Whether you’re helping organize a book fair or cutting out bulletin board hearts for Valentine’s Day, volunteering in your child’s school helps you keep tabs on their learning, and improves the learning experience for all students. But today’s definition of parent involvement is much more than just helping out in class, and some types of involvement reap more benefits than others. Steffen Saifer, director of child and family programs with the Oregon Parent Information Resource Center, would like to see parents and schools redefine parent involvement as a partnership instead of a one-way volunteer experience. “Parent involvement implies that you’re at school, and are putting in volunteer hours,” says Saifer, but with working parents’ busy schedules, that’s not always feasible. Using the idea of a parent partnership widens the range of activities that define involvement to include everything parents do at school and at home.
So, how do you make your involvement in your child’s education count? Here’s a guide to things you can do at home and at school:
Stay informed. Read what comes home in their backpacks, go to PTA meetings, and know what’s going on, whether that’s the annual field trip schedule for your first grader, or the school attendance policy for your 12th grader.
Meet the school’s needs. “Education is very much a team process,” says Andrew Houtenville, senior research associate with New Editions, “at times parents are going to be called upon to potentially substitute for things that schools can’t provide.” The prime example is the annual school supply drive, but, every school needs something different, so ask the principal or teacher what they need and how you can help.
Don’t smother. “Let your child be able to experience school the way they need to,” says National PTA President Jan Harp Domene. If your child isn’t comfortable with your volunteering in their classroom, spend time in another class, you’re still improving the overall learning experience.
Be involved every day. It’s that day-to-day engagement, says Houtenville, in what your child is learning that seems to have more impact on achievement than, say, coming to school once in a while or participating in the annual bake sale.
Set them up for success. Make sure your child has space to do home work and limit their TV and computer time. When you set aside a time and a place for work, you’re communicating that you want your kids to do well.
Be proactive. Whether by appointment or note, Saifer suggests giving teachers information about your child that will make it easier for them to individualize the education experience. If your child is a visual learner, for example, let them know that.
But, it’s not just what you do; research has found it also has a lot to do with what you say. Using data from surveys taken by 10th graders, Houtenville and Karen Conway, professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire, found that talking to your kids about what they’re studying in school and what they’re interested in has an impact. Their study found that talking to a child about what she was studying in school could produce an improvement in student achievement equivalent to spending an extra $1,000 a year on that child’s education.
The message: Talk to your kids and don’t stop. “Even in 10th grade it matters that you regularly talk to your kids about what they’re doing in school,” says Conway, who has a 9th grader of her own and reminds herself of this research often. Conway doesn’t know why conversations make such a difference, but, “I think that some of it is the signal to kids that [education is] important.”
But sometimes conversations about school can seem like a one-way street. Here are some tips for clearing the lines of communication with your child:
Don’t stop as they get older. Elementary schools often do more to help parents become involved than middle or high schools. But, says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships with Johns Hopkins University, parents need to continue that involvement into middle school and high school. Know that just because your child may not be excited to see you, doesn’t mean they don’t want you there.
Provide age-appropriate involvement. Take advantage of the opportunities, advises Epstein, whether that’s helping in a kindergarteners’ classroom or attending a high schooler’s football games. But, don’t be overly excited to see a middle or high school student, they may not want to be hugged in the hallway.
Discuss content. In the upper grades, if the general, “How was school today?” gets you nowhere, ask what they did in math, or how the science lab went. Specific questions will get you more information.