time job to make ends meet.

What can you do? Your school or organization may have financial aid for participants who can’t afford the equipment, clothes, or program fees. If you don’t, consider implementing a scholastic program. You can share with parents the many benefits their child will experience by being a member of your club, team, or group. Invite them to attend a practice or rehearsal so they can see what it’s all about. Try to think creatively—is it possible for the young person to rearrange her work schedule to better accommodate extracurricular activities? Are there on-site tasks or jobs you can pay the teenager to take on that will allow her to participate in practice, rehearsal, or after-school activities? You may wonder how these actions help engage parents. The answer is that some parents are truly unable to attend events, provide transportation, or afford certain programs. These are tough hurdles to overcome, so instead of focusing attention on the parents’ limitations or giving up on them entirely, fill in the gaps whenever possible.

You can take other actions to help participants who often show up late—or not at all. Chances are, they do care about the program or extracurricular activity and wish they had more control over their circumstances. Perhaps a young person can’t get a ride home from practice or rehearsal, so she takes the school bus home instead of participating in your activity in order to avoid feeling stuck later on without a ride. You can help resolve this issue by offering to give the student a ride home yourself or by arranging rides for her with other student participants and their parents. If your program starts well after school ends, make sure all students have a safe way of coming and going.

To prevent logistical issues or embarrassment later in the program year or season, be sure to address this topic during orientation or on the first day. Pass around a carpooling sign-up sheet or a list of safe and inexpensive transportation options. If transportation to and from a program or practice is introduced at the outset as an environmentally sensitive way to cut down on traffic, air pollution, and parents’ complicated schedules, students who face economic barriers to transportation will feel less singled out and more a part of the broader solution. Promote carpooling, shared bus rides, and group walks as team-building opportunities. Make sure all parents are aware of how their children are getting to and from your practice or program. If you offer new solutions, don’t implement them until you receive parents’ approval.

Note

1 Steve Farkas, et al. 1999. Playing Their Parts: Parents and Teachers Talk about Parental Involvement in Public Schools. New York: Public Agenda.

Reprinted with permission from Engage Every Parent! Encouraging Families to Sign On, Show Up, and Make a Difference by Nancy Tellett-Royce and Susan Wootten (Chapter 1: Identifying Your Goals for Parent Engagement).  Copyright © 2008 Search Institute®, Minneapolis, MN, 800-888-7828; www.search-institute.org. All Rights Reserved. (Originally reprinted by the National ParentNet Association in 2009)

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Posted on January 15, 2011 by Nancy Tellett-Royce & Susan Wootten [Guest Article]

Nancy is a senior consultant at the Search Institute, having provided assistance to many of the nearly 600 communities around the U.S. and Canada that are part of the Search Institute's Healthy Communities - Healthy Youth national initiative. Susan, an editor at the Search Institute, is a former teacher and is an active parent leader in school, community, and church-based organizations.

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