Updated: Jul 29, 2022
We’re in our third year of pandemic schooling, and it’s not getting any easier!
Most school leaders are facing daily operational challenges unlike anything they’ve experienced in their professional careers. COVID variants, learning loss, mental health concerns, and a decreasing number of subs, nurses and bus drivers are just a few of the top issues. Our school communities are stretched thin trying to keep learning going for our children.
And then there’s the parents!
The pandemic has given parents a front row seat into their child’s education. But it hasn’t been easy as many parents try to juggle work and home life while getting a crash course on how to support their child’s learning at home.
Research shows that parents in the U.S. are at least as stressed now as they were in March 2020, when coronavirus shutdowns first hit. They are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. And they are making their voices heard.
There’s been a constant rumbling of parent discontent over the last year, and it seems to be gaining momentum in many school communities.
So exactly what’s all the fuss about? What do parents want?
Key Trends in Parent Behavior
As parents took a more active role in their child’s education (admittedly some more able and willing than others), several organizations began to take a closer look at parent behavior and how this is impacting a student’s learning experience.
70% of parents say they will have greater expectations for the quality of education their child receives (2021 Tyton Partners: School Disrupted Part 2)
Before the pandemic most parents didn’t know what their child’s daily routine consisted of at school. Headlines about national test score trends didn’t feel relevant to any one school. College opportunities felt like a distant goal. And mental health services were unlikely to be on the radar for many parents.
The pandemic has likely accelerated an awareness around many issues that have been brewing for quite some time. Research from Tyton Partners specifically highlights these top three areas of most importance to parents:
More focus on social and emotional learning
More individualized support
More small group learning experiences
Nearly 80% of parents expect to be more active in shaping their child’s education in the future (2021 Tyton Partners: School Disrupted Part 2)
The pandemic forced parents to find a way to support their child’s learning journey at home. As the line between work and home life blurred (or perhaps completely disappeared in some instances) parents found creative ways to juggle their daily priorities.
A renewed appreciation for teachers and the critical role they play in educating our children has been a highlight of the pandemic. And perhaps a silver lining in all of this is a willingness for parents to remain actively involved in their child’s education.
Additional research from Tyton Partners highlights these top five areas of focus for parents:
Helping them with homework
Tutoring my child
Working with my child's teacher to form an education plan
Purchasing additional educational products
Staying up to date on the latest education trends
Parents seek more non-academic services from their child’s school
A recent EdWeek article summed up what parents look for when choosing a school. On one end of the spectrum, our society seems to have an obsession with grades and assessments. However as Rick Hess points out, “...for all the attention devoted, for better or worse, to test scores, class size, and diversity in the popular media and in school materials, these just aren’t the things that most parents say they’re focused on.”
So what are parents most focused on today? Non-academic services have risen to the top of the list.
According to this recent RAND Corporation report, “...parents have "strongly demanded" social and emotional learning, more teacher-parent communication, or a fully remote schooling option."
Parent engagement opportunities are not equal
Creating an intentional parent engagement strategy is not usually at the top of a school leader’s list of priorities. However without an overall plan, school leaders may be unintentionally excluding some parents from the opportunity to participate in their child’s education.
Consider the following:
How often do you give in to the demands of your most vocal parents? And yet this group does not necessarily reflect the needs of the broader parent community. Parent engagement is not about “engaging the already engaged.”
Finding ways to quantify parent engagement success can be challenging. Oftentimes attendance at parent teacher conferences is a key metric, yet this doesn’t account for highly engaged parents that are unable to be physically present at your school.
When was the last time you assessed how many tools are required for parents to know what’s happening at your school? It is highly likely in order to be an “involved parent” they need Internet (strong enough for video), email, multiple messaging apps and a decent level of tech savviness to navigate a myriad of websites. Not to mention the challenge parents face who are not native English speakers.
We’ve heard numerous times from families that they believe their teachers don’t think they care about their child’s education. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. As summarized in this Tyton Partners report, “...key challenges, such as awareness, financial resources, and access, remain significant barriers for many across the country, hindering parent agency and limiting participation in alternative and emerging learning models."
Benefits to an Intentional Parent Engagement Strategy
As we covered in our Sept blog, there are numerous studies which highlight the positive impact parent engagement has on student achievement and outcomes. The National Center for Family & Community Connections with Schools summarizes these benefits:
earning higher grades and test scores, and enrolling in higher-level programs.
being promoted, passing their classes, and earning credits.
attending school regularly.
having better social skills, showing improved behavior, and adapting well to school.
graduating and going on to postsecondary education.
Additionally, the relationship a school has with their families can last many, many years depending on the number of grades the school serves and the number of siblings a student has. Being intentional about your parent engagement strategy can help set expectations at the beginning of this relationship and lead to a more welcoming and thriving learning experience for all students.
5 Tips to Increase Parent Engagement
With the pandemic putting a spotlight on parent engagement strategies, the tasks associated with developing and executing an effective plan might seem daunting. Our advice is always to start small with a plan you know you can execute. Parent engagement is about developing relationships with your families, and meaningful relationships can take months, if not years to develop.
Looking specifically at the topics currently trending, we suggest five tips to increase your current level of engagement with your parents.
1. Understand the expectations of your parent community
Do your parents’ expectations align with the national trends we outlined earlier in this article? Seek feedback from your families to validate this information and discover additional topics of interest.
There are multiple ways to seek feedback from parents and soliciting their input is an important step to developing a relationship with them. Talk to your parents if they are visiting your school. Send a survey. Hold a coffee chat. Reach out individually with an email, phone call or conduct a home visit.
2. Review current opportunities for parent involvement at your school
Think about the characteristics of your parent community - their availability to be physically present at school, their daily schedules, type of work, language needs and more. Then think about the opportunities you provide parents to be involved and the number of parents you would consider at least “somewhat involved” at your school.
Is parent engagement solely about showing up at your school for activities and events? Based on the research, a parent’s definition of involvement goes beyond the classroom to include helping with homework, purchasing supplemental products and advocating for their child’s needs.
How well is your parent engagement plan aligned to support families at school as well as meet their needs at home? And what changes can you make to include parents who have not had an opportunity to participate in the past? Again, we encourage you to seek feedback directly from parents.
3. Increase the number of non-academic services you provide to students
Student success in today’s schools is measured by grades and test scores. And while a school’s academic performance might serve as an initial filter for a family when considering a school for their child, it is typically not the primary reason for attending.
Do you know why families choose your school? Besides location, the other key indicators tend to center around school culture, socialization, safety, character and values.
The pandemic has also highlighted the opportunity for schools to serve as a hub for their communities, providing necessary non-academic services like health updates, food services, mental health programs and financial support. Consider the needs of your parent community, what additional services can you provide to better support your families?
4. Be intentional about your desire to engage all families
Keeping up with what’s happening at school can feel like a full-time job, especially if you have more than one child or perhaps children at multiple schools. And yet it doesn’t have to be this difficult.
Parents want information that is streamlined and relevant to their child. And yet, it can be quite challenging to create a simple plan when there are so many people involved, so many types of information and varying needs of individual families.
The goal shouldn’t be to please 100% of the parents. That will only send you, and the majority of your parents down a frustrating path. Instead, consider a needs assessment which looks at all the information your parent community desires and then determine which tool(s) are best to support that effort. Be intentional about trying to reduce the number of tools you currently use.
5. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
A successful parent engagement program has a well defined communications plan at its core. The more groups involved, the more important it is to scope out how information flows from school to home and back to the school.
And when all else fails, be authentic in your communication. After a challenging few years, parents are looking for educators they can trust. Be open and honest with your parent community.
There are extensive resources available to educators who are tasked with developing and managing their school’s parent engagement program. Here’s two of our favorites which provide a more ‘workbook style’ approach to help you with your plan:
Joyce L. Epstein and Associates
National Network of Partnership Schools
Johns Hopkins University
By Rebecca Winthrop, Adam Barton, Mahsa Ershadi, and Lauren Ziegler
The Brookings Institution
Join the Discussion
Our education system is being challenged right now, and parents are taking a more active role in their child’s learning journey. School leaders should make parent engagement a priority. Finding ways to more effectively engage families in the learning process has numerous benefits for students, families and your entire school community.
And remember, be realistic about your available resources. Start small with a good foundation and make plans to grow your program over time.
We’d love to hear from you! What are some of the unique ways your school is supporting parents this year?
About the Author
Jennifer Larson is an entrepreneur, charter school founder and mother to four children. Connect with her @startupjen.