What Schools Want Parents to Know

— The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Updated on Jul 9, 2010


During the past several years, the topic of how to increase parent and family involvement in schools has been the subject of many research studies, articles, and speeches. It is likely that every school in the country devotes some portion of its annual plan to explaining how it will increase parent involvement. Yet as widely used as this term is, its meaning isn’t always clear. Some equate involvement with chaperoning field trips or volunteering for PTA committees. Others define it as attendance at an open house or signing homework folders.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act (2002) provides a very specific definition that answers the question “What is parent involvement?” It defines parental involvement as “the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities” (Sec. 9101 [32]). Parents, the law suggests, should be full partners in their child’s education, play a key role in assisting in their child’s learning, and be encouraged to be actively involved at school (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Phrases in this definition such as two-way, key role, and full partners reinforce the notion that parents are entitled to participate with the school in their children’s education and that they should. To encourage that participation, this month’s newsletter summarizes five important points about involvement that every parent should know. 

Parent Involvement Makes a Difference for Students

The research is in, and it is clear. Study after study has shown that the involvement of parents and families in the schooling of their children makes a significant difference. Regardless of income and background, students with parents who are involved in their academic careers are more likely to earn high grades and test scores, enroll in higher level programs, and be promoted. These students attend school regularly, show improved behavior, adapt well to school, and have better social skills (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). The findings hold true across all segments of society—poor, minority, and middle class. All students do better when their parents are involved in their school lives, and “Parent and community involvement that is linked to student learning has a greater effect on achievement than more general forms of involvement” (p. 38).

Parents Don’t Have to Come to School to be Involved

For parents, being involved doesn’t have to mean being at school every day. In fact, it doesn’t necessarily mean going to the school at all. Parents can have a positive effect on student achievement by promoting learning at home and reinforcing what is taught in school (Henderson & Berla, 1994).

Most schools and teachers are eager to provide parents with concrete and practical suggestions for how they can support their child’s education at home, even if they rarely come to the building. The following list based on suggestions from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (2002) provides a starting point. It suggests that parents do the following:

  • Read with, to, and in the presence of, their children. Parents who read encourage the practice and allow children to see firsthand that reading is valuable, useful, or enjoyable. Newspapers, magazines, instruction manuals, or cereal boxes—it doesn’t matter. Public and school libraries are readily available sources of free materials.
    • Reinforce the value of a family routine involving homework, meals, and a regular bedtime. Children thrive on structure. Conversation during dinner helps improve children’s language skills—both their understanding of what they hear and their ability to express themselves.
  • Monitor the use of television, help children choose what to watch, watch TV with them, and talk to them about what they have seen.
  • Offer praise and encouragement to their children. Kind words and constructive criticism play an important role in influencing children to become successful learners.

If parents can spend time at school, there is always plenty to be done. Parents make effective liaisons, and their contact with other families gives the school an additional way to communicate important information about upcoming events and assignments. They can lead discussion groups and workshops on topics from homework assistance to sibling rivalry. Some schools create a parent “buddy” program in which parents new to the school are assigned to veterans who help acquaint them with processes and procedures. Author Laurence Steinberg (1997) notes that high school students especially benefit from their parents’ participation in activities conducted at school. These include coming to programs presented by the school, attending extracurricular activities, and participating in “back to school” nights. 

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