I am a firm believer in parents/families/caregivers engagement in the school community, and, by extension, in their children’s learning experience and success at school. Families who talk with their children about their day at school, who support and continue the learning at home, who actively communicate with teachers and the school, and who volunteer their time to participate in various opportunities at school are all examples of engaged and aware parents/families. That’s all great, but for me, the real question is how can we support parents/families who are NOT able to engage in many of the above opportunities at home or at school? Do we provide support to (is it our responsibility to support) parents/families so that they too can support their children’s learning at home? Do we need to reconstruct/redefine what engagement looks like? Is our engagement with parents/families co-constructed and, if not, where do we begin and who will be at the discussion table? I think it’s important to shift our focus from getting parents/families into the school to supporting them at home.
How can we support parents/families to support student learning at home?
One of the things that has worked well for me was my focus on building strong relationships with parents/families and trying to understand their lived experiences, the systemic barriers they face on a daily basis and their diverse needs. Regular communication between school and home helped me to build trust, to break down barriers and also to create strong learning partnerships. I believe that students achieve greater emotional, psychological and academic success when they are able to see and benefit from an effective reciprocal partnership between home and school. Building a trusting partner relationship allowed me to better understand the underlying challenges students were facing at school, and by working in partnership with their parents/families, we were able to create greater opportunities for student success at school and at home. Parents/families were more likely to engage when they felt valued, acknowledged, respected and were seen as equal partners in their children’s learning and development. For me the learning that happened at home extended to school and vice versa. Now, how do we create that same opportunity for all of our students, parents and families?
Another thing I did was to collaborate with community organizations to further enhance efforts at school to support parent interests and student needs. Public libraries, health services, community centres, community sports/clubs, religious organizations and so on can offer an array of programs and services that can support student learning, student mental-health and help bridge the support gap between home and school. I was able to connect with many of these programs and services throughout the years and they have been instrumental in providing additional support to students and parents/families. At times, it might be necessary/helpful to go above and beyond to make those connections possible. That decision can sometimes be difficult for educators to make, but often results in greater success when it comes to parental engagement, student success and well-being. Helping parents access these programs deepened my connections with families in my community and contributed to building a multi-directional and reciprocal approach to student success. I believe that when parents/families feel supported at home they are more likely to support their children’s learning and development at school.
Helping parents/families understand their roles as co-educators in their children’s learning was also something I did to further enhance the learning that took place at home. One of the things I had to consider was how to communicate with and support parents/families from diverse linguistic backgrounds with limited comprehension of the English language. For the most part, I had access to interpreters, when needed, through my school board and I was able to share important information and documents with parents/families in their native language. Unfortunately, not every family, staff or school board has access to the same level of multilingual support in the province of Ontario. That is concerning to me and it’s something I hope will change in the near future. In the meantime, there are many other important roles parents/families can play in supporting their children’s learning at home such as being an active listener, a mentor, a coach, and an advocate for their children’s rights as well as their social, emotional and academic needs. I was able to work with many parents/families to develop strategies for student success at home. It was important to me to ensure that the parental engagement strategies we co-constructed were culturally relevant, responsive and differentiated to meet the needs of the individual families and improve student achievement. However, equitable access to interpreters and important documents in diverse languages continue to be a barrier for many parents/families across Ontario. This is something I hope principals, superintendents and executive members of each school board in Ontario seriously address in order to close the inequity gaps for our parents/families.
Here are some of the things I considered when Co-Constructing Parent Engagement Strategies – Focused on Student Learning
- Build strong, respectful relationships with parents/families to better understand their needs
- Identify and help remove systemic barriers to parent engagement that may prevent some parents/families from fully participating in their children’s learning at home and at school
- Provide resources and materials (including texts, digital resources and community organizations/connections) on ways to support children at home
- Regularly communicate information about their children’s progress, including their successes, strengths and needs – keep in mind parents/families busy schedules and other factors that might limit their ability to communicate regularly
- Encourage parents/families to also support children in other ways such as active listening, encouraging, guiding, monitoring, discussing and asking questions that promote courageous conversations and critical thinking
- Create classroom opportunities that encourage parents/families and students to work together on tasks that are culturally relevant and have real-life applications