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Beyond Bake Sales: Meaningful Parent Engagement in Schools

I don’t have kids of my own, but I work with them. I see the impacts of parent engagement every day, from attention to details, like signed or unsigned forms, to communication efforts, like kids with or without a packed lunch on field trips. There are many issues that contribute to inefficient or misguided parent engagement in schools. Here are some ideas for how parents can engage in meaningful ways and why engagement is critical for the success of children.  

I understand parenting is overwhelming. Yet, there are small changes parents can make to ensure they are fostering critical learning and life skills for their children. Whether you are planning for the future or are a parent now, consider the reports and ideas below.

Meaningful Parent Engagement is Important

Families and Schools Together published a report in 2016 detailing the work of six different researchers. The researchers concluded that students with parents who are engaged in and continue their child’s education at home do substantially better in the classroom than their peers with parents who are not. This is part one of a three-part series explaining the importance of meaningful parent engagement in schools. While parents need to be willing to engage, the school has to be willing to incorporate families. However, there are steps that parents can take independent of school administrations. 

What Does Meaningful Engagement Look Like?

In her talk at TEDxMileHigh Humankind, Veronica Crespin-Palmer explained why parental involvement needs to go deeper than just volunteer opportunities like bake sales.

“At worst, families are not included in their children’s education at all. At best, parents are asked to do volunteer opportunities like chaperoning field trips or organizing bake sales, neither of which have anything to do with actual education and academic achievement.”

Rather than stay on the outskirts of their child’s education, Palmer argues that parents need to be engaged on a deeper, more fundamental level. This means focusing on skills that facilitate and extend classroom topics with students at home. 

Laura Overdeck is the founder of Bedtime Math, an online resource available to all parents who want to increase their child’s exposure to math. Overdeck and her husband created this nonprofit when they realized their kids needed more hands-on experience with math rather than just the worksheets provided at school.

Until schools can do a better job with creating hands-on, personalized, and integrated math education, those of us outside of school have a role in making sure it happens,” Overdeck says in an interview with the Harvard Family Project. Bedtime Math is just one example of how parents can creatively expand on skills their children are learning at school.

Meaningful Parent Engagement is Directly Related to Student Achievement 

In her talk, Palmer uses her classroom as an example. When she began incorporating families and encouraging parents to continue their child’s education at home, her students began improving. As parents increased the amount of learning happening at home, her kindergarten class started to excel at a rate much faster than other classrooms.

William Jeynes of the Department of Teacher Education at UC Long Beach published an analysis of research pulled from 77 different studies on the relationship between student achievement and parent involvement. In his research, Jeynes studied the impact of acts of voluntary parent involvement, such as attending school events and setting high expectations at home. He also studied the importance of parent engagement programs implemented by the school.

Jeynes found that parental involvement programs had a positive relationship with student achievement. Parent engagement programs yielded an improvement of “approximately .35–.40 of a grade point” on student outcomes.

Even when controlling factors such as race, socio-economic status, and gender, the academic achievement of students whose schools offered parent engagement programs was substantially higher than those of students at schools that did not.

The positive relationship between meaningful parent engagement in schools and student achievement is undeniable. And, there are other positive outcomes of parent engagement.

Parent Engagement Improves Behavior and Attendance

As a part of the School Improvement Research Series, researchers Kathleen Cotton and Karen Wikelund studied 45 different documents regarding parent engagement in schools. Of the 45 different documents, 16 addressed the relationship between parent involvement and student outcomes, as well as outcomes such as classroom behavior, absenteeism, and motivation.

In their report, Cotton and Wikelund concluded that “all the research studies which address these areas found that parent involvement has positive effects on student attitudes and social behavior.”

Engagement Decreases for Low-Income Families and Families of Color

“In Colorado, white students are graduating from high school at 85 percent, black students are at 74 percent, and LatinX students are at 73 percent,” Palmer says in her talk. While there are many contributing factors, there is a clear graduation gap between high- and middle-income families and low-income families and families of color. 

To be clear, this gap in graduation does not mean the parents in these low-income families and families of color care less about their child’s education. 

In an article written for the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare at Western Michigan University regarding a survey of low-income parents’ attitudes towards their role in their children’s education, 97 percent of low-income parents agreed with statements like “I want to spend time helping my children get the best education.”

The article explores several reasons why parent involvement decreases specifically in low-income parents with children in high school. The survey found that 88 percent of low-income families listed “parents may not understand the courses taken in high school” as the number one reason why parent involvement decreases. 

The engagement discrepancy between low-income parents and middle- to high-income parents is also attributed to “parents do not have time to be involved in school activities and work at the same time. ” 53 percent of low-income parents agreed with this statement compared to 28 percent of high-income parents.

Palmer mentions several easy fixes to these problems in her talk, such as writing school communications in languages other than English and holding parent-teacher conferences at more convenient times for working parents.

How to Make Your Efforts More Meaningful

With all of the activities, sports, and commitments students are involved in (not to mention your own work), it is hard to know where to spend your time wisely as a parent. Here are some ideas:

1. Utilize All Resources, Not Just Online Portals

In 2016, research indicated a decline in parent engagement in schools. This decrease was largely due to parents’ reliance on online portals to understand what their children were learning in the classroom. While portals are convenient for simple tasks like checking grades, they inhibit face-to-face encounters between parents and teachers. Therefore, they discourage communication between the classroom and home.

2. Prioritize Parent-Teacher Conferences

While scheduling may be difficult, one-on-one time with your student’s teacher is important. This is a time dedicated for you to learn how to extend your child’s education outside of the classroom. It’s a time to build trust with your child’s teacher, a key component of a supportive academic environment.

3. Find Resources Outside of School

Palmer founded RISE Colorado as a resource center for low-income families and families of color to help them understand the world of their child’s education. They help parents understand school communications that are only written in English and provide training for parents without education who want to help their child at home. If you find yourself struggling with how to get involved with your child’s education, consider reaching out to America’s Promise Alliance or a local organization focused on parent engagement.

4. Encourage Unstructured and Imaginative Play

Imaginative and unstructured playtime is just as important as structured time spent in the classroom. Cultivating the imagination in early education is imperative to children’s cognitive and emotional growth. Carving time for unstructured and imaginative play is a simple, yet meaningful way to be engaged in your child’s development.

5. Share the Responsibility

It’s hard to even read the title of this article without innately assuming that everything following will inherently fall on the maternal figure (you may even consider the term ‘bake sale’ highly gendered). 

The debate of responsibility for the household will always be controversial and deeply influenced by history. According to an article in the New York Times, in the 17th and 18th-century, children were “thought to be innately fallen and sinful. They needed the strong moral guidance of their fathers to live a proper life—while mothers were praised for their fertility, they were considered too emotional to raise children.” 

This mindset is obviously outdated. However, the implications of it have relevance to the current conversation: the way we expect and acknowledge parent engagement is laced with the complex history of gender inequity.

Parents need to be equally involved and engaged in their child’s education.

And, if you are a friend or family member, consider how and who you direct your comments on parenting too, as noted by Jennifer Siebel Newsom in “It’s Time to Stop Treating Parenting as a Mom’s Burden and a Dad’s Adorable Hobby.” (Better yet, don’t share unsolicited comments at all.)

Parents, You Already Do a Lot—Maximize Your Efforts

Parents generally want to ensure their children are happy and successful. While you’re probably already doing a lot for your child’s education, there are ways to maximize your efforts. While spending time preparing a treat to help fundraise at a bake sale is helpful, it might not be the most meaningful and impactful for your child. 

Meaningful parent involvement in their child’s education can lead to higher grades, better test scores, and even better classroom behavior. Prioritize your engagement to focus on what and how your child is learning. 

If you are an involved parent and still feel like you are being excluded from the conversation, stay tuned to explore why administrations need to encourage parent involvement in schools.

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