Looking back at the days when I taught in the classroom, I was either teaching a lot of English language learners (ELLs), or I was teaching in a bilingual school. I learned how to work with children who did not speak English through trial and error. I have learned a lot from my students and their parents and befriended many of my students’ parents. Most importantly, I have learned that all children want to learn regardless of their skin color, linguistic ability, or socioeconomic status. I have also learned the key to help children learn is to build a strong home-school relationship.
The well-known African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is something I have experienced and can relate to because of my cultural background and from what I have learned from my students. Delpit (1995) makes the proverb clear for teachers to understand: academic success depends on the degree to which teachers understand and embrace cultural diversity of the communities they serve. There is no way a teacher can reach to her students if she does not know much about her students nor their families. Parents know more about our students than we do. Therefore, it is apparent that parents need to be included in their children’s educational process and decision making.
Parental involvement is crucial to the health and well-being of a child as parents’ values affect children’s learning experience. Involvement of parents in children’s education has positive effects on children’s learning experience. The strong home-school connection is especially critical when working with ELLs. Due to the fact that many ELLs’ parents do not have the proficient language skills to express their expectations, thoughts, or share their concerns with teachers, they are often left out of the decision making process or are simply ignored. The goal of home-school collaboration is to engage parents in a community-wide involvement and change. It is therefore crucial to bring the home-school connection to a level where parents can feel empowered by whatever big or small effort they make to improve the conditions of education. Several studies have found that collaboration with the parents from nonmainstream cultures helps teachers gain the cultural competence to enhance students’ achievement. For example, Lahaie (2008) found that parental involvement is associated with an increase in the level of English proficiency for children of immigrants and it is also linked to a decrease in the gap in math scores between immigrant children from English- and non-English-speaking backgrounds. Take my students for example, those who mastered more than two languages in my class tended to have parents who had dinner with and talked to their children on a regular basis, and helped with homework and school activities.
Misconceptions about minority parents exist and can be detrimental. Although both Asian and Mexican parents were found to be less involved in school (parent-school contacts and parent-school communication) than White parents, they were as much involved as the White parents at home (parent-child communication, parent supervision, and parents’ educational expectations) according to Shin’s (2004) study. We can safely argue that the traditional model (the ideal) for parental involvement is not appropriate for all families, especially for minorities. Cultural differences can have an impact on parental involvement which can lead to different expectations. For example, many minority parents often do not know what roles they should play in the home-school partnership and/or they may lack the knowledge about the U.S. educational system and the educational expectations of teachers. Their children’s teachers, on the other hand, perceive that these parents not as involved as their White students’ parents.
Parents of language minority children may have different attitudes toward schooling. However, when these parents are actively involved in their children’s schooling, they are able to help their children to achieve higher levels of academic motivation and performance. To start, we need to get parents involved. However, how do we get parents involved if they do not understand the language? I remember one incident involving a parent whose daughter attended an international school where I taught in Shanghai, China. This mother approached me (she knew I spoke the Chinese language well) and asked me to translate the notes/newsletter into Chinese for her so that she would be able to understand what was going on with her child at school. Right at that moment I felt terribly sorry for not providing the translation for her in the first place. How can we expect parents to get involved in the education of their children if they do not understand the daily communication that is sent home from the teacher? Many years ago, I had a colleague who had ten different languages spoken in her classroom, so she learned to speak different phrases/words in each of her children’s languages. I think being thoughtful can help reduce a lot of miscommunications and promote positive relationship building.
Parents want the best for their children and they want their children to succeed. A couple of years ago, I interviewed a group of parents and asked them what they thought about home-school communication. Many parents stated that they were informed but they often felt lost about what they needed to do to get involved in their children’s education. What those parents told me has an important implication about teacher-parent communication and parental involvement. Teacher-parent communication should go beyond about information sharing of “what’s going on” in order to bring about real parental involvement. Information sharing is only the first step to creating a positive climate for parent involvement. What should be included in teacher-parent communication is the support and guidance from teachers to parents about what parents can do to get involved in their children’s education. Teachers must commit to helping parents develop the knowledge and skills needed to assist their children besides recognizing parents as partners. Most importantly, teachers need to create a learning environment where they practice shared leadership in order to promote parental involvement.
The mismatch between parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of home-school collaboration always makes me wonder how and what schools can do to make this process more transparent, easy, and practical. We know the significance of involving parents in school activities makes it essential for schools to investigate factors rendering influences on parental decisions on school activity participation. We also know that good quality relationships between parents and teachers can have a profound impact on parents’ decisions in regard to parental involvement. Fortunately, many teachers are making an effort to foster parental involvement through parenting workshops, volunteer opportunities, and other activities because of the positive impact of parental involvement on children’s school performance. These activities are especially important for children from low-income, ethnic-minority, and language-minority backgrounds. When parents are invited to school or encouraged to participate in activities, they feel empowered. As a result, when their children see their parents are involved in their learning process, they are more likely to want to go to school and do well in school.
Although some parents, particularly the stay-at-home mothers, choose to participate in all school-related activities to have an active part in their children’s lives, not all parents are able to participate in all of the activities. In my study, the No.1 factor that prevented parents from participating in some or even most school related activities was time constraints caused by work responsibilities. The other vital factor that needs to be addressed is teacher’s attitudes. Parents indicated that when they felt welcome by the teachers, they were more likely to participate in school-related activities. In addition to teacher’s attitudes, parents who have negative schooling experience or parents who have limited English proficiency may not want to participate in their children’s learning, may not know how, or may find it difficult to assist with their children’s learning. Knowing all the children and their families becomes even more imperative in these cases.
As the student population becomes more diverse in terms of learning styles, needs, and values, all parents not just the minority parents need to be encouraged to understand the importance of parental involvement and how they can get involved at home, at school, and in their community. While schools continue to find ways to better include parents in their children’s learning experiences, we need to rethink the way we define parental involvement in order to increase equity in family involvement. The definitions of parent involvement unquestionably needs to adequately reflect the value of a variety of sociocultural backgrounds of students and their families. Parental involvement definitely has become more critical than ever in today’s classroom!
Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children. New York: New Press.
Lahaie, C. (2008). School readiness of children of immigrants: Does parental involvement
play a role? Social Science Quarterly, 89, 684-705.
Shin, H. J. (2004). Parental involvement and its influence on children’s school performance:
A comparative study between Asian (Chinese and Koreans) Americans and Mexican
Americans. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York.