Dr. Kyle Miller is an Assistant Professor of Child Development in the School of Teaching and Learning. She has worked in a number of educational settings, as a teacher and student support coordinator. Her research focuses on lower-income families and strengthening the relationships between families and schools. In this post, Kyle challenges early childhood educators to reflect on their beliefs about and relationships with students’ families.
Home-school connections can refer to a variety of practices between families and school staff, such as:
- communication between families and schools
- parent-teacher conferences
- volunteering in the classroom and at school events
- serving on school committees
The evidence is clear that these connections are associated with a child’s performance in school (e.g., McWayne, Hampton, Fantuzzo, Cohen, & Sekino, 2004; Jensen, 2006; Taylor, Clayton, & Rowley, 2004); and the stronger the connection, the greater likelihood that the child will be successful in school. This association is quite intuitive, but we also have the research base to back this claim with confidence.
Recently, I spent an afternoon at an early childhood center that serves children from lower-income homes, and was able to listen to some of the teachers’ concerns about families and family involvement. The conversations did not present a promising story line for home-school relationships with lower-income families. In fact, one teacher said:
I have been working here for over 20 years and things are getting worse. Once a month we have a family night and parents used to be fighting for chairs in our big room in the back, and now I’m lucky if I can fill one round table with people.
Another teacher said, “I’m not sure if they don’t care or if they just don’t have time to care anymore.” Like these quotes, the general tone from all of the teachers was that things have changed, and not in a positive direction. And based on what research tells us, this reality does not bode well for students.
As I reflected on these conversations, my initial thoughts were – “Has involvement really declined? Are we romanticizing the past? Was it really that great before?” I felt as though it was a celebration of the good old days, without an appreciation for the many advancements made in education over the years. Then I reconsidered the concerns expressed by the teachers and was willing to accept that relationships between schools and families probably have changed. Of course they have changed. Many things in society have changed over the past 20 years – our families representing one small piece of that. My next question was – “But, have we changed our practices to engage parents?” I would argue that we have not.
Maybe we email newsletters home instead of printing them out and placing them in a child’s backpack. Maybe the school has a website or blog to inform parents about what occurring in the center and in the classrooms. Some centers conduct home visits instead of requiring parents to come to the school. However, most practices appear to be the same. You tell the parents how the child’s day was at pick-up. Conferences are scheduled for the fall and spring to tell the family how the child is progressing. A few family events are planned throughout the year to bring everyone together. Not much has changed, but our families have changed. Additionally, the percentage of lower-income families has increased at a state and national level, which creates its own set of circumstances and challenges. For centers and programs who are struggling to connect with parents, maybe it is time to question whether traditional practices to engage families are still relevant. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I know ignoring the problem is a disservice to our children.
Many teachers create family involvement opportunities based on what they remember from childhood (Graue, 2005), which means we keep recycling the same practices. It may also mean we keep employing strategies that privilege a certain population of parents. I would agree that being an “involved” parent – or at least how centers and schools view “involved” – is a luxury and privilege to those who have the flexibility, time, energy and level of education to have their voices heard. One scholar, suggested that family involvement gives some students an advantage in school which others are denied (de Carvalho, 2001). Therefore, making schools more equitable may mean limiting or removing family involvement. I am not willing to go that extreme, but it is important to recognize that a students’ success in school may be linked to their family’s relationship with the school. Therefore, those connections with families should be responsive to the needs and schedules of the families we serve. If something is not working, we need to find alternatives.
de Carvalho, M. E. P. (2001). Rethinking family-school relations: A critique of parental involvement in schooling. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Graue, E. (2005). Theorizing and describing preservice teachers’ images of families and schooling. Teachers College Record, 107(1), 157-185.
Jensen, E. (2006). Enriching the brain: How to maximize every learning potential. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A John Wiley & Sons Imprint.
McWayne, C., Hampton, V., Fantuzzo, J., Cohen, H. L., Yumiko, & Sekino. (2004). Multivariate examination of parent involvement and the social and academic competencies of urban kindergarten children. Psychology in the Schools, 41(3), 363-377.
Taylor, L. C., Clayton, J. D., & Rowley, S. J. (2004). Academic socialization: Understanding parental influences on children’s school-related development in the early years. Review of General Psychology, 8(3), 163-178.