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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Home-School Team: An Emphasis on Parent Involvement

Students thrive when their parents become part of the classroom.
By James P. Comer, Norris Haynes

Credit: Marc Rosenthal

Children learn best when the significant adults in their lives -- parents, teachers, and other family and community members -- work together to encourage and support them. This basic fact should be a guiding principle as we think about how schools should be organized and how children should be taught. Schools alone cannot address all of a child's developmental needs: The meaningful involvement of parents and support from the community are essential.

The need for a strong partnership between schools and families to educate children may seem like common sense. In simpler times, this relationship was natural and easy to maintain. Teachers and parents were often neighbors and found many occasions to discuss a child's progress. Children heard the same messages from teachers and parents and understood that they were expected to uphold the same standards at home and at school.

As society has become more complex and demanding, though, these relationships have all too often fallen by the wayside. Neither educators nor parents have enough time to get to know one another and establish working relationships on behalf of children. In many communities, parents are discouraged from spending time in classrooms and educators are expected to consult with family members only when a child is in trouble. The result, in too many cases, is misunderstanding, mistrust, and a lack of respect, so that when a child falls behind, teachers blame the parents and parents blame the teachers.

At the same time, our society has created artificial distinctions about the roles that parents and teachers should play in a young person's development. We tend to think that schools should stick to teaching academics and that home is the place where children's moral and emotional development should take place.

Yet children don't stop learning about values and relationships when they enter a classroom, nor do they cease learning academics -- and attitudes about learning -- when they are at home or elsewhere in their community. They constantly observe how the significant adults in their lives treat one another, how decisions are made and executed, and how problems are solved.

All the experiences children have, both in and out of school, help shape their sense that someone cares about them, their feelings of self-worth and competency, their understanding of the world around them, and their beliefs about where they fit into the scheme of things.

These days, it can take extraordinary efforts to build strong relationships between families and educators. Schools have to reach out to families, making them feel welcome as full partners in the educational process. Families, in turn, have to make a commitment of time and energy to support their children both at home and at school.

The effort involved in reestablishing these connections is well worth it, as many communities across the country -- including those we work with -- are discovering. Our experience is that significant and meaningful parent involvement is possible, desirable, and valuable in improving student growth and performance.

A Starting Point

The communities in which we are involved -- mostly inner city neighborhoods -- tend to start with relatively poor relationships between schools and families. Many of the parents experienced failure during their own school days and are reluctant to set foot inside their children's schools. Teachers commute to work and often know very little about the neighborhood outside the school. Before they can develop effective partnerships, educators and families in these communities first have to learn to trust and respect one another.

Although it is less obvious, the same is true in more affluent communities. The lack of trust and respect can be seen in the growing numbers of parents choosing to enroll their children in private schools or educate them at home, and in the growing reluctance of voters to approve school-bond issues. At the same time, relatively few schools have open-door policies allowing parents to visit at any time, and parents who insist on playing an active role in their children's education are often branded as troublemakers.

The starting point in any community is to create opportunities where parents and teachers can learn that they both have children's best interests at heart. We applaud the growing trend to decentralize decision making from central offices to individual schools because it creates opportunities for parents and educators to work together, making decisions about school policies and procedures. Some may see this arrangement as shifting power from school staff to parents, but it's not power shifting; it's power sharing. It is empowering all the adults who have a stake in children's development.

Participation on school-based planning and management teams gives parents a chance to learn about the professional side of schooling -- to understand the inner workings of curriculum and instruction. It also allows them to educate school staff about the community and demonstrate that parents have much to offer if provided the opportunities to do so.

Working together as full partners, parents, teachers, administrators, businesspeople, and other community members can create an educational program that meets unique local needs and reflects the diversity within a school without compromising high performance expectations and standards. They can foster a caring and sensitive school climate that respects and responds to students' differences as well as their similarities.

A Wide Variety of Roles

Besides participating in governance, parents can be involved in schools in many roles. There are the traditional ways: encouraging children to complete homework, attending parent-teacher conferences, and being active members of their school's parent-teacher organization. Other roles, however, require more commitment: serving as mentors, teacher aides, or lunchroom monitors, or providing assistance to schools and students in myriad other ways.

At a time when schools are adopting curricula based on real-world problems and information, families can make a valuable contribution by sharing first-hand information about work, hobbies, history, and other personal experiences, either in person or via a computer network. Perhaps most important, parents can simply take the time to go to their schools and observe, learning about what their children and their children's teachers are doing.

The hectic pace of modern life can make this kind of involvement seem out of reach for many parents. But there are positive signs that it is becoming more feasible. Employers, concerned about the quality of the future workforce, are starting to adopt policies that allow parents time off to participate on a school's planning and management team or volunteer time at regular intervals. And more schools are offering either day care or preschool, which makes it easier for parents with young children to spend time at an older child's school.

This level of parent involvement in schools allows parents and staff to work together in respectful and mutually supportive ways, creating an environment in which understanding, trust, and respect can flourish. At the same time, students get consistent messages from the important adults in their lives. When children observe that home and school are engaged in a respectful partnership for their benefit, they are likely to develop more positive attitudes about school and achieve more, compared to situations in which school and home are seen as being worlds apart.

Better Lines of Communication

Regardless of a parent's direct involvement in school activities, it is vital for parents and teachers to communicate effectively with one another. Each has a piece of the picture of a child's development, and each can be more effective when information is shared. Constant communication helps ensure that both schools and homes are responsive to students' unique needs and therefore support children's overall development.

Some of this interaction should be face to face, either at the school, at home, at a parent's worksite, or at another convenient location. It must be considered an integral part of schooling, and adequate time must be provided during regular working hours for school staff to carry it out. At the same time, this communication must be recognized as a critical part of parenting, and parents must make the commitment to meet periodically with their children's teachers.

Technology can allow educators and parents to be linked into a sturdier web of mutual support than ever before. Schools and homes can be connected through computer networks that allow them to freely share information, via email and bulletin boards, twenty-four hours a day and year-round.

It's not hard to imagine a time in the near future when all parents will be able to quickly call up information such as a student's schedule for the week, current assignments, and suggestions from teachers about what they can do to support learning goals at home. They'll be able to review what the child has been doing by looking at actual samples of schoolwork that have been collected in an electronic portfolio.

To ensure that everyone, regardless of income or other circumstances, has equal access to such electronic tools, some schools work with businesses and other partners to create computer-lending programs for families. All schools should consider creating similar programs. The needed computers should also be available to parents at a variety of public settings such as schools, libraries, and government buildings, and there should be free or low-cost classes to teach educators and parents how to use them to foster learning.

The establishment of computer networks linking schools and homes fits neatly with another positive trend we've noticed: More and more schools are broadening their mission to provide educational services for their entire community.

Lifelong learning is rapidly becoming a requirement for success in the modern world. Parents and other community members can either attend classes at a school or study at home using distance learning technologies, with content supplied by their local school or by one far away. Through these networks, parents can not only advance their own education but also demonstrate for their children that adults need to keep working at learning, too.

But the biggest winners are the children. When we walk into a school and see parents and teachers working together, in all sorts of roles, it's a sure sign that the school challenges the very best in students and helps all, regardless of race, class, or culture, realize their fullest potential.

James P. Comer is Maurice Falk Professor at the Yale Child Study Center, associate dean of the Yale Medical School, and director of the university’s School Development Program.
Norris M. Haynes is an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center and Yale University’s Department of Psychology and director of research for the university’s School Development Program.

Comments (30)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was a great article because it offered so many examples of how to get parents and teachers working together to better help children. This is something that I can relate to because at my school we struggle with getting parents involved. I use several ways of communicating with parents such as having parent teacher conferences, phone calls, notes home, daily behavior charts, and monthly newsletters. As a school we hold math nights, reading nights, and a carnival once a year. Still we struggle with getting parents involved in our school. I think that if our teachers made more of an effort to get to know the parents and the community we would have more success of working together. My goal for myself is to have more positive communication with my parents instead of only letting them know about the negative things.

Natalia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciated reading this article as a teacher and a parent. As a teacher, I realize the importance of communicating expectations with parents. I also see the difference that it makes when a child sees that the parents are interested in their education. As a parent, I want to know what is going on in my son's classroom. I want to know how he is doing in class. I want to make sure that he is progressing like he needs to progress. It is important to keep the lines of communication between school and home open.

Stephanie Salmon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought this was a great article. It is so important that parents are involved. They need to be involved within the school and outside of the school. As a teacher, I see how hard it is to get some parents involved. I try to involve parents in their child's learning by having family nights and also by sending family homework projects home each week. I hope that parents spend quality time with their child. It helps them see what is easy/instructional/difficult for their child.

Stacie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that parents' involvement is truly important for a student's success in the classroom. I remember when I was substituting and I had a parent come into the classroom and she thought I was her child's teacher. I knew at that point that this parent had no idea what was going on in her child's education. If parents want their children to succeed in the classroom then they need to make an effort to know what is going on in the classroom. I really enjoyed this article because it gives teachers a number of ideas on how to get parents involved in the classroom.

Elizabeth Mowles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elizabeth Mowles Mesilla Park, NM I agree that parents need to become more involved in the education of their children. Not just when there are problems. They have to realize that it is a team effort. If we want the children to grow we have to be involved.
I agree that with parent involvement students do learn more,teachers moral is increased and parents understand what is been done in the classroom.

Anise's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was a great article to read because it provided many ways parents and teacher can communicate and work together to enrich the lives of students. I strongly about parents being involved in their child's education. because it can't just be left up to teachers. I wish the parents at my school were more involved. I get frustrated sometimes because of the lack of involvement. I wish my students parents could read this article.

Malynda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the things that I am looking to improve in my classroom for the upcoming school year is communication with parents. I found this article to be very helpful in this area. I have always tried to communicate with parents several times throughout the year. I have noticed through my reading that maybe I have not made myself as available to parents as I thought. I have always assumed that parents know how and where to find teachers phone extensions and e-mail addresses. Maybe this is not the case. I am going to make sure that parents this year know how to get a hold of me and know that I invite their involvement in my classroom.

Kim Conner's picture
Kim Conner
School Management Consultant for RenWeb School Management Software

As a parent and someone who worked school administration, I find so many truths in this article. You mentioned that "in the near future, parents will be able to access student's schedule for the week, current assignments, and suggestions from teachers about what they can do to support learning goals at home. They'll be able to review what the child has been doing by looking at actual samples of schoolwork that have been collected in an electronic portfolio." These things are all possible with school management systems such as RenWeb.com My kids have gone to 3 different private schools all using this same software. I can check their grades as soon as the teacher adds them in the grade book, check homework assignments, pay for and order their lunches, view behavior, update my address, email, etc. I can even see teacher lesson plans in case my child is sick. Teachers email me through RenWeb on a regular basis with class updates, etc. Parent portals such as this really bring the school and parent together.

Stacy Schwab's picture

I use a very simple tool called Remind101 to text my parents and students updates. They LOVE it. Read more about it on my blog at new-in-room-202.blogspot.com

Happyinatx's picture
Happyinatx
Parent of 2 littles, 1about to start Kinder

I realize this model doesn't work for every family, but we are planning to send our children to a University-model school http://www.TrinityPrepAcademy.com . The kids attend campus with professional educators two days a week in Grammar School and continue the curriculum at home with a parent the other three days. This is our family's solution to the important parent involvement piece of this puzzle.

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