Understanding Parent Involvement from a Parent's Perspective

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Continued research on parent involvement shows that parents who are involved in their child's education can improve their child's chances of succeeding in school (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). Yet, in many schools, the most that is asked of parents is that they be aware of what is going on at school, that they attend events in which their child is participating, or that they make sure that their child is completing his or her schoolwork. While these activities have been found to yield benefits, research indicates that parents who are given strategies and home-learning activities for use with their children make the greatest contributions to their children's education (Barclay & Boone, 1996/1997).

Although having such information on what type of involvement leads to positive educational outcomes for children is important, two researchers recently sought to go beyond exploring the relationship between parent involvement and children's educational outcomes to instead explore what leads parents to get involved in the first place. In their article appearing in the spring 1997 issue of Review of Educational Research, Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler reviewed psychological theory and research to understand why parents become involved in their children's elementary and secondary education.

In their review, these researchers defined parent involvement as:

* home-based activities such as helping with homework, discussing school events, and providing enrichment activities related to current school topics; and
* school-based activities such as driving on field trips, attending conferences, and volunteering at school.

Using this definition, they found that there were three factors that influence parents' decisions about being part of their children's schooling:

* having beliefs about what is important, necessary, and permissible for them to do with and for their children (their parental role in their children's education);
* the extent to which parents believe they can have a positive effect on their children's education (sense of efficacy); and
* the parents' perceptions that their children want them to be involved and that the school welcomes them.

In terms of the first factor found to influence parents' decisions to be involved, the evidence suggests that it is the parents' ideas about child development (what the child is capable of learning), child rearing (parenting), and their appropriate roles in supporting the child's education at home (what they should be expected to do) that are influential in parents' decisions about being involved (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). That is to say, if parents believe that it is appropriate and expected of them be involved, then they are more likely to participate; whereas, parents who do not view involvement as their responsibility or as something expected of them will be less likely to be involved in their children's education.

The second factor that influences the decision to be involved is based on how much parents believe they can affect their children's education (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). Here, the research suggests that the stronger the belief of having an impact on their children's education, the more likely it is that the parent will decide to be involved. In contrast, parents with a low sense of efficacy will likely choose not to be actively involved because they believe they will not be able to have an impact on their children's education.

The third factor found to influence parent's decisions about involvement relates to whether parents believe that their children want them involved, in addition to feeling that the school welcomes them (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). If parents feel their children as well as the school welcome their involvement, they will likely be more involved.

This model of parent involvement asserts that parents decide to become involved in their children's education if they view involvement as part of their parenting role, if they believe that they can help their children succeed in school, and if they receive invitations for involvement from their children and their children's school. Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler (1997) argue, however, that parent involvement efforts should be grounded in the knowledge that parents' beliefs about their roles in children's schooling and their effectiveness in helping their children succeed should be used as the primary points of entry into increased involvement.

Having developed this model of the factors that influence parents' decisions to be involved in their children's education, these authors go on to explore how parents choose specific involvement activities once they decide to become involved. They found that a parents' choices are shaped by the following factors:

* the parents' perceptions of their own skills, interests, and abilities;
* the parents' other demands on their time and energy; and
* the parents' past experiences with involvement opportunities.

For example, parents who believe they are good cooks will likely volunteer to bake items for a class party, while parents who do not like to be in large groups of children will likely not volunteer to help out in the classroom. Similarly, parents who work the evening shift will likely not be able to attend school events scheduled at night, while parents who are at home during the day may volunteer to go along on field trips. Likewise, parents who are greeted by the principal by first name at a school function will be more likely to attend future events than parents who do not feel as though their presence is welcomed or acknowledged.

Drawing on this model of what leads parents to choose to become involved in their children's education as well as other resources, the following strategies are offered as ways to improve parental involvement in schools:

Provide teachers with in-service opportunities to overcome one of the most common barriers to a home-school relationship-lack of knowledge or skill in working with parents. At one school, monthly coffee hours are offered as a vehicle for in-service sessions led by the principal, who has either reviewed the most recent research or attended an in-service training session (Barclay & Boone, 1996/1997). Following in-service training, the teachers feel empowered to develop their own strategies for implementing the ideas presented. Upon receiving positive feedback from the principal as well as observing positive effects in their classrooms, the teachers assumed greater responsibility for continuing their own professional development by attending workshops, reading, and sharing ideas with other teachers. Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler (1997) also recommend providing teachers with time during the week to interact with parents.

Establish a welcoming school climate. Although research indicates that parents do care about their children and do want to be involved in their children's education, some parents have developed negative associations with school (e.g., the parents may have had behavioral difficulties or were not very successful in school). To overcome some of these negative reactions, Barclay and Boone (1996/1997) recommend:

* Displaying welcoming signs at school entrances rather than those that read "STOP! ALL VISITORS MUST REPORT TO THE OFFICE."
* Making sure parents can find their way around the school and to their children's classrooms.
* Speaking to parents in words they can understand (i.e., avoid jargon).
* Asking parents for their opinions and ideas as well as assistance with home-learning activities.
* Communicating to parents an interest in their children and sharing successes as well as problems in both academic and social areas.

Establish parent involvement policies that reflect a commitment to building strong relationships with all families and provide an action plan with clear goals and objectives for building and maintaining a comprehensive parent involvement program (Barclay & Boone, 1996/1997). The written policies serve to "legitimize" the parent involvement program and help both the educational staff and parents better understand the roles parents will play in education. Written policies are especially important because research shows that parents and teachers often disagree on how parents should be involved (Barclay & Boone, 1996/1997).

In addition, it is important that the goals and mission reflect an endorsement of parent involvement by the community. For example, one goal can be for employers to provide parents with time to attend school-related activities (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). This policy has been established by one employer in Vermont who provides parents with the first day of school off as a paid company holiday so that they can be involved in their children's education. According to Terry Ehrich, the chief executive officer of Hemmings Motor News, while it cost him $500 to publicize the benefit in addition to the employees' salaries, the benefits are priceless because he believes that school participation will translate into better-educated future workers and current employees who are able to concentrate on their work ("Firm Makes First Day," 1997). First-day activities often include teachers informing parents of what their children will be expected to learn during the year as well as letting parents attend classes with their children. This practice allows parents to be involved before any problems occur.

In addition to this benefit, Ehrich also allows parents two paid days a year to go to school as parents or mentors in the classroom. This policy is especially worthwhile because employees can use the time as full days or in increments of as little as two hours, which gives them 16 opportunities to be involved ("Firm Makes First Day," 1997).

Involve families in curricular activities. Research finds that parents are less apprehensive and more supportive when the school tries to help them understand the "hows" and "whys" of new teaching techniques and curricular innovations (Barclay & Boone, 1996/1997). Parents can also be involved as resource persons, audience members, and helpers during theme units.

Provide administrative support. Without the active support of the district and school leadership, involvement of parents in effective ways will not occur. Administration can provide funding, necessary program materials, equipment, supplies, meeting space, and the designation of specific individuals who will carry out program tasks. In addition, the administration may want to install telephone lines in classrooms so that parents and teachers can communicate in a more direct and timely manner (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997).

Additional Resources

The Department of Education's Partnership for Family Involvement in Education has developed a handbook called "A Compact for Learning." Print copies are available from Partnership for Family Involvement in Education, 600 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC 20202-8173; telephone: 800-USA-LEARN. This publication is posted on the Internetat:

Family Involvement in Children's Education: Successful Local Approaches

Partnership for Family Involvement in Education


Barclay, Kathy, & Boone, Elizabeth. (1996/1997). Inviting parents to join in the educational process: What research tells us about parent involvement. Community Education Journal, 24, 16-18.

Firm makes first day of school a holiday for parents. (1997, October 1). Education Daily, p. 8.

Hoover-Dempsey, Kathleen, & Sandler, Howard. (1997). Why do parents become involved in their children's education? Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 3-42.
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