Parental Involvement in the School Setting

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As the diversity of the United States school system continues to grow, the educators of today are increasingly strained to provide the best education possible for every child. Regardless of the physical assets or funding a school may have, essential resources remain: the parents of the students. But with the changing demographics of students' families and more hectic schedules, is the room mother (or father) expectation many teachers might have realistic in today's society?

In particular areas of the country, it is more common to see stay-at-home mothers or fathers, or parents with flexible work schedules, due to greater affluence. It is typically this type of individual that we associate with room mothers (or fathers) who are helping in the classroom. While all socioeconomic groups stand to benefit from parental involvement in the schools, Lam (2002) acknowledges that parent involvement helps "provide students with the attention and resources they lack from school." Schools with less money, then, should benefit most from the activity of parents in the classroom. When teachers in urban or rural classrooms lack books or materials, parents can come to the rescue by becoming involved at school.

Schools that are becoming more racially diverse can reap great benefits from parental involvement. Hill et al. (2004) found that parent involvement in academics related positively to achievement for African American students. For urban, low-income students in the Head Start program, involvement of parents in the schools helped improve conduct behaviors, hyperactivity, and a lack of attention. This is particularly true when involvement in the school accompanies educational support at home. (Fantuzzo, McWayne, and Perry 2004)

The issue that arises is that many parents in the communities in need do not have the ability to help in the traditional sense. For example, parents in an underprivileged area may be working multiple jobs to sustain their families, and it is not an option to spend an hour a week with his or her student's classroom. Or immigrant parents may feel unable to help because they do not speak the language used in the school. And maybe the parents are ashamed about their own level of academic attainment and their inability to help their children with schoolwork.

A 2004 study by Hill et al. found that parent involvement in school from 7th through 11th grade helped decrease behavioral problems, which in turn related to achievement and aspirations. However, this was only the case for parents with higher educational levels themselves. For the lower parental education group, the only aspect classroom involvement helped was with aspirations. One reason for this result may be a cyclical process identified in a study by Englund et al. (2004) Parents who themselves are well-educated will provide better instruction to their children prior to schooling. This educational support early in life correlates with a higher IQ, and a higher IQ increases parent expectations for their child and parent involvement in the classroom. Contradictory evidence exists as well, stating that parents' education levels do not affect their involvement in schools, because education may be a confounding factor with employment, time, or other variables.

An example of how the typical parental involvement scheme of some teachers doesn't work is evidenced in Martinez and Valazquez's 2000 article on Hispanic migrant workers. They write that teachers typically hold the expectation that parent involvement in their children's education should revolve around preparing children for school, coming to school-sponsored events, and doing activities the teacher requests. However, the life circumstances of many Hispanic migrant workers prevent them from fulfilling this role. When these individuals lack time, fluency in English, and educational attainment, they find they are unable to meet teacher expectations. It is not that they are unwilling - it is that they are incapable given their situation.

Evidence shows that getting parents involved in their children's schools can only lead to positive results, but many parents in our multicultural society are unable to mirror the typical "involved parent" image many teachers hold as a standard. Influences of employment can hinder the time available for helping in the classroom, and embarrassment about educational level or language proficiency deter those who would otherwise be able to be active in the classroom. An essay by Cotton and Wickelund (1989) points out that parents from disadvantaged backgrounds can make a difference and feel worthwhile in the classroom if given proper training and encouragement by the school administration and teacher.

While educators learn how to better address the needs of students in the diverse classroom, the needs and desires of parents should be considered a central factor in the success of these children. To improve the involvement of parents in schools, teachers should think outside of the typical meetings and chaperoning field trip roles that only certain parents can afford to fulfill. An article in Parents magazine describes options such as maintaining a school web page or staffing a homework hotline. Parents who speak non-English languages could help communicate assignments with students who speak the same language. Teachers can videotape or televise meetings and events so people who are not free during the school day can see them at a time more convenient for them.

Addressing the needs of the family and community as a whole is another way to encourage involvement by a diverse population, as advocated in an Education World online article. Creating a family center at the school to encourage communication allows parents to stop by the school at their convenience. Family needs can be assessed to provide for greater care for the family unit and community. For example, if a family needs social service referrals or improved access to healthcare, the school can act as a liaison to ensure that these basic needs are met. Children can learn better in schools when they are healthy and supported, and trust between the parents and the school can be established when families know the children are being cared for even beyond the school day. Finally, allowing parents and families to participate in the ways in which they feel comfortable can make being involved a less daunting task.

Teachers and administrators understand that creating a supportive educational environment for their students is the first step toward academic success. While it is difficult to control exactly how the parent-child interaction occurs outside of the classroom, research shows that getting parents involved in the classroom can help children of all backgrounds reach their educational goals. However, there is a need for change in the eyes of educators as to what defines "parental involvement." As our communities evolve and become increasingly diverse, it is essential to be aware of the reservations parents may have about being active in school. Thus it is the school's responsibility to evaluate the needs of the community and the skills parents can provide, and then provide parents with the flexibility, accommodations, and encouragement necessary to include all parents in the educational system.