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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
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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

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was informative and inviting. As a parent, a teacher, a listener, a community activist and a youth mentor, this is an active way of starting an important opportunity for society to become more informed about whats needed in the continuation process.

Jim Burns's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher and administrator myself I have watched the decline of respect in education. It's almost as if society has muzzled the teacher from saying what needs to be said to a student that would have helped the student improve academically. Teachers have to measure every word, and if a constructive suggestion is offered to a student by a teacher it is often viewed by the student and his parents as an insult that is going to damage the child's self-esteem for a lifetime. This type of attitude can damage the teacher-parent relationship.

for more about Jim Burns

Stacie Brault's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a third year teacher, I am continuously looking for ideas on how to get parents involved. I especially found the "A Wide Variety of Roles" section to be useful. This article has helped me gather more ideas for my classroom. The part about schools working with businesses to lend computers to families in need was really intriguing. Anyone know of specific businesses who do this? I think parents in my district would find much use in this.

Valli Lonner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this article and appreciate the ideas shared. At the junior high school where I work we are trying to figure out the best way to make the parents of our Latino students feel welcome. We are starting with a converstaional English time/ social hour. I would be more than happy to have any input on what may work.

Satyra Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a middle school teacher, I find it difficult communicating with parents on a regular basis. I would like to be proactive and find ways to change this. The "computer-lending program" would be beneficial to my school and parents. Thank you for this pertinent information.

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have seen the impacts of poor communication between parents and teachers. This article was very enlightening and after reading it I will certainly try to create a closer relationship with all my parents. In today's society it is often difficult to create the bond needed with parents to form a collaborative relationship; however it is needed for their child to be successful.

Stephanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am on the Parent Involvement Committee at my K-5 Elementary Site. Last year we implemented an "Expectations Night" at the end of the school year.

Similar to a "Back to School Night", teachers invite parents of the grade below to speak to a panel of teachers from the grade their child will be entering in the fall. Teachers can outline expectations for the new grade. They can also suggest summer reading programs or skill building activites that parents can use during the vacation.

Parents can ask specific questions about standards and materials that will be used. Students and Parents can meet teachers hear about homework and grading procedures that may be different from the previous year.

Feedback from our first attempt last year was very positive from both staff and parents.

Rod Achter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How true!
Parents and teachers used to be on the same page,the school and the home were of the same belief's. The days of the school being the place for education and also continuing on in the home are long gone in some communities. Teacher communication with the home and family is more important than ever before.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this article highlights a very important part of education. Parent involvement and concern with their child's education can inspire and help a child to excel. Mixed messages in the classroom and at home can weigh on the child's intrinsic motivation to learn. It is crucial for skills that are being taught in the classroom to be reinforced in the home. While parent/teacher involvement seems to be at one of it's lower levels in the public school system, private institutions such as corporate tutoring centers thrive on parent/teacher involvement due to the fact that the parent must seek them out. Were all parents as concerned with their child's educational progress as the ones who seek out these tutors, I think that you would see a great deal more effort from students in the classroom due to their recognition of the importance of education.

Colleen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that parent involvement is one of the key factors to a child's education. Parents becoming involved I feel will help a child to keep their interest and involvement. It will help their child/children to learn, be more successful, and have a more positive outlook on their education.

There are so many different strategies to keeping parents involved and getting them involved in the first place. Teachers in a school I sub in want to get back to home visits, which they said helped their classroom and students tremendously.

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