» A Culture that Engages Every Family, Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.
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» Empathy in Action, Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.
Recently, I attended a meeting of our district PTA Council. The meeting was the first of the new school year and the representatives from the various schools were very active in preparing for another excellent school year. Toward the end of the meeting, the discussion turned to creating a marketing campaign that would encourage every family to join their local PTA.
“We can’t seem to get many people engaged at the high school,” said one representative. “I think by the time kids get to high school, they don’t want their parents there and parents are just burned out.” There were a number of head nods in agreement to this statement.
For as many years as I have been dedicated to engaging every family in the academic lives of their children, a persistent and perennial challenge has focused on secondary schools. The truth is that there are very successful ways to help families engage with their older children. Regardless of their age, just about every child wants their family engaged. The presence of significant adults in the life of a teenager is essential to their continued growth, development and success. However, it is true that engaging with secondary school students is a tad more daunting, but not impossible!
Reading the Signals
The great comedian Bill Cosby may have taught us the most valuable lesson about engaging families at the secondary level. Most of Mr. Cosby’s comedy was born out of his experiences as a parent. In one particular routine, he discussed how the read the “signals” of this teenaged children. He remarked that when they said “go away” they would motion for him to “come here.” Cosby lamented about not understanding his teenaged children. The lesson, of course, is that regardless of the external signals adolescent children send us, we need to find ways to stay engaged with them.
Research tells us some very important facts: 1) Teenagers resist discussing school and families often take this as a sign of rejection. In fact, we know that teenagers do want to interact with their parents and have them engaged in their lives…just differently than they did when in elementary school. 2) Educators often believe that parents become somewhat disinterested or uninvolved as their children age. Nothing could be further from the truth. Parents of families of teenagers are extremely interested in engaging with their children’s school life. It seems if we stop making these assumptions, we can improve secondary school family engagement.
What Works in Secondary Family Engagement?
Note authors and researchers, Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp (2002) indicate that there are “family-based” processes that help engagement and achievement:
Secondary schools need to consider family engagement very differently than their elementary counterparts. The key issue for secondary schools is to assist families by providing support for student learning both at school and in the home. Helping families understand the complexities of secondary curriculum can greatly increase the likelihood of family engagement with academics.
Secondary schools wishing to increase family engagement often convene a meeting of teachers and staff to determine the steps necessary. At the secondary school level, the plan to engage families should emanate from the families themselves. Understanding their perspectives and needs and then crafting a plan based on that information helps to make engagement efforts more meaningful and relevant to individual parents. It is important to respect families as equal partners in the education of their children and to recognize the potential in their contributions to the process of learning. Most importantly, welcoming them to the school goes a long way to creating a culture where every family feels accepted and is engaged.
Henderson and Mapp (2002) suggest that engaging families in workshops and professional learning activities is important and the topics of the learning should be ones that families themselves suggest. Further, connecting to families on a regular basis, through conversation and use of technology is more beneficial than simply sending quarterly achievement updates or contacting families when there is a negative issue to discuss. Lastly, opening the building to families during school hours, conducting tours, creating opportunities for special visits will all help in growing the engagement of families at secondary schools. Creating interactive homework that requires family participation and inviting families to observe teaching strategies so they can help their children are just two of many strategies that can be successfully employed.
My Biggest Fear
Several years ago, I was seated next to a teenager on a flight from Washington DC to Orange County, California. As I engaged him in his story, he told me his parents were divorced and he was regularly shipped from one parent to the other due to his problematic behavior. Throughout this conversation, the young man emphasized that he didn’t care where he lived or where he went to school. He used the ubiquitous teenage phrase “whatever” numerous times.
Upon landing, the young man went on his way and I never saw him again. But I never stopped considering his story. That evening, I wrote the following poem as a result of my chance meeting with this teenager.
My Biggest Fear
I am the child who tries each day,
to learn and grow and find my way.
And I know the message I send is clear,
“I’m okay, I can take it from here.”
But that bravado I share is all an act.
A clever ruse to hide the fact,
that what I need is you right here,
to help me face my biggest fear.
Lean in close and listen well.
Because my friends don’t think that I should tell.
My worry of worries my biggest fear,
is what would happen if you weren’t here.
So stay with me at home and school,
and ignore the fact that it’s not cool.
Try as I might to hold you at bay,
It’s at that very moment, I need you to stay.
Ferguson, C., & Rodriguez, V. (2005). Engaging families at the secondary level: What schools can do to support family involvement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
Henderson, A., & Mapp, K. (2002). A new wave of evidence: Family and community connections with schools. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
Image by FreeDigitalPhotos.Net
(c) Steven M. Constantino 2012
Posted on September 26, 2012 by Dr. Steven M. Constantino
Dr. Steve Constantino is an internationally-known author, speaker, and thought leader in the field of family engagement as well as the superintendent of the Williamsburg-James City County School District in Williamsburg, Virginia. Look for his latest book featuring "The New Standards for Global Family Engagement" due out this fall. Follow Dr. Constantino on Twitter. You can read more about Dr. Constantino's work on his website.
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