Chapter Eight: Parents and Families, Communities and Schools
Collaboration among parents, families, and schools can take many forms; in fact, effectiveness is likely to be predicated on families being able to assume a variety of roles based on their specific needs and the particular conditions of each school. For many years, some of the most comprehensive research and writing in this area has been carried out by Joyce Epstein with the Centre on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children’s Learning in the United States. In a classic article, Epstein (1995) suggested six main types of partnerships among parents, families, communities, and schools relating to:
- learning at home;
- decision making; and
- collaborating with the community.
Each of these approaches is summarized in Box 8.2, and with the exception of issues related to Epstein’s category of decision making, which have already been discussed in Chapter Two, and issues of collaborating with the community, which are given special attention in the second half of this chapter, each is discussed briefly below.
It is not the task of teachers or schools to dictate to parents how to raise their children. Nevertheless, schools at all grade levels can play an important supporting role in helping families provide for their children’s health and safety, and the development of parenting skills that complement children’s growth and experiences in school. Examples of such activities might include the early childhood centre described in the prologue to this chapter; invitations to parents to join teachers for workshops on issues such as conflict resolution, adolescent relationships, learning styles, or peer tutoring; the operating of food banks or clothing exchanges through the school; or the use of community liaison workers to assist with the reception and settlement of new families into a school’s neighbourhood.
Expressed in simple terms, school–home and home–school communication refers to the need for schools to transmit messages and share meanings with parents about school programs and children’s progress. Such endeavours are rarely simple. In a few primarily rural settings large amounts of such communication still occur with relative ease and informality. Parents and teachers who share many common experiences and expectations of the school meet frequently and comfortably in their everyday lives in the community. Yet these circumstances are increasingly the exception. In an urban community, large schools draw students from geographically, economically, and culturally diverse neighbourhoods that are often quite distinct from those of their teachers. In such contexts, interactions do not occur frequently; nor can common experiences and expectations of schools be taken for granted. Effective communication between home and school is unlikely to occur unless it is formally initiated, promoted, and respectfully nurtured by the school. Today the phrase “hard-to-reach parents” is often used, but we also need to understand the parent perspective that defines the issue differently as “hard-to-reach schools.”
Type 1. Parenting
Help all families establish home environments to support children as students.
- Suggestions for home conditions that support learning at each grade level.
- Workshops, videotapes, computerized phone messages on parenting and child rearing at each age and grade level.
- Parent education and other courses or training for parents (e.g., GED, college credit, family literacy).
- Family support programs to assist families with health, nutrition, and other services.
Type 2. Communicating
Design effective forms of school-to-home and home-to-school communications about school programs and children’s progress.
- Conferences with every parent at least once a year, with follow-ups as needed.
- Language translators to assist families as needed.
- Weekly or monthly folders of student work sent home for review and comments.
- Parent–student pickup of report card, with conferences on improving grades.
- Regular schedule of useful notices, memos, phone calls, newsletters, and other communications.
- Clear information on choosing schools or courses, programs, and activities within schools.
- Clear information on all school policies, programs, reforms, and transitions.
Type 3. Volunteering
Recruit and organize parent help and support.
- School and classroom volunteer program to help teachers, administrators, students, and other parents.
- Parent room or family centre for volunteer work, meetings, and resources for families.
- Annual postcard survey to identify all available talents, times, and locations of volunteers.
- Class parent, telephone tree, or other structures to provide all families with needed information.
- Parent patrols or other activities to aid safety and operation of school programs.
Type 4. Learning at Home
Provide information and ideas to families about how to help students at home with homework and other curriculum-related activities, decisions, and planning.
- Information for families on skills required for students in all subjects at each grade.
- Information on homework policies and how to monitor and discuss schoolwork at home.
- Information on how to assist students to improve skills on various class and school assessments.
- Regular schedule of homework that requires students to discuss and interact with families on what they are learning in class.
- Calendars with activities for parents and students at home.
- Family math, science, and reading activities at school.
- Summer learning packets or activities.
- Family participation in setting student goals each year and in planning for college or work.
Type 5. Decision-Making
Include parents in school decisions, developing parent leaders and representatives.
- Active PTA/PTO or other parent organizations, advisory councils, or committees (e.g., curriculum, safety, personnel) for parent leadership and participation.
- Independent advocacy groups to lobby and work for school reform and improvements.
- District-level councils and committees for family and community involvement.
- Information on school or local elections for school representatives.
- Networks to link all families with parent representatives.
Type 6. Collaborating with Community
Identify and integrate resources and services from the community to strengthen school programs, family practices, and student learning and development.
- Information for students and families on community health, cultural, recreational, social support, and other programs or services.
- Information on community activities that link to learning skills and talents, including summer programs for students.
- Service integration through partnerships involving school; civic, counselling, cultural, health, recreation, and other agencies and organizations; and businesses.
- Service to the community by students, families, and schools (e.g., recycling, art, music, drama, and other activities for seniors or others).
- Participation of alumni in school programs for students.
Source. Epstein, J. L. (1995). School/family/community partnerships: Caring for the children we share. Phi Delta Kappan, 76(5), 701–12. Reproduced with permission.
D’Angelo and Adler (1991) refer to effective communication as “a magnet that draws together the spheres of influence that affect children’s lives: school, home, community and the peer group” (p. 350). They categorize such communication into written communication (memos, newsletters, report cards); face-to-face communication (conferences, home visits); and technological communication (recorded telephone or e-mail messages, computerized attendance call-backs, homework hotlines, and videos). Some schools have now begun to develop comprehensive strategies for home–school communication, making creative use of multiple forms of communication from each of these categories. In this process, the importance of carefully planned, ongoing, face-to-face interactions that begin early in a child’s school career (or even prior to the start of their formal schooling) is generally acknowledged. Such interactions have the most potential for establishing and nurturing personal relationships of confidence and trust, which can then be reinforced with other forms of communication.
Involving Parents/Caregivers in Schools
Most schools, especially elementary schools, make some use of parents as volunteers, although these activities are often left to the initiative of the individual teacher and remain largely unstructured at the school level. A parent volunteer may work in specific classrooms as an aide to the teacher; in the library, cafeteria, or on the playground; or at special events such as field trips or fundraisers.
Working one-on-one with students as a teacher aide, in addition to enhancing the educational productivity of the classroom, has the potential to provide parents with teaching skills that may be directly transferable to their home situation and their own children. Furthermore, while it may be impossible for many parents to be in school during the day, the normal presence of parents in the school may have other substantial benefits.
A key element in many efforts to develop parent involvement in the daily life of schools has been the setting aside of space in the building for a parents’ centre, which serves as a place for parents to meet and work, allows for face-to-face contact between parents and teachers, provides materials for parents to take home, and facilitates a substantial and coordinated parent presence in the school.
Involving Parents/Caregivers in Learning Activities at Home
Aside from the initiatives to promote work with parents in schools, there are the school-initiated strategies, involving all or most parents, that attempt to increase the “educational effectiveness” of the time that children spend with their parents. Such strategies may include activities designed to reinforce specific learning strategies that are closely linked to the work that students do in their classrooms and/or general skills and behaviours such as study habits and problem-solving abilities.
Becker and Epstein (1982) identify a large number of such strategies, and classify them as follows:
- techniques that involve reading and books;
- techniques that involve discussions between parents and children;
- techniques based on informal activities and games;
- tutoring and teaching techniques; and
- formal contracts between parents and children.
Probably the most common and frequently evaluated forms of home-based learning activities involve parents, or other family members, reading to or being read to by their children in the early grades of their school careers.
Initiatives such as these, though relatively common in the early grades of school, become increasingly rare as grade level increases. One reason for the decline is that parents tend to become less confident of their ability to help their children; as well, without direction and support from the school, such forms of parent collaboration tend to taper off and disappear (even though the research suggests that it can remain important to student learning). Quite a few provinces have now created materials to help parents in this way, including Manitoba and Ontario – these materials can usually be found on provincial websites.
Joyce Epstein, co-director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools and Children’s Learning, and Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, suggests the following key themes from recent research on improving parent–school collaboration:
- Programs at all levels reveal similarities between parents and educators where differences were once assumed. Parents and teachers are finding that they share common goals and need to share more information if they are to reach those goals.
- Programs must continue across the years of childhood and adolescence. Educators … now recognize the importance of school–family connections through the high-school grades.
- Programs must include all families, including those traditionally considered to be “hard to reach.”
- Programs make teachers’ jobs easier and make them more successful with students.
- Program development is not quick. Long-term and sensitive work is needed for real progress in partnerships.
- Special grants have been an important catalyst in the United States for innovations in parent involvement.
- Family–school coordinators (under whatever title) may be crucial to the success of programs to link schools, parents, and communities. Coordinators guide school staffs, provide in-service training for educators, offer services to parents, and perform other tasks that promote partnerships.
- Parent centres in the school or in the community are important ways of making parents feel welcome.
- Even with rooms for parents, practices need to emphasize reaching and involving families without requiring them to come frequently to the school.
- Technology can help improve many types of involvement.
- There are still vast gaps in our knowledge that can be filled only by rigorous research and evaluation of particular types of school–family connections in support of children’s learning.
Source. Epstein, J. L. (1991). Paths to partnership. Phi Delta Kappan, 345–9. Reproduced with permission.