Supporting Students Means Taking Care of Parents, Too. Here’s How...

Voices | Family Engagement

Supporting Students Means Taking Care of Parents, Too. Here’s How Schools Can Help.

By Meredith Liu and Valentina Helo-Villegas     May 26, 2020

Supporting Students Means Taking Care of Parents, Too. Here’s How Schools Can Help.

Over the past month, educators across the country have come up with creative ways to support the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of children. From “teacher caravans” to virtual office hours, read alouds, and dance breaks, they have provided students with much-needed support to complement their education during a time of unprecedented disruption.

But what about the wellbeing of parents? Should schools play a role in supporting their wellbeing, too?

Whenever we board a plane, flight attendants tell us that if the oxygen masks drop, adults need to put their own masks on first. Similarly, parents need to take care of their own physical and emotional wellbeing before they can ensure their children can learn.

Research has shown that children do better in school, and are more likely to be physically and emotionally healthy, if their parents are also healthy. Conversely, when struggling with high levels of stress, parents find themselves with a reduced capacity to be emotionally engaged and responsive with their children. This emotional stress, often compounded by social isolation and difficulty accessing basic resources (such as food and housing), interferes with the adult’s ability to engage with their child’s education and wellbeing. In severe cases, it can lead to child abuse and neglect.

This is especially true in the current moment. Many parents, some of whom were already struggling to pay rent and put food on the table before the pandemic, have lost their jobs and taken on added financial and personal stress. Some of those still employed are working in higher risk environments, while juggling the responsibility of supporting remote learning. All of this is taking a significant emotional toll on parents, and their wellbeing must be a factor as schools engage in longer-term planning to support children and families.

One of the core pillars of our work at The Primary School is to help parents not only support their child’s development, but also reflect on and address their own wellness. It is important, perhaps now more than ever, to recognize the inherent strengths of each parent while also tending to their personal development, motivation and self-actualization.

The program is offered at our school in East Palo Alto, California, where most of the community is low-income. Our approach is rooted in the belief that all families, regardless of circumstance, can benefit from coaching.

We are—thankfully—not alone in this belief. When we designed our parent coaching program, we incorporated best practices from programs in fields ranging from social work, behavioral change and psychology, to trauma-informed care and global poverty alleviation. For example, EmPath’s comprehensive coaching program builds adult capacity to achieve long-term financial sustainability. Promotores, an initiative led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, leverages community health workers to improve public health. We borrow lessons from the Community Schools Playbook to build relationships with families and connect them to resources through family resource coordinators. And our home visits are informed by the work of the Parent Teacher Home Visits program, Flamboyan Foundation and others who know the importance of house calls.

Key to making this work possible is maintaining regular touch points throughout the year. When families enroll their children in our school, every parent is paired with one of our parent wellness coaches (many of whom grew up in or live in the communities we serve) and connected to a parent circle, a group of 8-10 parents who meet monthly. A coach’s primary role is to help families build their own self-efficacy, resilience, and social connections.

During the first week of shelter in place, our coaches were able to connect with 95 percent of parents to identify immediate needs and help them make a plan. In April, our coaches made 152 referrals to resources that span from housing to legal services to healthcare. This has helped families tremendously in getting access to accurate, reliable, and actionable information and support. All the while, coaches worked with parents to develop skills for stress management and other coping mechanisms to help mitigate the impact of the current environment.

Even in the light of a pandemic that no one could have prepared for, we have been heartened to watch the seeds that had been planted start to bear fruit. Parents have been able to access local resources in order to advocate for their basic needs so that even in the midst of this disruption, their children can continue learning.

Even without dedicated parent coaches, there are many ways that school leaders and teachers can support parents during this unusual and stressful time, and help them build life skills and resilient networks of support.

1. Ask families how they are doing: At your next check-in with parents, spend time asking about how they are doing—and not just if their children are learning.

  • How have you felt lately?
  • Have you gotten a chance to rest?
  • What is one thing that you have done for your wellbeing?

Schools will open up new opportunities for deeper engagement when adults are treated as individuals, not just as parents to their children.

2. Understand barriers and offer invitations for joint problem solving: If a student does not complete an assignment or lesson, consider the context of what else might be happening and how you can support a bigger picture. The root cause may be more complicated (e.g., a parent’s job schedule, new or multiple caretakers in the home, or other stressors in the home that can impact the day’s priorities). If educators seek to understand the broader picture, they can support families with problem solving.

3. Leverage local resources to support families: Be ready to share local resources that might be able to meet some of the immediate and concrete challenges families are facing, such as healthcare, legal, food and housing matters. Schools can rely on community agencies who already compile these resources; check the websites of your local governing agency, school district, family resources centers, and health care providers.

4. Emphasize and support mental wellness for adults and children: School staff can acknowledge and support the mental and emotional wellbeing of their families and children by providing kind and compassionate care. Share simple mindfulness exercises and stress reduction activities that parents can do on their own or with their children. Weave in socio-emotional focused activities in addition to academic content. We have curated some ideas here.

5. Develop and deepen parent support networks: School staff do not need to do this alone. Connecting parents to each other for peer support is a powerful way for families to share their own wisdom about accessing concrete resources, managing stress and navigating remote learning.

We hope that this unprecedented period in our history helps us reimagine how and why to support parents’ wellbeing alongside the needs of our students, even after we move past this crisis.

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