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What Families Think and What Students Learn

An interesting study crossed my desk this week. A study done by a graduate student seeking an educational specialist degree was comparing parent involvement to math achievement. Nothing particularly new or spectacular in that question, but I always read the abstract. If the abstract captures my interest, I read further.

It was in this abstract that I stumbled across the questions for the study. Once I read the questions I was far more interested in the study than had I stopped at the title. The questions, it turns out, were not about the impact of family engagement on math achievement, but rather the impact parent-perceivedengagement on achievement. Now that’s a very different question. If I were on this committee, I would have suggested a title change.

It turns out that the study found that as parent-perceived parental involvement increased, so too did students’ math achievement scores. This speaks directly to the importance of family efficacy as a conduit not only to more effective family engagement, but to better learning outcomes for students as well.

Families must believe that they add value to the equation of learning. They must believe that they have something of substance to offer; not to just sign an agenda book, or sign the weekly folder, but to be included in the learning by the teacher and placed in a position where their feedback to the teacher is not only meaningful to them as an engaged parent, but important to the teacher as she determines level of learning, instructional planning, etc.

In an important 2003 study, Karen Mapp put it best:

According to the parents, when school personnel initiate and engage in practices that welcome parents to the school, honor their contributions, and connect them to the school community through an emphasis on the children, these practices then cultivate and sustain respectful, caring, and meaningful relationships between parents and school staff.

Perceived value plays a huge role in whether or not relationships to support students will be fruitful. If parents are simply asked to “insure homework is complete,” or “sign the folder or agenda,” or “to make sure your child comes to school prepared,” there is little chance that the necessary relationship to promote perceived value will ever take shape. Parents do not view these directives as a partnership, but rather, as requirements set forth by the teacher. It becomes a compliance issue, not a relational one.

When promoting these ideas to educators, I often hear that parents are “hard-to-reach.” I have always been interested in that term. Who decided they were hard-to-reach? Did they label themselves hard-to-reach? Did they announce at back-to-school night that they were hard-to-reach, so educators shouldn’t bother? Why did we label them hard-to-reach? It’s an interesting question.

Research has found that the vast majority of families who are disengaged from their children’s learning are not difficult, obstructive, or indifferent. Instead of labeling parents hard-to-reach, conclusions were that the schools themselves inhibited accessibility of these parents. It is common for school to set policies and procedures that actually work against fostering relationships with all parents and then complain that parents and families are “hard-to-reach.”

Perceptions of engagement, both of families and educators are very powerful cultural barriers that make this whole notion of hard-to-reach a self-fulfilling prophecy. Interestingly, often the case is that relationships between families and schools, especially those that are difficult or labeled somewhat disengaged, have little to do with family engagement and more to do with school policy and practice.

A good solution is for school personnel to always take an encouraging stance with family members even when they don’t completely understand their position or might even disagree. Encouragement coming from someone with more currency and perceived power can ensure ongoing communication instead of inadvertently shutting it down.

Focus on the emotional well-being of families. Stress, for them, like us, poses a big threat to their efficacy. Anything the school can do to foster calm and reduce tension will help increase families’ ability to make a difference. This might mean providing specific tools or community resources to parents so that they can feel more in control of their lives. Sometimes, just the act of listening can help reduce stress and promote efficacy.

All of this leads us back to the salient point: families who perceive their engagement to be beneficial toward their children’s education and teachers who underscore that efficacy will see improved results in relationships and ultimately student success in school.

And that is what we all want.