It’s an academic sin to begin any piece of writing with a dictionary definition, but since there are so many varying opinions about what parent engagement means, I thought it might be helpful to share the definition I’ll be working from. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines parent engagement as an “ongoing, reciprocal, strengths-based, collaborative partnership that promotes a shared responsibility for observation, decision making, and action.” I like this definition—but how do schools actually nurture this kind of partnership? How do we truly engage parents in a reciprocal relationship?
To help answer these questions, I’ve pulled a few tips from Motivational Interviewing in Schools, a book by Keith Herman, Wendy Reinke, Andy Frey, and Stephanie Shepard.
Start of the Year
To start, we must show parents that their child’s personal and academic success is inextricably linked to their involvement. Parents are more likely to engage when they understand how instrumental their role is in their child’s success. Newsletters and letters from the principal are certainly two ways you can convey this message to parents, but if you truly want to build a shared vision, you will have better luck with surveys or “get-to-know-you” visits.
Arranging home visits is time-consuming and requires an extraordinary amount of work, but you will be rewarded for your efforts. During these visits, treat the parents as the experts. They know their child better than you do, so remind them that you are there to learn from them. You may want to discuss some of the following:
- Systemic issues that might interfere with home-school communication
- Ways to overcome these barriers
- Classroom visits and volunteer opportunities
- Resources available to parents
Frequent Positive Communication
Many of us do a fine job of communicating with parents on a frequent basis. The problem, though, is that we are communicating—and frequently so—about the wrong “stuff.” I like this little analogy Herman, Reinke, Frey, and Shepard use:
Think of your interactions with each parent as a piggy bank. For every positive interaction you have with a parent, you make a deposit into the relationship bank. Every negative interaction or feedback requires a withdrawal.
To echo the authors’ point, we must do a better job of communicating positive news to families. If parents are only contacted when things go wrong, they will associate the staff, the teachers, even the building, with negativity. Here are a few ideas for better communication:
- Post a “topic of the day” through Facebook, daily e-mails, or on hardcopy handouts, and encourage parents to talk about these topics with their children
- Send home “Table Talk” notes that encourage conversations at home about topics the child is learning about in school
- Offer a variety of activities and opportunities from which parents can participate beyond volunteering!
- Consider encouraging parent-to-parent connections, establishing parent leadership committees, family fun nights, or setting aside space in the building for a parent resource center
Establish Positive Local Norms and Expectations about Supportive Services
Parents’ receptiveness to support services (the school counselor, psychologist, or behavior support team) often rides on how we market them. Pay close attention to the language you use to describe support services and avoid problem-focused words like “treatment” or “intervention.” Instead, focus on better outcomes that promote “health,” “wellness,” and “support.”
In addition to being mindful about the language we use to market our services, Herman, Reinke, Frey, and Shepard also encourage us to “involve parents as liaisons to communicate positive expectations and beliefs about the services.” This is, by the way, one of the oldest and truest marketing strategies in the book: When customers participate and benefit from a product or service, they are more likely to talk about it and spread the word.
If parents are enthusiastic about your services, ask them to talk about it with other parents, write up short testimonials, or share their experience at a PTA conference.
If you’re looking for more parent engagement tips, check out one of my recent posts, “5 Ways Schools Can Improve Parent Engagement.”