A r c h i v e d I n f o r m a t i o n
Reaching All Families: Creating Family-Friendly Schools - August 1996
Special Practices and Programs
This set of strategies includes some rather new and uncommon approaches to reaching all parents. One is resource centers in schools. In an informal setting they can provide parents with materials to help children learn more, offer space for personal and small class meetings, and help link parents to the school and community resources. Informal school-family gatherings around simple meals or refreshments with teachers and principals and neighborhood coffees are other ways to help create a welcoming atmosphere around schools. While parent workshops are widely used, the ideas presented here will help make them more effective. The final set of strategies shows ways of reducing some common obstacles to involvement among families of secondary students.
Parent Resource Centers
Parent resource centers in schools can support parents as both learners and teachers. These centers provide materials and a space where parents can get together with other parents and school staff to learn how to assist in their children's at-home learning. Parents can come to such a center for educational materials, training, informal meetings, and even for referral to other community services.
Parent resource centers may contain
Parent resource centers send a very positive message to parents that they belong in the school and should feel welcome in it. Some have a coffee machine and other amenities to reinforce the welcome. Many have donated furnishings and equipment.
- information about current school programs and events;
- reading materials to help parents guide their children's learning;
- games, books, and videos that parents can use with children at home, as well as toys and books for visiting pre-school children;
- a paid aide or volunteer who provides parents with instruction in subject areas and in using learning materials;
- a place where parents can "fill prescriptions" written by teachers for specific educational materials to be used at home;
- "Parents Corner" with comfortable furniture where parents can talk with other parents and teachers who come into the center; and
- an exchange box where parents and teachers can drop off unwanted books, toys, and surplus household items and take or borrow them for their own use.
These centers can be used for a variety of purposes:
A parent resource center can be created in a spare classroom or a corner of a school library. The center will need some staffing by a paid aide, parent/community volunteer, or a rotating teacher.
- meeting space for parent groups and workshops;
- an informal location for individual parent-teacher or parent-principal discussions;
- lounges and "waiting rooms" for parents in school on other business;
- recruiting tutors and classroom volunteers; and
- information and guidance about higher education opportunities, cultural and community services and agencies to help families with educational, health, and social service needs.
Principals and central administration staff can encourage teachers working with parents to develop at-home learning activities as part of their curriculum. Principals and teachers may want to devote several professional development sessions to this task. Schools can also provide clerical and printing assistance to teachers who develop materials for parents.
Informal School-Family Gatherings
Individual teachers and school staff can create ways to involve families in significant gatherings at school or nearby in more informal settings than the open house or parent-teacher conference. Schools have found the following approaches useful:
Grade Level Sessions
Individual teachers or groups of teachers from the same grade level have invited their parents to an educational event geared especially for them. Topics of interest to parents might include the following:
- instruction on the computers their children are using in school;
- an introduction to a series of home-learning activities for use with their children;
- handling negative peer pressure, discipline, drugs; and
- getting ready for college.
Meet With the Principal
School principals have hosted monthly or bimonthly luncheons in the school cafeteria. These luncheons let parents engage in informal conversations with the principal and each other and can be organized schoolwide, by grade level, or by interest areas such as arts, special needs students, and advisory councils. Some principals also hold open hours when any parent can drop into their office.
Breakfast With the Teacher
Some teachers have invited parents to bring their children to school on a selected day and stay for an informal potluck breakfast. Parent volunteers help teachers organize these breakfasts which give parents an opportunity to meet with the teacher and with each other.
Neighborhood coffees organized jointly by school staff and parents are held in homes, community centers, or other convenient locations. Some parents feel more comfortable meeting there than in schools. These get-togethers are designed to give a small group of parents an informal opportunity to talk with school staff about issues affecting their children. For example, neighborhood coffees might be organized for parents of sixth-grade children who will soon be going to junior high to share ideas on helping them with this important transition.
Parent education can include activities, workshops, and materials that give parents skills or experiences to help them as parents and as individuals. Successful parent workshops require careful planning and implementation. The following step-by-step process provides ideas that schools have found effective.
Assess Parent Needs
Successful, well-attended parent workshops respond to the specific needs of parents rather than what schools assume they need. Determining the interests of parents requires a broad-based needs assessment. There are several approaches:
Surveys--Questionnaires can be sent directly to all parents at the beginning of the school year. They can suggest topic areas to parents or can ask them to recommend areas of interest.
Home Visits--These visits provide an opportunity for workshop coordinators to develop programs based on personal, in-depth conversations with parents.
Informal Methods--There are other relatively quick and easy ways to gather ideas about the interests and needs of parents. Parents can be polled at all-school meetings, parent conferences, and advisory council meetings. Parents who use a resource room and parent aides are a good source of information.
Once parent needs have been identified, schools look for resources to speak to these needs either internally or from outside agencies. Resources could come from universities, businesses, social service agencies, regional education centers, and other school systems. Depending on the topic, workshop leaders could include:
Specialists--physicians, lawyers, speech therapists, and social workers.
Skilled Parents--members of the parent group or the community who have the skills to train other parents.
Practitioners--staff of community agencies and health clinics; members of church groups and volunteer groups; paraprofessionals.
Educators--university professors, teachers, school or district staff, and community educators.
Parents need to be both informed and have their interest aroused. Advance notice of upcoming workshops with note of transportation and child care services is essential for parents to plan their schedules.
Written Materials--A parent newsletter can include articles on upcoming workshops and can be followed up with flyers that remind parents of the date, time, place, and topic of the workshop. Recruitment announcements should be circulated in all languages spoken by parents at the school and posted in strategic locations such as neighborhood centers, churches, supermarkets, and laundromats.
Home Visits--Personal contacts appeal to parents, especially if the visitor is a member of the community and speaks the language of the parent. Schools also inform parents about workshops and encourage their participation during regular home visits by parent liaisons and school staff.
Telephone Networking--When all parents of children at the school have telephones, schools have used telephone trees to contact and recruit parents. Some parents call a few other parents, and they in turn are asked to call others from a master list.
Announcements at Meetings--The school's open house, PTA meetings, advisory council sessions, and parent room gatherings provide good opportunities. Neighborhood centers, adult learning centers, churches, and other community institutions may also be willing to announce parent workshops.
Provide Support Services
Strategies that make it easier for all parents to attend include
- organizing on-site child care;
- reimbursing parents for child care costs;
- helping parents form carpools;
- reimbursing for bus fare;
- providing a school bus or shuttle to the workshop; and
- opening parent rooms. Some schools support parent education activities by providing permanent space for parent gatherings. In these parent rooms, parents can meet with other parents, use resource materials, and learn about other programs and services of the school.
Schools with strong parent education programs assess their activities to see whether they were successful, how they might be modified, and what activities should be added. Two useful ways to evaluate programs are:
Evaluation Forms--After each session, parents can be asked to fill out a short evaluation form. This form can include questions such as:
Group Discussion--After some workshops, parents are asked to share their thoughts about the effectiveness of the session. They can be asked questions similar to those that would be on an evaluation form or can have a free form discussion.
- What was the most useful?
- What was the least useful?
- What other information would you like a workshop to cover?
- What kinds of workshop experiences would you like in the future?
Secondary School Strategies
Research and experience indicate that parent participation falls off in the upper grades. Secondary schools can reduce some common obstacles to family involvement that stem from the organization and curriculum of the school, and help parents cope with the challenges of adolescence.
One set of obstacles stems from the sheer size and layout of many secondary schools which make them less than visitor friendly. Schools can become more friendly to visitors in these ways:
- Place clearly marked signs on the outside of the building showing where to enter.
- Instruct guards or other monitors to welcome parents who enter the building and assist them in finding their way.
- Expect office staff to assist parents in a prompt and friendly fashion.
- Rethink the wording of signs that command outsiders to "report to the office" on arrival.
- Create a welcome sign for parents in the entryway, and repeat it in all the languages spoken by families of the students.
Promote Closer Relationships
Another obstacle to family involvement is that students typically have many teachers. Parents can find it difficult to know which teacher to contact. Rarely does any one staff member have a complete picture of each student, except perhaps the guidance counselor. But they often have a heavy caseload of students, making it difficult to know each well.
Some secondary schools are reorganizing in ways that increase teachers' ability to form relationships with parents and students. Secondary schools can encourage family involvement in these ways:
- Create smaller units within the school through "clusters," "houses," schools-within-schools, and other organizational devices.
- Keep the same counselors throughout the high school years so that students have an ongoing relationship with at least one individual at the school.
- Create teams of teachers who stay with students for more than one year.
- Schedule periods for teaching teams to meet with each other to discuss students they all teach and how to build continuing relationships between the school and families.
Reach Out to Specific Groups
Secondary schools are attempting to reach out to special groups of families to address their specific needs:
- Meetings for limited-English parents with translators for major school meetings and parent-teacher conferences.
- Meetings for parents of students who want to attend college to discuss college options and financial aid programs.
- Meetings to describe options available in vocational-technical and work-study programs and career planning generally.
Explain the Curriculum
The secondary curriculum is often more complex and technical than the curriculum parents experienced in their own schooling. Parents may feel incapable of helping their children with questions and homework and intimidated about discussing curriculum concerns or issues with teachers. This has led some schools to offer the following kinds of programs to parents:
Training in School Subjects--Some schools offer workshops for parents in specific curriculum areas such as math so they, in turn, can tutor their children.
Parent-Student Workshops--Information sessions provide learning opportunities for the whole family. Sessions can be organized around math, science, computers, creative writing, and other topics. Parents and students can work together with hands-on activities and be given more activities to do at home.
Parent Homework Networks--Schools can help organize parent networks that supervise afternoon and evening homework sessions. These sessions are particularly useful for single or working parents. Several parents agree to host a group of children on a rotating basis and provide them with a supervised and quiet place to study and do homework. These networks require much coordination such as might be provided by a parent liaison, volunteer, or release time teacher.
Parent-Teacher-Student Study Group--Teachers in some schools engage parents in reading books that their children are reading and hold group discussion seminars with students and parents on issues that are raised in these books.
Understand the Needs of Adolescence
The changes of recent decades that we have seen in social patterns in this country are reflected in our secondary schools. Many social and developmental factors impact adolescents.
- Adolescents are faced with the social realities of peer pressure, alcohol and other drugs, appeals to sexuality, racism, and sexism. Schools and parents must understand the ways in which these factors affect students.
- In adolescence, children seek greater autonomy. Students may not want their parents to play the same role in their schooling that they once did.
- Parents of adolescent children are more likely to be divorced, single, or remarried than are parents of elementary school children.
Schools can assist in the parenting of adolescents.
Parent Education--Many schools offer workshops and ongoing educational programs for parents on issues related to adolescent development. Parents are responsive to programs where they can learn about and discuss the difficult issues of adolescence. Some innovative programs link parents' educational activities with their children's curriculum. Students, for example, work in school on issues such as teenage suicide, drugs, and sexuality while parents are learning how to talk with their children about these issues.
School-Family-Community Partnerships--Schools also are engaging families in solving problems and taking action regarding specific issues, such as racial tension in the schools. Parents have collaborated with school staff to design programs that involve other community resources and agencies in addressing critical issues.
"What's Next" Nights--Schools are finding that parents are very concerned about what's next for their children after high school. Programs that address the transition to work after high school, college selection and financial assistance, and related topics should be offered to parents with children at all grade levels in the secondary schools so their planning for the future can start in a timely manner.
Parent Support Groups--Schools can involve parents in school programs by recognizing parents' need to have peer support during their children's adolescent years. Many parents appreciate the opportunity to share approaches and perspectives on parenting issues. Schools hold parenting workshops for parents and offer seminars for divorced and single parents to address their special needs.
Parents as Tutors and Mentors--Many parents have volunteered to be tutors or mentors to students at risk of failure, knowing that they especially need positive adult role models. These tutoring and mentoring programs take place in business, community, and school settings. Schools also are developing community service programs and other creative opportunities for students to go into the community and learn by working with adults.
Strategies for Children With Special Needs
Parents of students with special needs have been actively involved with teachers and administrators in their children's education for more than 20 years, as the diversity of needs has been recognized and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) have been developed to meet them. In fact, many of the suggestions in this book have already been successful in meeting the requirements of families who have children with special needs.
Parents of children with special needs often feel isolated and uncertain about their children's future. Schools can help parents find the facts and support they need to understand that they are not alone and that help is available within the community as well as the school. Teachers can help parents feel comfortable discussing their children's future by listening to the parents--who know their children better than anyone else--and by explaining school programs and answering questions in words that parents can easily understand.
What Administrators Can Do
Teachers and parents need support from schools and the community to help children with special needs reach their full potential. Schools can be both a clearinghouse for information and a place where parents can gather to support one another.
Administrators can help teachers and parents by
- establishing parent resource centers to help parents and teachers develop good working relationships;
- provide basic training to help parents understand special education and the role of the family in cooperative planning, as well as offering workshops on topics requested by parents;
- make available up-to-date information and resources for parents and teachers; and
- encourage creation of early childhood and pre-school screening programs, and other community services that can be centered in the schools.
What Teachers Can Do
The relationship between teachers and parents with special needs is defined by specific programs with specific guidelines too detailed to summarize in this book. In addition to these guidelines, some general advice is available for teachers, including:
- make it clear to parents that you accept them as advocates who have an intense desire to make life better for their children;
- provide parents with information about support groups, special services in the school and the community, and family-to-family groups;
- offer to give parents referrals to helpful groups;
- encourage parents to organize support systems, pairing families who will complement each other for school activities;
- involve parents in specific projects centered around hobbies or special skills that parents can share with students in one or several classes;
- discuss a child's special talents with parents and use that positive approach as a bridge to discuss other issues.
This page was last updated January 8, 2002 (jca)