When schools tap parental love

The pandemic’s impact on student learning has led educators to break down walls with parents and involve them more in education.

An empty elementary school classroom is seen in 2021 in New York City.

The pandemic’s lingering impact on K-12 education – notably, a record absenteeism among students – has forced American educators to look hard at how they can better engage with parents. Nationwide gaps in student learning, one result of Zoom-only classrooms, still need urgent solutions. The usual home-school connections, such as parent-teacher meetings, are no longer seen as enough. Schools are even challenging a long-held assumption that some parents simply don’t care much about their kids’ schooling.

Money is pouring in to find fresh approaches. The federal government recently spent $83 million to support “family engagement” in public schools. California has approved new standards for teachers in shaping their relationships with parents. Teachers, for example, must examine their attitudes and biases about a family’s background, such as language, social status, or even homelessness.

Private philanthropy is backing different techniques. A survey last year by Grantmakers for Education found that 60% of education funders support efforts to help families become more involved in their children’s education. Half of those funders said they plan to give more for the cause.

Many successes in shaping a more sensitive school engagement with parents have resulted in at least one conclusion: “Families really care,” Elisabeth O’Bryon, co-founder of Family Education Lab, told Education Week. Her nonprofit helps school districts successfully include family engagement with curriculum.

A former school psychologist, Dr. O’Bryon said in an interview that parents clearly “want information about what their kids are learning and how they can help.” The changes can be as simple as requiring fewer apps for parents to download. Communication can be more fluid, such as using texting. Demands for in-person meetings can be more flexible. Home visits by teachers to establish better relationships can build trust.

A recent study found that schools that scored high on family involvement before the pandemic saw a 39% smaller increase in chronic absenteeism. Those schools also showed less decline in math and English. “With family engagement you see positive outcomes with behavior, motivation, high school graduation, so it’s really wide-ranging – the positive benefits of that engagement with their child’s learning,” Dr. O’Bryon says.

With an approach of giving and problem-solving, family engagement is a team effort well worth the buy-in from all sides. Parental love is there. It just needs better ways to blossom.

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