Parent Involvement in Children’s Education (PART 1)

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Focusing on: Language and Communication

One of the questions that I’m very interested in and researching in Master of Education program is related to the benefits and impact of parent involvement on student achievement.  If you search scholarly articles, you’ll find numerous studies that demonstrate how parent involvement can positively impact academic achievement.  For example, Epstein and Sanders’ research study of 2000 found a strong correlation between parent involvement and students’ scholastic achievement.  So, what’s the problem, you ask yourself.  Let’s get involved and everyone will be happy.  Well, it turns out, it’s not as simple as it seems. Why, for example, are some immigrant families or families with children with learning disabilities often struggling or unable to find ways to become active participants in their children’s education?  In this blog I’ll briefly outline some benefits, perceptions, and barriers of parent involvement.

According to their earlier research, Epstein and Dauber (1991) argue that it is a school’s responsibility to help parents “build home conditions for learning, understand communications from school, become productive volunteers, share responsibilities in their children’s education in learning activities related to the curriculum at home, and include parents’ voices and decisions that affect school and their children.” As you can see, a lot of it depends on the school you’re working with.  Many parents hesitate to get involved because their school is not giving them a chance.  What does this, actually, mean? Let’s examine some barriers to parent involvement and explore what schools can do to encourage parent participation.

Communication: language as a potential barrier

Consider this: you’re an immigrant family that just moved to Canada.  You’re homesick and alone, adjusting to your new environment, learning the language of communication, and trying to find work.  The process of acculturation and adaptation is a long and challenging one. Add children to the equation and you have an entire family struggling to overcome various challenges. 

Think of this process as a crash course, demanding and challenging.  You’re both: student and an educator. You make your own decisions and learn from your mistakes.  I know this because I was raised by a first-generation immigrant family.  My parents, who couldn’t speak English, never attended parent-teacher interviews.  If there was a concern or an issue, I (just a teenager then) advocated for myself or my younger brother (also a student) and discussed my questions and concerns with my teachers and school administrators.  I also couldn’t speak English fluently.  As you can probably imagine, many of my questions remained unanswered. I was young, inexperienced and unable to effectively communicate in English or advocate for myself, but I made it through high school and things eventually got better.  Today we have thousands of families and students in the same situation.  As educators, we must acknowledge that and ask ourselves: what can our schools do to help immigrant families become more involved in their children’s education? 

How confident are immigrant parents in their skills and ability to effectively communicate with their school?  We know that communication is important. Research demonstrates that if the school doesn’t engage in a regular communication with parents, the chances of parents becoming involved are slim.  What choices do immigrant families have if they can’t help their children with homework assignments, for example?  What can they do if their work, lifestyle or their socio-economic status prevents them from actively participating in their children’s education?  In my opinion, there are many initiatives our schools and educators can take in order to encourage parent involvement. Listed below are some examples:

  • Introduce culturally reflective texts. Allow students to bring in their own reading materials (ie: dual-language books) so that parents too can participate in reading and homework activities. Also, as an English (and ESL) teacher, I know that this is an effective practice in engaging students and encouraging them to participate in class. 
  • Invite parents to more casual and parent-friendly school events. Encourage them to bring others (ie: translators, family, friends) to the meetings.
  • Reach out to parents – call, email, invite and encourage them to attend events, share concerns, and ask questions.
  • Demonstrate interest in other cultures by inviting classroom speakers. Provide opportunities for parents to talk about themselves and what matters to them. This will help the parents feel appreciated and valuable.  It will also give them a sense of belonging (ie: belonging to the school community and mainstream culture).
  • Provide after-school help and organize extra-curricular activities for those families who can’t afford to pay for them.
  • Become involved in the community and get to know your students and parents.
  • Give working parents a chance to become involved.  Understand that many are unable to volunteer during the school hours because they work.  Give them a chance to contribute and show their support in a different way – not necessarily through volunteer work.

In his article Is Parent Involvement in School Really Useful, Alfie Kohn, an American author and lecturer,  writes: “There’s something both short-sighted and arrogant about exhorting low-income parents to show up at school events or make sure the homework gets done.  The presumption seems to be that these parents lack interest or commitment — as opposed to spare time, institutional savvy, comfort level, or fluency in English.”  And I agree.

Everything starts with the communication. In my opinion, the lack of communication between parents and teachers presents the greatest barrier to child’s learning and development.  We must understand and acknowledge that parents are the very first educators of their children.  I often ask myself: how can any teacher be confident in their ability to teach if they don’t realize the importance of communication with parents? 

Helicopter parenting is the term often used to describe overcontrolling and overinvolved parents.  As a parent and educator, I believe that the term is overused and often misinterpreted.  In his article “Helicopter Parenting” Hysteria – The Epidemic that Actually Isn’t, Kohn notes that the term is frequently used and doesn’t always reflect the reality.  He states that “Parents who are overly involved in the lives of their college-age children are the folks we love to scorn.” Why do we do that, I wonder.  What is it about parent involvement that is so terrifying or unpleasant?

In his article Kohn refers to contemporary research that actually favours actively involved parents.  He claims that children of involved parents perform better academically and communicate more successfully with their teachers and peers. 

Let’s get back to our question:  what are some barriers that affect communication between parents and teachers?  Here I would like to focus on one: self-confidence. Both teachers and parents can lack self-confidence which can negatively impact their communication and affect parent involvement.  An earlier study (Bastiani, 1989) analyzed teachers’ and parents’ perceptions and goals for parent-teacher interviews.  This is what the study found:

Teacher’s goals for parent-teacher interviewParent’s goals for parent-teacher interview
 – Discussing children’s progress
– Outlining difficulties
– Learning about how children cope with school
– Identifying ways in which parents can help at home
– Identifying potential conflicts with parents  
– Discussing children’s progress
– Identifying difficulties
– Comparing children’s progress with that of others in class
– Learning more about teaching methods
– Finding out about teacher’s concerns

As you can see, their goals are similar and yet different.  Both parties have specific expectations of each other.  While teachers expect to identify and address potential conflicts with parents, the parents hope to learn more about their teaching methods. 

From my experience as a parent, I think that some teachers refuse to communicate regularly with parents for fear of being questioned or criticized.  Some lack the training, skills, and self-confidence to discuss their teaching practices, lesson plans, or assessment methods. Like teachers, the parents can also suffer from low-self esteem. Research shows that different factors, such as education level or socio-economic status impact parent involvement. Some findings also suggest that people who haven’t received formal education and who entered the work force straight out of high school (or even earlier) were less likely to value higher/post secondary education.

What to remember about communication?

To teachers: Getting the parents involved means opening your classroom doors and sharing your plans and teaching methods with the rest of the world – the world that’s not connected to the classroom or school community. This might seem uncomfortable at first, but please encourage and support that communication with parents.  Don’t be afraid to share your concerns, questions, observations, expectations, exemplars, and lesson plans with the parents who express an interest to actively participate in their children’s education.  Don’t be afraid of being questioned or criticized – constructive criticism is beneficial and helps us improve.  When parents insist on communication, that’s often because they need clarification or feedback from you.  Most parents only want what’s best for their children. However, when they don’t understand the curriculum or your specific expectations, they feel powerless because they cannot help their children improve or achieve their learning goals.

To parents: We know that you only want what’s best for your children.  Our teachers are highly educated and many of them are professional, patient and caring individuals who put a lot of work, effort (and imagination) into their lesson plans.  Stay involved but be patient and reasonable in your requests and expectations.  If you disagree with your child’s teacher, don’t be afraid to communicate your concerns or ask questions.  Insist on regular communication.  As a parent, you deserve to know how your children perform in school, what their strengths and weaknesses are and what you can do to help them achieve their learning goals.  Be polite. Be patient. If you can, participate in school events and attend meetings (and parent-teacher interviews), but remember Kohn’s argument: not everyone who is unable to participate in school events or volunteer in the classroom is disinterested in their children’s education.  Also, talk to your children and address their questions and concerns.  Listen to what they have to say about their educators and school experience.  Even the youngest of school-age children are very observant. If you’re a good listener, you’ll learn a lot from your kids.

Written and illustrated by: Vedrana Vodopivec
October, 2021