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.

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.

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:

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

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 Workshops

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.

Identify Resources

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.

Recruit Participants

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

Evaluate Success

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.

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.

Welcome Parents

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:

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:

Reach Out to Specific Groups

Secondary schools are attempting to reach out to special groups of families to address their specific needs:

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.

Provide Assistance

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

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:


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