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Developing the Fully-Engaged Parent

By Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D & Susan Grijalva, M.A.

The term “parent involvement” is perhaps the most misunderstood term in today’s educational arena. Shown to be a large contributor to student achievement and success, it is often seen as a vital ingredient to education reform. While “No Child Left Behind” mandates schools to increase parent involvement and collaboration, PTA/PTO’s around the country find themselves with participation at an all-time low. So what exactly is “parent involvement” and why does it need redefining?

To understand the relationship between parents and schools it is important to recognize the types of behaviors that nurture collaboration. We know from many years of organizational research that certain behaviors are harmful and other behaviors are helpful in building communities that thrive. The model below shows the types of behaviors that harm and help parent-school communities. It is important to know that harmful behaviors can be transformed into helpful ones by people who consciously facilitate positive change. For schools to successfully involve parents, they must pay attention to building a culture that models and rewards the “helpful behaviors” shown by parents, teachers, and students.

Harmful-Helpful Behaviors

During our many years of working in schools, we began to realize that “parent involvement” could take many forms, both positive and negative. And we began to understand not only the importance of parent involvement in education but the type of parent involvement that makes the most difference in the academic, social, and emotional development of children. We identified five categories of parent behaviors within a school community. We believe that each category makes a corresponding contribution to the success of the school community and to student success.

In every school community, parent behaviors can be categorized into five groups. The categories are very fluid, that is, parents move from one group to another depending upon the situation and their level of involvement. Each category implicitly makes a contribution to the success of the school community and/or to the academic, emotional and social success of students.

Engaged Parent Model

Traditional Parent Volunteer

When we think of “parent involvement,” people immediately think of volunteering at school -- helping in the classroom, fundraising, chaperoning, etc. These “helper” parents are a vital part of a school community, without which many schools could not provide quality education or raise additional funds for needed programs and materials. In many schools, this type of traditional parent involvement is at a record low. New ways of recruiting “helpers” must be discovered. The Traditional Parent Volunteer contributes HIGHLY to the success of the school community but does not necessarily contribute to student success.

Reactive Parent

The “provoker” parent, instead of employing helpful behaviors to influence change, uses techniques such as blaming, rumor, collusion and gossip to achieve results. This reaction often occurs in a crisis situation with a child and can be the result of anger or their powerlessness to influence change in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, these harmful behaviors are often modeled to children. The Reactive Parent is a LOW contributor to the success of the school community and a LOW contributor to student success.

Uninvolved Parent

The “outsider” parent is generally invisible in the school community and is isolated from other parents. Some willingly choose to be uninvolved; others face overwhelming challenges in their family lives that leave them few options. Like the Reactive Parent, the Uninvolved Parent is a LOW contributor to school success and a LOW contributor to student success.

Mindful Parent

The “mentor” parent approaches parenting with conscious intention but does not necessarily get involved at their children’s school. They work hard to teach respect and instill discipline at home as well as model positive behaviors to their children. They often read books about parenting and try hard to teach family values to their children. The Mindful Parent is a HIGH contributor to student success but a LOW contributor to the success of the school community.

Fully-Engaged Parent

The “collaborator” parent understands the concept of “parent-school partnership,” acts in ways that facilitate its development, and recognizes that effective parenting cannot occur in isolation from other parents and the school. With a shared focus on parenting and the success of the school community, they are empathic listeners, communicators, and problem-solvers. They often seek support or advice from other parents and use teacher feedback to ensure their child is on tract. Of course, this dual focus is an ever-shifting one. As issues emerge, with the child or with the school, the Fully-Engaged Parent may shift their focus accordingly. The Fully-Engaged Parent is a HIGH contributor to the effectiveness of the school community and a HIGH contributor to student success.

How ParentNet Develops Fully-Engaged Parents

We believe the school must play a role in developing the Fully-Engaged Parent and that a great urgency exists in doing so. Countless numbers of today’s parents are either not able or willing to become Traditional Parent Volunteers at their child’s school. Since this is the only current path to formal “parent involvement” available to them, many become Reactive or Uninvolved Parents, roles that are equally unsuited to school and/or student success. Since many Mindful Parents are uninvolved in the school community, the helpful strategies they have learned about parenting are not shared synergistically with others. Most schools have no formal way to create Fully-Engaged Parents, except among the few parents at the top echelon of parent leadership.

ParentNet is one of the first programs of its kind to focus on this unmet need in American schools by providing a structure where any parent can become a fully-engaged one. By providing a formal structure to communicate about child rearing, share experiences, problem-solve, and create new solutions, all parents can become engaged members of the school community. As parents expand awareness of themselves and their parenting styles, they become more effective at modeling collaborative communication to their children. This type of communication is at the heart of successful parent-child relationships!

The potential pool for Fully-Engaged Parents is much greater than the pool for Traditional Parent Volunteers. Why? Whereas the “Helper” category can only draw from parents inclined to become Traditional Volunteers, the “Collaborator” can draw parents from all groups. The common reason they come together is to become better parents – a goal shared by most. Because ParentNet is behavior-based, it has the potential to change the behavior of many Reactive Parents, creating greater ability for them to become Fully Engaged Parents. Mindful Parents appreciate the opportunity to learn from others and grow in their parenting skills. They often become ParentNet facilitators and leaders for the program – a whole new crop of volunteers! ParentNet becomes another “door” through which parents become involved at school.

ParentNet has also been designed to increase “helpful behaviors” in the parent-school partnership which lead to organizational and personal effectiveness. Faculty Liaisons play an important role in helping parents learn about and navigate the school culture, understand school goals, and apply skills to influence student success. The Parent Contract subtly reinforces “helpful behaviors” that parents learn to model in other areas of their life.

A Paradigm Shift

We believe a paradigm shift is necessary in how we think about parent involvement in schools. The role of the “traditional parent volunteer” must be expanded to include a new category of fully engaged parents who influence both student success and the effectiveness of their entire school community. ParentNet is but one example of a program that has strived to make this shift occur. But we have so much more to accomplish. We invite parents and schools to use this model when thinking about programs to increase parent involvement. The research shows that what parents do at home to teach respect, instill discipline, model positive behaviors, and inspire learning contributes highly to student achievement and success. It also shows that traditional volunteers contribute greatly to the success of schools through fundraising efforts and classroom support. We must begin to merge these two types of parental involvement if we are to build the types of collaborative parent-school communities where children succeed academically and in life. Only then will our children become the type of parents who model collaboration to their own children and their children’s schools. 


Posted on December 9, 2009 by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D & Susan Grijalva, M.A.

Marilyn and Susan are co-founders of the National ParentNet Association and ParentInvolvementMatters.org. You can view their profiles on our Founders Page. Follow Marilyn on Twitter or follow her blog at Roots of Action or Psychology Today.

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(ParentInvolvementMatters.org does not handle reprint requests. For permission to reprint articles, please contact the author directly.)

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