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Rejuvenating Parent Involvement: Everyone Wins!
By Edna Wallace, M.S.

“Some things never change,” you think to yourself as you put the finishing touches on the announcement for the mid-year Open House you and the staff have carefully planned. “Some parents will come, some won’t.”

Probably the parents who really should come are the ones that predictably won’t come. As the negative thoughts creep in, you take a deep breath and tell yourself this year can be different, this year will be different.

No, you don’t have a magic wand, but you are aware of the latest research. Parent involvement has a powerful influence on educational outcomes for children. Children have more positive attitudes about school, better homework habits, and in general are higher achievers. As if that isn’t enough to motivate your renewed interest and commitment toward parent participation, research also shows that parents and teachers benefit. Involved parents have a better understanding of child development. They better understand the role of the home environment in learning, and last but not least, they appreciate teachers more!

What’s in it for teachers? It’s nice to be appreciated for professional attributes, such as interpersonal skills. That’s exactly what happens when parents get involved; they see the teacher’s abilities. On the other hand, teachers report a greater understanding of parents, their challenges, and their cultural heritage when they are committed to parent involvement. In short, partnering with parents is a win-win situation for everyone. Careful planning for that involvement is well worth the time, effort, and hard work.

Take a Look at the “What Ifs?”
Okay, you appreciate the theory of partnership between programs and parents; the positive outcomes for all concerned are hardwired into your brain, and you’ve even managed to quiet the negative feedback about how parents won’t take the time to get involved. The next step is to look at the possibilities for revitalization by asking the “what if” questions. “What if” questions can help you think out of the box, break down barriers to effective parent involvement, and create a vision for a better program. “What-if” questions can be a powerful agent for change in getting the results you’re looking for.

What if you could schedule events that matched your parents’ busy schedules?
According to research, timing is a barrier in linking homes and schools. It’s difficult to get three people together for lunch much less plan a children’s program or parent-teacher conference that’s convenient for everyone. How do you effectively match so many schedules with your many activities? It may seem impossible at first, but it’s essential in an increasingly complex world of time constraints and busy schedules to offer a variety of events at different times of the day, evening, or week. This is a real struggle for many programs and must be resolved through many brainstorming sessions with parents and staff.

What if you knew what type of information your parents were seeking as an individual family or collectively as members of your parent population?
Perhaps you are aware of a family going through a divorce. Can you assist by referring them to other programs, agencies, or specialized workshops? Another family may have just immigrated into the country. Can you help eliminate a language barrier by recommending books in their native language or by offering translated material? If you have a sizeable number of young or teen parents, their needs will be very different from those of upwardly mobile professionals. It’s important to remember that all families need support, and when it comes to linking parents with resources, early childhood professionals are on the front lines.

What if you carved out a comfort zone of involvement for all parents?
Many would agree that the ideal is for parents to be involved at many levels of their child’s education from attending special events to decision making about their own child or even policy making on behalf of all. The reality is that some parents, for a host of reasons, may want to get their feet wet a little at a time. In their judgment, they may not be equipped to be on an advisory board or head up a fundraiser, but they may feel comfortable attending a casual after-school art fair while munching on popcorn and sipping apple cider. Creating a comfort zone for parents during their earliest experiences of parent participation is a worthwhile cause. The groundwork laid now will likely pay off greatly for children as they maneuver their way through school.

What if you could break down the barriers to trust and communication?
Some parents are reluctant to get involved with schools because they’ve had unsuccessful or negative experiences in the past. To get parents past this, it’s necessary to build trust. Provide communication at all levels, such as daily contact, newsletters, memos, conferences, and even home visits so that parents are sometimes met on their own turf. Most importantly, make sure the parent doesn’t hear from the staff only when their child is having difficulties.

What if you knew the best approach to take towards more parent involvement?
Workshops, conferences, children’s parties, and fundraisers are all opportunities for parent involvement. From the knowledge you have of your parents, would they respond enthusiastically to a workshop on a certain topic such as “Ten Tips for Terrific Two-Year-Olds?” Would they enjoy a day set aside for them to observe daily activities in the classroom? Perhaps you have parents who thrive on interacting with children and gladly volunteer for every field trip. Still others may paint the swing set or bring their guitar to school. Plan a variety of events so that every parent from the most outgoing to the most reticent feels welcome.

What if you knew techniques to create a sense of community?
Perhaps you can serve complimentary coffee around the parent bulletin board to encourage casual conversation. A parent’s club dedicated to informal meetings where parents can learn from each other could become a regular part of your monthly calendar. To foster community within classes, plan some events around individual classrooms instead of the entire school or program. Some of your parents might be involved in civic or religious groups in need of space during the evening or on weekends. What if you could come up with events so enjoyable that parents couldn’t resist?

Tired of the same old open houses, garage sales, and classroom parties? It’s fun to come up with unique ideas especially when it brings a new level of energetic response from children, parents, and staff.

  • Host a storybook reading a couple times a year, and let children come in their pajamas. Include puppets and flannel board stories.

  • Have fun with fundraisers by hosting a silent auction for children’s artwork, a car wash, or a bake sale to bring in families and money.

  • Comfort and food go together. Have a “make your own” pizza party. Lay out bowls of different pizza toppings and give a prize for the most creative looking and tasty pizzas.

  • Invite a parent, grandparent, or friend to lunch.

  • During the winter months, offer a chili dinner for families as they weave their way toward home.

  • In the summer, sponsor a picnic on the playground with sandwiches, lemonade, and cookies.

With hard work, understanding, and events that are fun and interesting, parents are sure to get the message, “You are welcome here!”

Edna Wallace, M.S., is editor of parent pages newsletter. Her work as a teacher, director, and parent educator has spanned 25 years. She stays active in NAEYC and other professional organizations. She is the author of Summer Sizzlers & Magic Mondays: School-Age Theme Activities. You can reach her at www.parentpagesnews.com.