Study after study has shown that student achievement improves when parents play an active role in their child’s education and that good schools become even better schools when parents are involved. It is recognised that parent engagement is a key factor in the enhancement of student achievement and well-being.
So why are some parents reluctant to be involved? Schools need to recognise that for some parents, being involved is difficult for various reasons. Perhaps their own schooling created barriers to engaging in their child’s education. Schools need to find ways to support and try to engage these parents, who are generally ‘’invisible’’ in the school community. Many of these parents face overwhelming personal challenges when called upon to cross the ‘’school gate’’.
Whatever causes this disengagement in a child’s education, it will continue right through the school years unless it is addressed. The heart of disengagement with a child is to be blind to certain behaviour and to turn that behaviour into a kind of meaningless white noise. And when the parent begins to get signals – information that would alert the engaged parent – the disengaged parent turns this into white noise, too.
Reinforcing this disengagement is the child. Because the disengaged parent is not involved in the usual parent-child checks and balances, there is an illusory sense of control; the feeling that ‘’I communicate with my child better than other parents’’. In other words, the disengaged parent actually feels more engaged in his or her child’s life. It is true that the disengaged parent knows more disconcerting things about their child’s life than the engaged parent.
The disengaged parent is more likely to know, in a general sense, that their child is ‘’trying marijuana’’, ‘’trying sex’’, ‘’trying drinking’’. Because the disengaged parent is not likely to interfere, as long as the child is merely ‘’trying’’ something, the child is very likely to allow the parent to know this much and thereby convey the idea that the child is being open. In truth, the child is engaged in activities far beyond those he or she allows the parent to know about.
Few parents – perhaps none – want to know everything about their child. We don’t like to admit it but we don’t feel we can deal with every issue, have an answer for every question or can solve every problem. There is a great sense of relief in not hearing about some momentous urgency for which we can offer no way out.
When you look at the research addressing parental engagement, it shows that parents are most likely to become engaged if:
• They understand they should be actively engaged.
• They feel they are capable of making a useful contribution.
• They feel the school and their children want them to be involved.
The most effective parent-engagement programs are guided by these ideas:
• All parents have strengths and know they are important.
• All parents can contribute to their children’s education and the school.
• All parents can learn how to help their children in school.
• All parents have useful ideas and insights about their children.
• Parents should be consulted in all decisions about how to effectively involve parents.
• All parents really do care deeply about their children.
The Australian Council of State School Organisations acknowledges that it takes a community to raise a child. Community engagement has an important role to play in enriching the teaching, learning and development of our children. So it is imperative that teachers move out of the classroom and positively engage with the family, students and the broader community to support a rich and diverse learning experience for all involved in the education of our future leaders.
The Council believes that for this to occur, a paradigm shift is necessary in how we think about parent engagement in schools. The role of the ‘’traditional parent volunteer’’ must be expanded to include a new category of fully engaged parents who influence both student success and the effectiveness of their entire school.
The research shows that what parents do at home to teach respect, instil discipline, model positive behaviours and inspire learning contributes highly to student achievement and success. It also shows that traditional volunteers contribute greatly to the success of schools through fund-raising efforts, engagement in school governance plus classroom support.
We must begin to merge these types of parental involvement if we are to build the types of collaborative parent-school communities in which our children succeed academically and in life.
Only then will our children become the type of parents who model collaboration to their own children and their children’s schools.
President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations.
This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 June, 2011.