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Building Bridges Between Home and School

Building Bridges Between Home and School
Parental involvement in education is important because it makes a world of difference in children's success in school and in life. Plus, it benefits children at all grade levels.

The evidence is in from many research studies showing that when parents get involved in education, their children:

* Get better grades and test scores.

* Have better attendance at school.

* Complete more homework.

* Are better behaved and have more positive attitudes.

* Take higher-level courses in high school.

* Graduate from high school at higher rates.

* Receive higher college-entrance test scores.

* Are more likely to go on to higher education.

* Have increased lifetime earnings.

In fact, most of the difference in the average state-by-state performance of eighth-graders on math achievement test scores can be attributed to just three parental practices: making sure their children attend school regularly, encouraging their children to read at home, and turning off the television set.

It's not just students that benefit from parental involvement in education -- so do parents. They gain a greater appreciation of their role in their children's education; a better understanding of schools, teaching, and learning activities in general; a stronger social network; and even a desire to continue their own education. Plus, when teachers receive strong support from involved parents, they raise their expectations for both students and parents.

To improve our education system, more than legislative solutions are required. The participation of strong families -- with their structure, values, and moral compass -- is crucial.

Schools that want to involve parents need to understand the impact of school-related tasks (e.g., homework or coming to open house) on the child and on the family.

Teachers may give what for most students is a simple half-hour homework assignment. In some families, however, getting the homework done may be a major event. If a child has learning or attentional problems, or if he says: "The teacher didn't tell us what to do," a single activity can turn into a major battle which can go on for hours and cause tension for everyone. Planning and executing long-term assignments can be a nightmare for families -- one that often ends with Mom or Dad "pulling an all-nighter" to finish typing a paper.

Parents and teachers should talk to each other periodically about the impact of homework on the family. Some teachers send home "test" homework, telling kids to do as much work as they can in 30 minutes and then stop. Students might also be given one assignment that must involve a parent, and another one on which parents are not allowed to help. This allows teachers to check the quality and impact of work done with -- and without -- adult assistance.

For most children, having a parent come to an open house is a positive event. They look forward to this evening as a time for parents to meet their teacher, sit in their seat (or try to), and see their work. For other children, the thought of parents coming to school may create anxiety, especially if they are worried about the teacher talking about their "problems," or if they are not proud of a project that the teacher has displayed for the event. Children with separation problems, or who are afraid an older sibling may neglect or tease them, may not be able to tolerate a parent's absence for an evening. In these situations, teachers and parents need to talk and work together to develop effective solutions.

Schools that value good home/school relations do not make erroneous assumptions about a parent or a family when they do not seem to be involved. These schools recognize that parents and caregivers deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Professional educators understand that while we may be very concerned about the welfare and education of our children, there may be times when we're unable to attend school functions such as open house. Many forces can make it difficult for a parent to come to the school, or to be involved in a child's education. The demands of a job or the necessity of a second job, the challenge of finding child care for young children at home, difficulty with transportation to the school, or concerns about safety in the neighborhood around the school are all valid explanations for a parent's physical absence from school.

For some parents, coming to school has been associated with trouble, and they are nervous about meeting with teachers. Other parents really want to get involved in school activities, but they get the impression that this will take a lot of energy and time, both of which may be in short supply.

Good schools understand the realities of family life and give parents the benefit of the doubt when they don't seem involved in school affairs. Some schools have found ways to make it possible for parents to stay in touch with teachers without always having to leave home. Newsletters sent home each week carry news about classroom and school activities. Some schools have call-in times (with some in the evening) that make it easier for parents to talk directly with teachers. Phone "chains" can be set up that allow parents to "pass the word" about school activities and events, or to discuss ways parents can contribute to school life. Answering devices or voicemail systems allow teachers to record daily or weekly messages to parents.

Technologically advanced schools have Internet sites or email connections that tie home and school together electronically. Some teachers have created (or have had their students create) videotapes of themselves and their classrooms -- a technique that brings open house to everyone.

Parents who feel left out of school affairs need to be assertive and ask principals and teachers how they can be involved. Research shows us that when parents are more involved in school, kids behave better, like school more, and most important, learn better.

A key to successful home/school relationships is regular two-way communication. As a parent, what can you do to make sure this happens?

Don't expect to do much serious talking about your child's needs at an open house. Use that occasion to meet the teacher, let the teacher see who you are, visit the classroom, and hear about your child's program. Then, call the teacher in a day or two and ask for a meeting at a mutually agreeable time. Before the meeting you can send the teacher a list (not too long) of questions that you have (so she can prepare for the meeting), and you can also share with the teacher your "wishes and worries" for your child.

You can also let the teacher know how you think your child learns best and what will really motivate (or turn off) your son or daughter. If the teacher doesn't ask you how she would like you to be involved as a parent, then ask the teacher. Let the teacher know if there are any reasons that you might not be able to do what she would like you to do (you know -- you're a single parent with two jobs and you're the scout leader and you sing in the choir and you're getting your master's degree over the Internet -- that kind of thing).

Ask the teacher how much contact she likes to have with parents and when she prefers to talk and how (face to face, over the phone, via email). If you find that you have difficulty talking with the teacher for any reason, let her know why. If this simple, honest communication doesn't work, then call the principal to ask for help. You may wish to have your spouse or partner do the talking, or you may need or prefer to use an intermediary, such as the learning center teacher or a guidance counselor. Whatever you do, don't stop talking! Your child is too important.

In schools that value family involvement, parents are welcome in the school at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. What can you do to open the schoolhouse doors and keep them open?

There are lots of helpful and non-intrusive ways that parents can be involved in the life of a school. Some schools have set up parent/teacher reception areas, where a pot of hot coffee becomes a morning magnet for parents who can meet other parents and stay tuned in to what's going on in the school. A bulletin board -- on which parents can post messages, ideas, or volunteer certain services -- can become a valuable resource to teachers and parents alike. Parents can coordinate and run this area.

Sometimes the crowded hallways of a school make it difficult for parents to visit the building in large numbers, but a very warm feeling exists in elementary schools that encourage parents to escort their children to the classroom at morning drop-off. Teachers and parents develop much closer relationships when this happens, especially when they both resist the temptation to focus on kids' problems at this time.

Lots of very positive things happen when parents host teacher appreciation luncheons or when family breakfasts or luncheons are held by grade level. Parents are always welcome to serve as chaperones on field trips, or when they work in the office or media center. In some schools, pairs of parents serve as hall monitors or tutors for kids who can just step outside of the class for a little academic support or some TLC.

Every year, American Education Week, sponsored by the National Education Association, provides a more formal opportunity for parents to visit schools and classrooms. The bottom line is that schools that actively encourage parents to be in the building, on the bus, or in the classroom are schools in which kids learn better and behave better.

When "healthy" relationships exist between home and school, teachers and parents value the expertise that each of them bring to the situation. When parents and teachers work together to build the foundation of a team, everybody benefits. As a parent, what can you do to contribute to your child's class or school, and what are some ways you can value and support the talents that the teacher brings to the classroom?

First, let's consider why a teacher might not rush to tap the resources of a willing parent, or might have trouble thinking of a parent as a member of a team. A teacher might be wary of this "free service" if he has had a bad experience with parents in the past. Parents who force themselves on a teacher, who intrude on a teacher's personal life, or who work themselves into the classroom with a personal gripe or "agenda" are not likely to be regarded by a teacher as a valuable asset.

If you sense some resistance, move slowly, but persist, showing your child's teacher that you can really be a team player. Let the teacher know that you want to be informed about what's going on in the classroom, and let him know how you might help. You might even volunteer to be the editor of a student-produced class newsletter, so all parents can stay informed about classroom activities.

You and other parents can support the teacher in a variety of ways -- by chaperoning field trips, preparing specialized materials for students, or even creating learning centers which focus on a certain topic or theme. You can generate a survey form on which parents (at an open house, in a school newsletter, or a school's Internet site) can indicate their willingness to share a talent, some information, a service, or a product with the school. If you have the time and energy, you might develop and coordinate a pool of parents who can help out in a variety of ways. A creative building principal might even be able to find a grant that could pay you to put together a dependable parent-support network.

Help your child's teacher put his or her best skills to work in the classroom. By assisting with various non-teaching functions, you can give the teacher more time to be creative in the classroom. Every teacher wants a teammate who can do that!

Schools that value good communication between the home and school must develop ways to maintain contact with the parent over time in a way that builds mutual respect.

Teachers and parents can build an atmosphere of mutual respect if each tries to understand the other's perspective. Parents understandably and appropriately tend to focus their attention on their own children, while teachers think of the individual students as members of a group.

Parents and teachers need to keep expectations clear. This requires keeping the lines of communication open, and that's something parents and teachers both have to work on. As a way to provide the time that's necessary to build relationships, some creative schools pair families with a teacher who will remain with the family over the course of the school years. These kinds of relationships can last well beyond graduation!

As a parent, you should know what's going on in your child's classroom and why. A teacher who values good communication with parents will invite you to ask questions, and explain why things are done the way they are. If you are concerned about how things are done, talk to the teacher about it. While you're trying to come to a better understanding, keep this communication between you and the teacher -- don't talk about it over the salad bar at the grocery store. On the other hand, if you see good things happening in the classroom, tell everyone you know. Praise for teachers seems to be in short supply these days, and it's important to broadcast good news about schools.

Copyright ©, 2006-2008: School Age: Building Bridges Between Home and School