Encouraging parents’ involvement in their children’s education is as American as apple pie. In fact, there is widespread support for the national education goal that states: “By the year 2000, every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.”
Research can play an important role in developing effective school-family-partnership programs. Two informative findings from our own research, for example, have practical implications for intervention. First, the quality of parent-teacher relationships, rather than the quantity of contacts, relates to improved student achievement and behavior. And second, teacher outreach to parents and parent perceptions of how welcome their involvement is are far more important than demographic factors such as race or socioeconomic status in determining parent involvement.
These findings emphasize that improving the constructiveness of parent-teacher relationships and increasing the ways in which teachers can influence parents’ perceptions and practices are the keys to establishing effective partnerships between schools and families. Yet national surveys of parents and teachers show that several obstacles impede the implementation of parent-involvement activities. Two barriers are the most frequently cited: lack of training and lack of time. Only a small percentage of teachers, for example, report that they received any specific preservice training on parent involvement. Few colleges of education offer such a course. Beyond that, the teachers note that they already have multiple tasks to complete within a restricted time frame and with limited resources.
Given these realities, priority must be given to assisting teachers in overcoming these barriers to establish effective partnerships with parents.
The school-family-partnership project at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a collaborative site of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Laboratory for Student Success at Temple University in Philadelphia, has been developing strategies and materials for teachers in an effort to cut down on time constraints and increase the awareness of issues involved in parent-teacher relationships. Our programming highlights three focal points for intervention: two-way, reciprocal, home-school communication; parent involvement in children’s learning at home; and parent participation at school. Through work with parents and teachers, we have identified seven important ingredients to partnership-building. We apply this “seven-P’s philosophy” to our development of strategies and tools:
- Partnership as a priority: Both parents and teachers have multiple demands on their time, so each school needs to define for itself the types of partnerships that are most important and then set priorities for interventions that target them. Schools with mission statements that highlight the importance of home-school relationships communicate their commitment to including parents as collaborators in the education of children. But effective implementation of the mission statement requires the necessary resources, as well as training to support the school personnel who put parent involvement into practice. Schools also should find ways to systematically recognize positive school-family-partnership efforts by both teachers and parents.
- Planned effort: Effective school-family partnerships are carefully planned and implemented. Assessing at the beginning of the school year parents’ needs, views, and patterns of school involvement is an essential first step. Such an assessment accomplishes two goals: It helps the teacher plan parent-outreach efforts more effectively, while at the same time conveying to parents the important message that their perspective is valued and will be used by the school. We have developed assessment tools that educators can use before the school year begins to set their school-family-partnership goals and devise strategies to achieve them. Planning is as essential for the success of teacher outreach to parents as it is for the implementation of the curriculum. And the same road-map principle applies to both: If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know when you’ve arrived.
- Proactive and persistent communication: Regular, continuous communication with parents throughout the school year about class rules, expectations, and goals will involve them in the educational process in meaningful ways. Informing parents about classroom routines, such as weekly quizzes, and how they can help at home, involves parents and provides them with structured opportunities to be a part of their child’s education. Home-school communications can become even more effective if parents and teachers identify the best ways (for example, phone calls, notes, or a home-school journal) and times they can be reached. This minimizes the frustration both parents and teachers have when they are not able to make contact with each other and, more important, makes sure that the message gets through. Using a variety of approaches and follow-up communications can increase the number of parents educators reach. And it maintains the flow of information that can lead to a child’s improved academic and social performance.
- Positive: Our research shows that teachers are more likely to communicate with parents when their children misbehave. But it’s important to let them know when their child is performing successfully. In this way, communication from school is not automatically labeled as “bad news.” And the positive input can be an indication to parents that the teacher sees the whole child, not just his or her areas of weakness. This in turn provides a broader context to parents, who will then be in a better position to receive news of any concerns the teacher may need to share with them. Teachers participating in our program noted that parents were thrilled to receive good news about their children and that the good feeling built up through such positive reporting made them more responsive and willing to listen to teacher concerns and suggestions.
This positive style of communication establishes a constructive tone in home-school relationships and makes it easier for parents and teachers to work together for the child’s benefit. The dissemination of positive news fosters congenial interactions, not only between parents and teachers, but also between parents and children. Parents who receive good news from school have more opportunities to discuss the successful experiences with their children and be actively involved with them in positive ways. And positive communication is often a two-way street: Parents, by offering positive feedback to teachers, recognize and reinforce the teachers’ efforts.
- Personalized: Providing schoolwide newsletters and general classroom notes serves the important function of keeping parents in touch with school activities and events. But these general types of communication, though a necessary component, do not constitute a sufficient school-home communications program. What draws parents’ attention is specific information about their own child. Teachers who provide parents with specific, concrete examples of their child’s strengths and weaknesses achieve higher levels of collaboration, maximizing the benefits for the child.
Personalized communication can involve a variety of techniques, such as keeping a home-school journal in which parents and teachers inform each other about the child’s achievements and their concerns, jotting quick personalized notes, and having students decorate the notes to draw parents’ attention. Ready-to-use materials can cut down on preparation time and help the teacher personalize communications in an efficient way. Systematically planning for parent-teacher conferences or “report-card pickup” days also enhances opportunities for parents and teachers to share specific information about the child.
- Practical suggestions: Effective school-family-partnership programming extends the learning environment from the classroom to the home and beyond. Teachers can ease this process by offering parents practical and specific suggestions on how they can further assist their child’s education. This will show the parents, who have a desire to help their children, varied and structured strategies for doing that.
Simple suggestions, such as counting the plates and forks while setting the dinner table, can help parents reinforce what their child has learned at school. In this way, knowledge is generalized to various environments, and, through its multiple use, the child can be more confident about his or her schoolwork.
- Program monitoring: School-family-partnership activities can be improved when they are systematically evaluated. Throughout the school year, as part of their planning, teachers need to examine the effectiveness of the strategies and materials they use, ask for parent feedback, and calibrate their practices accordingly. In this way, activities can be fine-tuned continuously and will have greater potential for yielding positive results. An end-of-the-year evaluation also will provide closure for the year’s efforts--and valuable insights for next year’s planning.
Yes, parents and teachers have multiple responsibilities and pressing time demands. The pace of modern life is swift. But educators must recognize that school-family partnerships are integral to the process of learning and the success of schooling. Teachers are the glue that holds the school-family partnership together. With the appropriate support and time-cutting tools, teachers can put this great idea into practice. And by doing so, they will maximize school’s benefits for all the children--and their families.
Evanthia N. Patrikakou and Roger P. Weissberg are professors in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and senior research associates at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Laboratory for Student Success at Temple University in Philadelphia.
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Seven P’s of School-Family Partnerships