Engaging & Involving School Parents
By: Devorah Heitner, Raising Digital Natives
In my work with schools, I’ve seen many happily engaged parent communities. But sometimes, things go wrong--often unexpectedly. School roll out initiatives that they think will benefit students and parents feel out of the loop. Sometimes parents get confused or upset. Or parents use social media to discuss frustrations with a school decision, without communicating directly with administrators and teachers.
What's going wrong? Instead of reacting defensively to the criticism that parents express, schools can do research to better understand parents' concerns. When parents have concerns, they should do research too. Who put in place the policy that you object to. Was there a reason offered? Find out as much as you can BEFORE diving into a crusade!
Focus groups are a great technique to truly uncover and understand parents' perspectives. If the school is changing its approach to grading, parents will need a LOT of help understanding the reasons and what this means for their kids. Anxiety is a typical response to a big change in the what many parents see as the most important indicator of how their child is doing in school. Surveys can miss the nuances, focus groups allow you to delve deeper into particular issues. It's often difficult for parents to see the wider benefits of such initiatives.
When you have a new initiative, consider bringing in an outside voice to speak to parents. You could bring a speaker about new approaches to educational technology and digital citizenship, standards based grading, nutrition, bullying, student voice, sex education, etc. Anything new happening at school is worth several community-wide conversations, as well as smaller group chats, social media engagement and possibly even an old-school flier or bulletin board display! Some events can be led by parents, some by school personell, and others by an outside speaker.
Finally, schools need to be sure there is a place for parent feedback. Sometimes administrators get upset when parents use district social media to air their concerns….but they haven’t always made a more appropriate space available. If schools do make a parent feedback page or regular coffee with the principal or other mechanism available, they should make sure to publicize the results so the wider community knows that feedback is responded to! Crucially, empowering teachers to address parental concerns will go a long way toward successful implementation. Parents first line of communication with school is usually their child’s teacher.
Ultimately, keeping parents engaged and informed about what’s happening at school is an ongoing and dynamic process. Very often, a few small changes can have a huge impact on improving parent engagement and improving the tone of parent-school communication!
About the Author: Devorah Heitner, PhD is the founder and director of Raising Digital Natives, a resource for parents and schools seeking advice on how to help children thrive in a world of digital connectedness. 17,000 people have viewed her recent TEDx on Empathy in the Digital Age. An experienced speaker, workshop leader, and parent coach, Dr. Heitner speaks at schools across the United States. She is writing a handbook for parents, titled, “Raising Your Digital Native.” Dr. Heitner has a Ph.D. in Media/Technology and Society from Northwestern University she is delighted to be raising her own digital native, too.