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'Parents Will Need To Own The Task'

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When we began to encourage the involvement of parents in the work of schools as part of our Yale Child Study Center School Development Program in 1968, many educators said, "The parents should raise them. We will teach them."

Today, parent involvement is a national education goal, yet its purpose is not always clear. In fact, it's fuzzy to the point of being a problem. That lack of clarity can lead to adversarial relationships or poor parent participation in spite of the calls for cooperation.

Parents and teachers are child developers. When the work of parents in schools is designed to enable them to help the school staff support the development of their children, they will get involved.

Parents will need to own the task--as full partners with the school staff in participatory school management. If a parent-involvement program is designed or implemented without their contributions, they're not likely to be enthusiastic. Even initial excitement will fade.

Children grow along many developmental pathways, but five or six of them are critical for adequate academic learning: physical, social interactive, psychoemotional, moral, linguistic, and the intellectual-cognitive. The linguistic and intellectual-cognitive pathways are most closely related to academic learning. But development along all the others makes possible the interaction and bond between teacher and student that enables the teacher and other school people to promote social and academic learning.

As parents interact with their children from birth to school-age, they help them grow along all of these pathways. They can--and should--continue to do so as their children's formal education begins.

The most critical task of elementary school is to enable children to acquire the desire, habits, and skills that enable them to gain pleasure from problem-solving or completed tasks. This requires a classroom and building climate in which students feel safe, cared about, and capable.

A good social climate in the school can meet these student needs as much as, and sometimes even more than, the instructional program. Academic success can enhance the benefits of a good school climate. And a healthy school climate can minimize the stress and difficulty of a demanding instructional program. Parents and staff together can help create such an environment.

Thematic, project-based, cooperative, and collaborative learning approaches that have developed over the past few years--while not always based on knowledge of child development--are, nonetheless, well-suited to promote such development. Activities--fairs, festivals, contests, and the like--can create an industrious but user-friendly school environment. The activities can be structured to have real-world relevance, such as "stores" or election campaigns that engage parents and other adults. By pointing to adult tasks and expectations, these learning activities become more meaningful.

Parents can help plan such activities, set goals for them, and implement and review them. Parents bring knowledge of their children's experiences and needs, and their presence makes the activities all the more meaningful. All of this increases the likelihood of children gaining pleasure in the completion of tasks and problem-solving.

We've heard some educators indicate that such approaches may be useful for low-income children, but that they aren't necessary for children from families above the poverty line. However, the growing number of social and behavior problems among middle-income children indicate that all young people need more support for development.

This holds true for older children as well. The nature of young children encourages parents and teachers to pay attention to their developmental needs even when it's informal and not a part of the instructional program. But we tend to declare middle and high school students "grown." We consider them responsible for their own behavior without creating school conditions that promote development and desirable behavior. In this complex age, young people need parent and school support for their development at the middle and high school levels as much as--perhaps more than--in elementary school.

In the middle and high schools, some of the critical tasks for students are to find autonomy and to cultivate a sense of adequacy as individuals, both in groups and in intergroup relations. This requires establishing social and psychological distance from adults, which often leads to excessive testing and rebellious behavior.

Parents and staff need to design ways to assist without being intrusive and to use student ideas, initiatives, and projects so that young people become agents of their own growth and learning.

Rather than try to control students, we need to mentor and support them. Parents, students, and staff working together can put the focus on teaching and learning, and on preparation for life in the real world. Cooperation should improve performance on the part of everyone.

But before parents can work successfully in schools, structures and practices must be developed that promote good interaction among parents, students, and staff. We have found that a governance mechanism that includes representatives from all the players in a school can make this possible.

Guidelines that promote problem-solving, collaboration, and consensus-building will help. Finally, the governance body must keep the program focus on student development in a way that enables parents to help their children grow. With such a focus, parent participation will be eager and useful.

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