Nearly every educator will agree that positive parent engagement improves a child’s educational outcome. Besides making common sense, many data-driven studies are proving what we all know intuitively.
We are each formed within the framework of our families. It is here we receive our initial education. Schools and teachers continue the process and expand our knowledge and education. But lucky is the child whose family supports and engages with their schools. Student success and achievement increases. Students graduate prepared to be productive, contributing, and successful citizens. Students with involved parents, regardless of their background or income, are more likely to attend school regularly, earn higher grades, have better social skills, enjoy a more positive attitude toward school, and show improved behavior. School culture improves, and everyone wins—especially students—when home-school-community collaboration takes place.
So, what are the barriers to promoting family engagement? What challenges and obstacles do you need to remove?
Step 1: Determine family & community involvement needs
Before you can create improvements in your school’s home-family engagement, you’ll need to assess where the needs are now. One effective and popular way to do this is to survey your parents. This will give you a glimpse of what parents feel are your current strengths and weaknesses. You can then move forward with the information, correcting the weakest points and highlighting your strengths. By gathering the insights of the very people you hope to engage, you can see any challenges from their perspective (which is likely to be very different from your own). And, when parents participate in completing a survey, it is more likely they will become interested in its outcome and results. Check out this example K–12 parent survey and another on school communication preferences that might get you started creating your own. Another excellent survey resource is Family-School Relationships Survey, available from Panorama. Some example questions you might want to include, as related specifically to parent engagement might be:
- Do you listen to your child read or read aloud to your child? Often / Sometimes / Never
- Do teachers suggest homework activities for you and your child? Often / Sometimes/ Never
- Is the school reception staff friendly and helpful? Yes / Mostly / No
- Are your child’s teachers easy to talk to? Yes / Mostly / No
- Is the school’s principal easy to talk to? Yes / Mostly / No
- Have you attended any school-sponsored meetings to help parents understand and work with children? Yes / No
- Would you be interested in attending meetings or workshops for parents on parenting skills if offered (child development, discipline, helping children learn)? Yes / No
- Are you currently involved with the school as a volunteer, room mother/father, aide? Yes / No
- If you have not volunteered at school, please indicate why. Never been asked / I don’t know how / Work schedule conflicts / Other children to care for / I don’t feel comfortable / Not interested / Other
- How many parent-teacher conferences did you attend last year? None / 1 / 2 or more
- How often do you communicate with teachers about your child’s performance? Often / Occasionally / Never
- Have you participated in any school councils, committees, or PTA/PTO meetings? Yes / No
- Does the school seek ideas from parents in these organizations regarding school-related issues like student achievement, improving communication, or developing programs? Yes / No / Not sure
- If yes, have you ever shared your ideas or advice on any of these issues? Yes / No / I’ve not been asked.
- If yes, do you feel like your opinion was taken into consideration when it comes to decisions made? Yes / Not sure / No
- Would you like to participate in decisions reached on school-related issues? Yes / No
- Do school personnel encourage or assist parents and communities in becoming more involved in the schools? Yes / No / Not sure
Step 2: Analyze and implement communications strategies
Once you have gathered some data, look at how you can implement strategies that will improve your current communication levels. You will want to factor in the following challenges:
- Avoid overwhelming parents with an unmanageable volume of communications. We are all inundated with massive amounts of information each day. So, be selective and wise with your communications. Be brief. Be specific. Be interesting. Be consistent.
- Avoid complicated reports. Deliver your information in digestible bites. If you want to share something complex, tell a story that explains it and keeps it interesting. You want your audience to relate to your information.
- Use a variety of resources. Not everyone has access to the same tools. They also have different preferences. By using a variety of communication channels, you will avoid excluding anyone.
Channels of communication:
By far, the most effective way to engage parents is that personal touch from the teacher. This is one reason that parent-teacher conferences can be so valuable. So, putting extra effort into such events as back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences is vital.
However, personal contact can be challenging in a large school when a teacher has 150 students during the day. Many teachers are using notification systems to engage parents and students. Some of the common programs (some are even free) include Remind, Class Dojo, SeeSaw, and many others. Another way to produce a good outcome is by texting a quick message or reminder. A simple “Reminder: John needs to study for the test” or “Oops, attendance has slipped. Everything okay?” can be very impactful. Texting also has the advantage of reaching most parents; even low-income families often have phones capable of receiving texts.
There is evidence that specific, rather than general, teacher-to-parent communication is much more impactful and valued by parents. It is also important that this communication takes place for both positive and negative aspects of student behavior. If a parent only hears from a child’s teacher when something bad happens, a trusting relationship isn’t likely to develop.
To use your school websites effectively, parents need to feel they can rely on it to keep them informed. Your school website management is a critical aspect of good communication strategies. Always make sure that all scheduled events and activities are on up-to-date calendars, you populate the news page with engaging articles and success stories, and easy access to forms and parent resources is just a click or two away. Then, consider adding a section geared at encouraging parent engagement. Many universities have been doing this very successfully for years. Follow their examples, and create a parent guide page on your school sites that include some of the following resources:
- Share the facts with parents about how important their involvement is to their child’s education. Show them the data. Share some personal stories. Once they understand the value their engagement brings, they’ll be more likely to get involved. (FAST study, CPE study, Rice U Study)
- Provide information on how to become a volunteer at your school. Include what those needs are and how students benefit from parent participation. Be sure to include some quotes, testimonials, or a school video sharing other parents’ positive experiences. Highlight a parent volunteer each month on your school’s website.
- Schedule a series of workshops that parents can attend. Topics can be selected based on your school and parent needs, but popular areas are parenting and discipline, helping students develop good study habits, building self-confidence through success, nutrition guidelines, improving parent/child communication, character development, teaching responsibility, etc. Consider partnering with local businesses and experts to sponsor or assist in developing the classes.
- Provide a survey to let parents see where they score in their current level of engagement in their child’s education. It can encourage them to raise the bar and set personal standards. Check out the great example at Project Appleseed.
- Provide information about all events parents are invited to attend. These might include meet and greet tables at school concerts, open houses or back-to-school night, parent-teacher conferences, school board meetings, or PTA/PTO meetings.
- Describe how parents can schedule a meeting with their child’s teachers, and explain the process in detail. When they understand how it works, they will feel more welcome and be more likely to reach out, ask questions, and get involved.
- Make sure you have mobile friendly, ADA compliant websites that ensure easy access.
Your school social media channels, working in conjunction with your website content, is the way to celebrate your school’s areas of excellence, recognize the things that make your school unique, and engage your parents and community. The key here is to make it a coordinated effort with your school’s current communication needs and goals. The following are a few tips for creating engagement, especially in light of Facebook’s new algorithm:
- Post school photos. Parents love them. Encourage parent comments with your post by asking fun or engaging questions they can answer.
- Add “events” on Facebook for upcoming events and activities. This will take your post beyond just a reminder.
- Post tips. Include anything from study tips to movie recommendations or best books the whole family might enjoy. Ask parents and students for their feedback.
- Share favorite recipes. Get students involved. What is a favorite healthy breakfast? Most remembered school lunch ever?
- Create a video. Ask the students to help (or let them create it). Want parent engagement? Then make the topic one they can’t resist, like having students answer, “What makes my Mom awesome” on Mother’s Day or “Why my Dad should be president” for Father’s Day. Try having students or even parents share stories about their favorite teacher and then asking others to share their comments as well.
Parent Notifications and Alerts
Many schools use parent notification systems to contact parents via e-mail or text or phone for reminders, attendance notifications, or events. For a majority of parents, this is a welcome technical change. The other benefit is that it encourages parents to stay engaged with their child’s education on a regular basis and add their support and encouragement to their child’s progress every step of the way. Many platforms that make these notifications easy to manage are available.
One very successful avenue for parent engagement is to use the local media to make your case for you. That means providing your local radio, newspaper, and TV stations with articles and resources that will help parents recognize the importance of their involvement in their child’s education.
You can write articles, citing data-driven studies. Be sure to include stories that validate those studies. You are sure to generate interest from your local media. If you have some good local stories, create a video and interview a few of your engaged parents, letting them share how their engagement helped their child succeed. Invite the newspapers and TV stations to attend the volunteer recognition event where you honor those parent volunteers. If you offer workshops for parents on study skills or parenting, be sure to invite your local media to attend, or provide them with quotes from parents (or a video clip from attendees).
Step 3: Reevaluate
Once you’ve identified the most important aspect of engagement for your school and tried a few new strategies, you have to be patient. It takes time to change attitudes and habits. You may tweak and refine what you are doing, but don’t give up. Then, send out your survey again the following year, and see what has changed. What improved? What is worse off? Then, do it all again.
What are some best practices to help you on your way?
- Create a welcoming school climate. Do you give a welcome packet that includes information about your community and available services to parents visiting your school? Is your office and reception staff trained in customer service? Is the entry experience at your school welcoming and friendly?
- Hold an open house or back-to-school event before the first day of school. Let parents meet their child’s teachers, tour the school, meet other parents, and become familiar with your school’s methods of communication. (Tell them how to follow the school on Facebook and Twitter. Give them the URL of the school’s website.)
- Partner with local agencies and provide workshops on parenting, study habits/learning skills, nutrition, and other areas of interest. Provide materials for parents on how to improve their children’s study skills.
- Ask teachers to make regular homework assignments that require students to discuss with their families what they are learning in class.
- Create roles to include parents on advisory committees. Help those parents become spokespeople for the rollout of new policies or changes.
- Create volunteer recognition events or activities, certificates, and thank you cards. Be sure you share your thanks to your volunteers through your website and social media.
- Consider establishing a network that links every family with a designated parent representative.
- Establish school-business partnerships that will provide students with mentoring, onsite internships, and experiential learning experiences.
- Develop a survey with parents to identify volunteer interests, talents, and availabilities that matches these resources to your school programs and staff-support needs.
So, go forth and engage! Your students will be the winners.
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.