George Lucas Educational Foundation
Family Engagement

Building Better Relationships With Parents at the Classroom, School, and District Level

The need to partner with caregivers is even more important now with so many students learning at home.

November 20, 2020
Mother helping her daughters during distance learning classes
lisegagne / iStock

Years ago, I wrote about what I called the “The Equation of Student Success”:

Family + Student + School + Policy makers/Voters = Student Success.

Little did we know then that the closure of school nine years later would see a tightening of these variables—in particular, those between the school and home. The pandemic has amplified our need to work together like never before.

The research in parent engagement makes it clear that even during challenging times, when so much is unknown and when our methods of communication have been disrupted, it is more vital than ever to strengthen our interactions with those at home supporting our students.

Research shows that activating parent engagement has a direct impact on student engagement. Generally, we see benefits such as higher grades and test scores along with greater social skills and better reported behavior. And when we’re faced with virtual rooms of deactivated cameras, or students who are not submitting work or attending office hours for aid, we need every ally out there fully ready to help.

Engaging Parents Is a Two-Pronged Approach

Engaging parents can be a two-pronged plan. One is to focus on the micro by building up communication between the individual teachers and family. The second is to focus on the macro by building up communication and support by the district or organization and the family.

Last year, I wrote about the steps a teacher can take to increase parent engagement. These “8Ps of Parent Engagement” can apply in any classroom environment, but in virtual or hybrid learning, I wanted to lift up the following:

Praise: Give our families grace. Praise the successes, however small they may be, and find ways to reach out with positives as well as with requests for support.

Personality: Share your own personality and character. Your humanity and individualism can pull students into learning and families into caring about class.

Piece of Cake: Make things easier for our families to engage with the classroom. It means more effort from the classroom teacher, but more parents will tune in if there’s flexibility in our methods of communication and flexibility in our timing of face-to-face or synchronous meetings.

There are also steps that a district or school can take to increase parents’ engagement. During school closure, my district, San Gabriel Unified in Los Angeles, recognized the need to rethink our parent outreach. So as the 21st-century learning and professional development coordinator for our district, I haven’t just been running PD for our teachers and staff. I’ve been running a learning track for parents as well that goes beyond merely communicating district decisions. Our Parents as Partners learning series began in August and has become a symbol of how committed SGUSD is to deepening our relationship with families as a means to support our students.

The webinar series began with sessions featuring Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise. As an expert in digital parenting, she provided advice to help parents navigate increased screen time. She also provided actionable tips to help students build and maintain friendships online.

Another webinar featured Dr. Sameer Hinduja, codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center, who spoke about cyberbullying and helping our students become more empathetic online and offline. Dr. Hinduja posed that “schools should be working to intentionally partner with parents.... We need a united front to encourage positive, helpful, and even kind interactions among your students—whether they are playing Roblox together, participating in a group chat about a homework assignment, or are seeing each other in person two days a week on campus.”

We’re providing grade-level meetups to help parents across the district connect and solve problems together to help with their own social and emotional wellness. We’re bringing in an expert in kinesiology to talk to the parents about helping our kids to remain physically active at home. After all, physical wellness positively impacts mental wellness.

We’ve provided trainings in Google Classroom and Zoom so that our families can be the first step in tech support for our students. We hosted a webinar to talk to parents about the whys and hows of diagnostics, encouraging them to allow students to be more independent in their online assessments.

Our series has signaled a tightening of the partnership between parents and schools, and we see its creation as an unintentional outcome that could perhaps remain with us even after this pandemic ends.

How to Create a Parents as Partners Learning Series

Interested in setting up your own Parents as Partners series? Here are some actionable steps and things we are continuing to learn along the way:

Survey stakeholders for topics: Survey families to see what they need to help support their students. Survey teachers to see what they need most from the families at home. Developing topics is about listening to the needs of parents and playing a role in providing those needs.

Use a calendar with hyperlinks to registrations: Set up an interactive calendar of events using Google Calendar.

Make it inclusive: Provide translators for your major events to ensure that all parents can learn with the community. Put the recording on YouTube so that people can use captions in different languages.

Get the school communities involved: We had a middle school student compose an original piece that plays as parents enter from the waiting room. Principals and PTA parents chime in on the chat to keep conversations going. We use our PTAs to help promote upcoming events.

There are many things we’ve learned during this time. For one, regardless of our learning environment, we can’t do this alone. We need to not only communicate with families but recruit them into the learning of their students as well. We need all the help we can get, and with parents as partners, we can better meet the needs of our students.

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