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How schools can support parents in helping their kids

Rather than asking parents to reinforce what we do in schools, we need to find ways to reinforce what parents can do to be effective parents.

At the start of the current school year, I was struck by the number of superintendents, principals and other educational leaders across the country who called on parents to get more involved in their children’s learning. I also noted that many of them promised to make family engagement a key component of their efforts to support students and improve schools.

Kent Pekel

But now that the time for parent-teacher conferences has arrived and parent advisory committees are beginning their work, I bet that in many schools it is only the usual suspects who are showing up. As a former classroom teacher who, despite my best efforts, experienced low levels of parent involvement, I know it’s tempting to interpret this tepid response as evidence that most parents are not deeply concerned about their children’s education. But the work that I am now doing at the nonprofit research organization Search Institute has led me to believe that a different, more important, dynamic is at work.

As educators, we often emphasize the wrong things when we urge parental involvement. Rather than asking parents to reinforce what we do in schools, we need to find ways to reinforce what parents can do to be effective parents.

Most family engagement efforts focus on getting parents to help with homework or to participate in a range of activities at school. For example, the U.S. Department of Education tracks parent involvement based primarily on the following indicators: Did parents meet with their child’s teacher, attend a general school meeting, volunteer at the school, serve on a committee, or attend a school event at least once during the school year.

All of those are potentially valuable endeavors, but many parenting adults don’t have the time, skills, or desire to serve as their children’s first teachers or to help improve the curriculum or climate in their schools. In contrast, almost all parents are ready, willing and able to influence something that really matters to their children’s success: the quality of their family relationships.

‘Don’t Forget the Families’

It is not particularly novel to say that parent-child relationships matter, but it is new to suggest that schools should help families strengthen them. Evidence for adopting that approach comes from a just-released Search Institute study, “Don’t Forget the Families.” Based on a national survey of a diverse sample of 1,085 parents of 3- to 13-year-olds, our research underscores the powerful role that parent-child relationships play in children’s learning and development.

When parenting adults (including foster parents, stepparents and others) reported building relationships with children that feature high levels of five actions, they were also significantly more likely to report that their children have developed key character strengths, including perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control and the ability to work well with others. A growing body of research demonstrates that such character strengths are as influential as IQ in determining life outcomes not only in school, but also in the workplace, and in areas such as health and criminality.

The five relational actions that our study finds positively influence young people’s social and emotional development are: expressing care (showing the child that you like and want the best for him or her), challenging growth (helping the child continuously improve and stretch), providing support (helping the child complete tasks and achieve goals), sharing power (hearing the child’s voice and letting him or her share in making decisions), and expanding possibility (broadening the child’s horizons and connecting him or her to new people and opportunities).

Our study shows that the degree to which children experience these relational actions in their families is 10 times more predictive of their development of key character strengths than demographic factors such as income, race or ethnicity and family structure. At a time when much of our national discussion about young people seems to suggest that demography is destiny, that is a hopeful finding.

Some ways to provide support

Our study also finds that parents from all backgrounds are very interested in receiving support that helps them strengthen family relationships. There are many ways that schools could begin to provide that support. Some are simple, such as sharing tips for building strong relationships at parent-teacher conferences and school events. For example, a number of the children and teenagers who participated in focus groups we conducted for our study told us about times when an adult learned that they were struggling with something and then periodically checked in to see how things were going. Because the adult did not wait for the young person to bring the issue up again or for circumstances to prompt or force another discussion, the young person felt powerfully seen and deeply supported. The act of proactively checking in on a challenge might sound obvious to some, but the young people who told us that action is influential also told us that it is relatively rare.

Some schools will want to go beyond providing simple tips to launch more ambitious efforts to help families strengthen developmental relationships. For example, at Search Institute we are working with a group of middle schools that are helping parents understand and apply research on motivation and academic mindsets. We are finding that providing parents with tools and techniques that help their children view intelligence as something that can grow with effort not only increases motivation at school, but also strengthens relationships at home.

The vast majority of American children spend only about 15 percent of their time in school from kindergarten through 12th grade. If we are to influence the other 85 percent, we must find new ways to engage parents in the effort. Parenting adults from all backgrounds have the capacity and the desire to build developmental relationships with their children, and the evidence suggests that helping them do that more intentionally and effectively would do much to help their children succeed in school and in life.

Kent Pekel is the president and CEO of the Search Institute. Follow him on Twitter. This commentary originally appeared in the Huffington Post.


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 10/19/2015 - 01:09 pm.

    It has never been about the schooling it has always been about the family when it comes to children’s development. That goes back to the early 60’s when Kindergarten was sold as the key to all 1st graders being better prepared to learn, now it is pre-K, soon it will be pre-K/pre-K and the schools will have our kids from 2 or 3 years old. I never had a teacher, coach or anybody love and care for me like my parents and nobody taught me more about life than my parents. It wasn’t a history lesson that made me successful, it was life lessons from my family that made me push myself and prepared me for real working life (which by the way is competitive and tough).

    • Submitted by Donovan Dreyer on 10/28/2015 - 01:33 pm.

      Pre-pre K is Parenting!

      Pre-pre K is the answer after all!

      I have worked with teens and families for 15 years. I once did the “catch them earlier” exercise and it went pre-birth to the actual parents. It is time to get the movement underway in schools and everywhere to properly prepare for this most vital endeavor. Surgery is important, so obviously doctors need lots of education, training and practice. The future of humanity is at least on par with surgery!

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/19/2015 - 03:06 pm.

    Concepts vs actionable items

    While this all sounds good, I see no actionable items. This really seems to be what I called in college debate “talk pretty, don’t suck.” That is, the ideas fire people up, but there is actually no substance. It’s all well and good to say “make sure you notice if a kid is struggling and follow up.” But what happens if a teacher is dealing with a huge student:teacher ratio and several kids need help? What happens when kids are in schools that are simply pushing information on them with little incentive to do anything more than improve test scores? What happens when kids have problems that teachers aren’t able to handle? And, how, exactly does this affect the relationships kids have with parents, who might have little education themselves or simply be so busy making ends meet they have little energy or time to put effort into worrying about how their kid is struggling in school, as long as they have enough to eat?

    Seriously, the “take notice” isn’t anything new. It helps, for sure. But it’s the only “solution” provided in this flowery idea of “Don’t Forget the Families” and it’s no big revelation. Nor is it a solution to every woe children have.

    • Submitted by Donovan Dreyer on 10/28/2015 - 01:39 pm.

      The Elephant in the Country

      The answer to the various important “what happens” questions is that we have an elephant in the room of the U.S. (and probably beyond this country) that suggests the schools alone can’t provide the sorely sought for solution.

      The problem is big enough that we should admit we don’t know. That is the beginning of real solutions. The very next step before is to stop jumping to conclusions and actually figure out the solutions. We currently sit without them. This is not permanent. I am game for co-leading the charge.

  3. Submitted by Donovan Dreyer on 10/28/2015 - 01:49 pm.

    It Takes a Team

    Schools are part of the solution and probably verging on being too much of the solution. Burn-out is a huge issue for those in the trenches trying to solve innumerable societal problems while also trying to address academic growth.

    Socialism has been a “bad word” for quite some time in many circles. Running for office would seem the most off-the-wall idea. Bernie Sanders has traction. There has to be something to this. What is the next step in the evolution of how we solve our social issues? It is social entrepreneurialism.

    No longer are there ceilings restricting those of massive heart and spirit. A movement is under way to do change differently. Individuals with big dreams to transform the world and solve problems like parenting can do so in entirely new ways. Advancement now has the chance to do surprising good after so many past advancements were used for harm after awhile.

    Our world is smaller than ever because of the connection provided by the internet. It doesn’t have to be a pointless time-waster like is presently common. Movements can be started with forethought, intention and great planning. We live in amazing times- if we decide to make them amazing.

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