Before you answer, ask yourself these questions: How do I ensure the school success of the children in my program? Am I challenged when parents ask why they pay so much for their children to play all day? Do I get frustrated organizing fundraisers, overseeing curriculum development, and managing staff all by myself?
Many early childhood professionals face these issues on a daily basis. And the solution for many is parent involvement. "Teachers have less stress when the parents are involved," says Jill Niehoff, former family advocate for the Cincinnati YMCA early childhood programs and current project coordinator for Winning Teamssm for Young Children, a distance learning program that "teams up" parents and early childhood professionals. Niehoff believes, "Parents who understand and provide input often complain less and offer more support to staff and teachers. This in turn strengthens staff morale and stress management—ultimately causing less staff turnover."
You may find lots of reasons for not involving parents in what you do. After all, it’s extremely time consuming—at least at first. Most early childhood practitioners are prepared to work with children rather than adults. And parents, who want the very best for their children, as much as you do, may have ideas which are very different from your own.
However, there is overwhelming evidence that parent and family involvement is the key to school success and lasting learning for children. The best kept secret is that parent involvement may make your job easier. Informed and involved parents volunteer to do things and even make much-needed donations. In addition, these satisfied customers give your center priceless word-of-mouth advertisement.
Broadly defined, parent involvement includes anything and everything parents do with and for children to help them reach their full potential. According to the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), parent and family involvement enhances children’s self-esteem and long-term achievement. Parents develop positive attitudes toward school and better understand the schooling process, which eventually builds more effective programs with higher community awareness and support.
But today’s busy parents need creative alternatives to the traditional model of coming to school to help with special projects or baking cupcakes for party days. Although this kind of help is still needed and appreciated, parents also need to feel that other contributions are equally meaningful and important.
Make a list of everything you do, and highlight those things parent volunteers could do. The following are some ideas you might not have considered:
- Bringing Children on Time. Encourage parents to get their children to your program on time, dressed, fed, and ready to learn. You may think this is the least parents can do, but it’s really important, so be sure to communicate that to parents. In fact, have you congratulated the parents who do this consistently and asked them to share their secrets with other parents? Start a newsletter so parents can share these ideas with each other.
- Using a Family’s Schedule to Teach Children. Share with parents how young children learn through meaningful, hands-on experiences, and give them suggestions about how to make the most of the time they spend with their children in routine activities like sorting laundry and making dinner together. (Make copies of the parent tips at right.) This type of parent education could take place during a parent meeting. However, you may need to offer it in small doses through newsletters, brochures to hand out at just the right developmental moment, or by collaborating with your local public library to purchase parenting videotapes for loan.
- Selecting Parent Representatives. Have parent representatives involved in all levels of decision-making including curriculum planning and budgeting. This may mean that board and committee meetings have to be scheduled when parents are available to attend. But you’ll save this extra time spent with parent representatives in other ways. Experience proves that parents really don’t resent paying reasonable fees if they understand where their money goes.
- Asking for Parent Skill Contributions. Parents like to contribute their own unique expertise and skills. Some programs have gotten graphic design and printing, carpentry, accounting, word processing, medical screenings, lawn care, and other services free.
- Making School Transitions. Try to work with your local elementary schools to build a transition plan that maintains the momentum of parent involvement you have started as children grow. The parents will appreciate your commitment to their child’s ongoing school success.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of parent involvement possibilities. Nor should we underestimate the important contribution that classroom volunteers and cookie bakers make. But these ideas may help you broaden your thinking about parent involvement.
Parent involvement with early childhood programs is like any other partnership—the more you invest, the more you receive.
Michele Beery, Ph.D., is a former center director and past president of the Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children. She is currently an assistant professor of early childhood education at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio. For more ideas, support, and information about parent involvement, please contact the National PTA or the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Parent Tips for Managing a Busy Schedule
Shop. Cut food pictures from your Sunday paper with your child. Store your coupons and use them later at the grocery. Your child will learn how to recognize symbols. This stimulates reading abilities.
Sort Laundry. Label drawers, doors, or baskets with pictures cut from magazines and favorite stickers. Say to your child, "The socks go here where the picture of a sock is." Your child will begin to sort and put up laundry. Sorting encourages early math skills.
Cook. Keep measuring cups in cereal and coffee. Allow your child to place "1/2 cup" in a bowl or "two tablespoons" in the coffee machine. Together create a family recipe book of favorite meals. Measuring, stirring, and shaking help your child develop motor skills.
Pay Bills. Sort junk mail and paperwork together. Prepare next month’s bills and ask your child to locate the dates on your calendar. Post a calendar at your child’s height. Decorate it and invite your child to remind you when bills are due. This nurtures cognitive development.
These tips are from Winning Teamssm for Young Children. For more tips, call 1-800-971-RISE (7473) or catch us on the web at http://www.risetraining.org. Copyrighted material. Permission to reprint granted.