Forging Connections with Families, Part 1: Removing Barriers

A recent series of articles published in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel have me thinking about one of my favorite topics—the importance of forging connections between schools and parents.

The articles explore this topic from a number of angles. In the first one, Erin Richards examines some basic research about the importance of parents’ having a role in their children’s education and models that schools in Milwaukee are trying to improve the parent-school relationship. I was especially struck by her statement that:

“The research on parental involvement and best practices developed by those passionate about the issue often boil down to simple actions needed by teachers and school staff: If parents don’t feel welcome at school, they’re not likely to come.”

This issue plays out in small ways, as when parents are not greeted in a friendly way by school office staff, and in larger ways, as when teachers have narrow visions of what parent involvement should look like.

How can we diminish, if not completely remove, some of those barriers?  One way is for us to develop more knowledge and empathy for what many families face. As Richards explores in this and other parts of the series, despite our best intentions and efforts, we teachers often don’t immediately understand the situations some families face.

I know that despite trying to be empathetic, I had many small epiphanies about this issue over the years.  One recent one stands out.  While chit-chatting with a child I tutored, I asked her what she wanted for her upcoming birthday, and she didn’t reply with the list of toys or other playthings I was expecting.  Instead, she told me she hoped to get a bed.  When I asked her where she was sleeping now, she explained that she and her mom were sleeping on the living room floor.  They shared an apartment with another family and all the bedrooms were taken.

I left our talk with a better appreciation of what an extraordinary effort it was for this child’s parents—who each worked at least two jobs—to get their child to these extra tutoring sessions, and with more understanding about why the child often struggled to complete homework, why the parents failed to complete paperwork I sent home, and why conferences were such a struggle to schedule. I made some changes, including letting this student complete homework during school hours.

The more I learned about the families of the students I taught, the more I realized that while yes, there were a few parents (at all socioeconomic levels) who seemed to be choosing not to be involved in their children’s school lives, most wanted to help their children succeed with school.  They often just need help knowing how to do that.

Of course, empathy only gets us so far.  In the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel series, Richards explores some ideas for what to do once we have the right frame of mind and understanding.  Her ideas are worth checking out. If you’re interested in Responsive Classroom resources on this topic, a good place to start might be “Working with Families of Different Cultures,” which is one of the free sample chapters from the book Parents and Teachers Working Together by Carol Davis and Alice Yang.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Family Connections, Working with Families