When Parent Engagement Is Low, Teachers Must Make the Connection Between...

Voices | Family Engagement

When Parent Engagement Is Low, Teachers Must Make the Connection Between Schools and Families

By Keely Sutton     Jan 3, 2024

When Parent Engagement Is Low, Teachers Must Make the Connection Between Schools and Families

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

One of the greatest challenges schools and districts face is low parent engagement. Often, the assumption is that parents don’t make time to engage with their child’s learning community or do not care about their student’s academic progress — even if that student is performing poorly or below academic expectations. It is the school’s responsibility to ensure that children are learning, but learning extends beyond school walls. We need parent reinforcement.

As a School and Community Engagement Manager, the greatest challenges I see aren’t that parents do not care or don’t have time to support their children. To me, it seems that parents are experiencing a lack of connection — with the school, teachers, and the material their students are learning.

It’s easy to assume that there are quick fixes to this issue, but as we all know, building meaningful relationships takes time, and where the relationships parents have with their student's learning journey can impact their academic progress, we can’t miss the big picture. As we build relationships with students, we must also focus on building relationships with parents and families.

Learning From My Experience

One year, my son came home from school with some math homework that made my head spin, and he was only in the fifth grade. While I remembered the concepts he was studying from my own schooling experience, trying to emulate the instructions he received was nerve-wracking.

“This should not be this challenging!” I thought as I anxiously began writing down methods and strategies I knew, hoping he would better understand. Unfortunately, my attempt to help turned into him teaching me how to solve his math problems. While I’m grateful he figured it out, I was more confused than when we started.

Now imagine, if I was frustrated, can you imagine how other parents feel? This is the narrative for many of the families we serve. Yes, there are parents who work long hours during the week and can’t always give time to attend to their child’s academic progress, but in many cases, parents don’t show up because they are embarrassed that they can’t understand what their child is learning.

In my role, supporting parents and families in the learning community is extremely important. My conversations with parents often encompass frustrations about their inability to support their children due to their lack of academic knowledge and skills.

These days, students learn via the “I Do, We Do, You Do” Method. In this model, teachers teach concepts by working step by step with students. Students are able to show what they can do with and without teacher support while receiving the information and individual support they need to be successful. At times, that can be challenging for the teacher, especially when students lack the foundational skills that they need to learn grade-level standards. It also becomes a stressor for the student; as a result, those stressors matriculate home where students still need support from their parents and families.

This is where my role serves as a bridge between parents and school merge, highlighting the significance of the at-home learning experience for students. While this is my primary job, schools and districts cannot forget that our roles are to support our families in this teaching and learning process, and we cannot do this work without our parents.

Building a Bridge to Better Connection and Engagement

When students have high engagement and parental involvement at home and school, there is a higher success rate. As a school, once we noticed the impact of low parent engagement, we made it a priority to identify the disconnects between our school and the families we serve.

We started by sending surveys and conducting one-on-one conversations with parents. As a turnaround school, this helped us identify the gaps between what we knew, what our parents wanted from us and where we needed to incorporate additional wrap-around supports. By identifying this disconnect for parents at Luther J. Price Middle School (LJPMS), we initiated opportunities for parents to attend workshops with instructional coaches and teachers to share strategies they could use to help their child with schoolwork at home. These workshops were provided in-person and virtually for parents who could not physically attend.

In addition to learning what parents needed to help their students at home, the survey also revealed that parents were reluctant to engage because they did not have a positive relationship with the teachers or the school. This made me realize how much relationships truly matter, and I had to think of creative ways and opportunities for parents to engage in the community that were less threatening and more welcoming.

One of the ways I accomplished this was by orchestrating activities that encouraged parents to volunteer and connect with teachers. One of those activities included “King’s Breakfast” where our fathers were invited to eat breakfast with their students. Most recently, we organized a “Giving Thanks Lunch” where families were invited to come and fellowship with our community as a family. Teachers, administrators, and district personnel took this opportunity to engage with our families. It truly was a remarkable experience for our families, and even more so for our students. If teaching the ‘whole’ child is important, involving their parents is equally important.

It Takes a Village

As a parent, I cannot think of a greater connection than the one I have with my child. As a kid, I grew up in an environment where both my parents were educated and active participants in my education. Modeling that experience is not a challenge for me. As a parent and single mother, I want to ensure that my child has the greatest learning experience possible. Therefore, I choose to be present.

Yes, I form relationships with the teachers who support my student’s learning, but that is my expectation — there is no alternative. I also want his teachers to know that I have great expectations of my son, however, if I can support their efforts in his educational journey, I will. Though my experience is different from those I serve, I believe the end goal remains the same.

No parent that I have encountered wants to see their child fail. Though it seems the responsibility always falls on the school, parents are in the greatest position to help our children. As the great educator Marva Collins would say, “It is not a crime not to know. It is a crime not to want to know.”

For schools and teachers, we must help our parents and families fill in the gaps. What they may lack, we can support so that our student community has greater opportunity for success. If that means that parents, teachers and schools must work together to become foot soldiers in the journey to student success and academic achievement, then that is what we must do.

There is an African proverb that states, "The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” This community has been plagued with external factors that impact the progress and success of our children. It truly takes a village to raise a child, and this partnership is necessary to achieve the results we seek for this community, and more importantly, our children. By working and functioning together, we accomplish more.

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