Presence as Power: A Case for Parents’ Involvement in Their Kids’ Education

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Children have their own journeys to make over the course of their education, overcoming challenges, discovering the things that they’re best at, growing into their unique selves. However, parents play a critical role in this process. A resounding body of research has shown that students of any grade are able to get the most out of their education when they have involved parents, something that helps children to perform better academically, stay motivated and enthusiastic about learning, and adapt comfortably to the social dynamics of school. 

There are also broader, socioeconomic shifts to consider when it comes to parental involvement. After all, academic success correlates with household income or race; our educational system is one in which whiter and wealthier children flourish while others get left behind. The good news is that parental involvement in education serves to be a powerful equalizer, helping to level the playing field so that each child has the chance to succeed in school and beyond. A recent analysis determined that educational involvement benefits any student from any background. 

The ABCs of Being Involved

With a calendar penciled full of after-school activities, special events, open houses, conferences, and a constant stream of homework, being there for everything can be a real challenge. Fortunately, being involved in your child’s education doesn’t require you to be a time-traveler or superhero. Eva Pomerantz, one of the lead researchers of the study, clarified in a statement that being an involved parent doesn’t mean you have to be in all places at once. “Some experts make the case that you must go to all the parent-teacher conferences and open houses, and take your child to the library, and so on, if you want to optimize your child’s learning,” she said. “What we found is that parents don’t have to do every single one of these things. These types of involvement are all similar in terms of how much they matter. Just pick what works for your family.” 

What this looks like should change over time. When your child is in preschool, it’s critical for you to spend time reading with them in or out of the home. As your child gets older, he will benefit more from your positive encouragement and having conversations with you about school. There’s one major exception to involvement: The study found that parents who were overly involved in their children’s homework ended up setting them back academically. Help your child with homework when your guidance or input is needed, but do not complete it for them.

How to Stay Involved From Home Base

According to the National Education Association, parents’ involvement from home is the “most significant type of involvement.” There are plenty of straightforward ways to do this. For students of any age, most schools today allow a parent to access a child’s grades and receive relevant notices throughout the year. This remote access makes it so much easier for working parents to stay on top of their child’s academic performance or school events, especially when it’s hectic to find time to personally check in with your child at home. It’s great if you can make it a habit to check in to your digital parent portal or homepage for a few minutes at least once a day, even if it’s just to give things a quick scan. 

With summer winding down, reestablishing healthy school year routines at home is an effective way to prime your kid to head back to school. This process can include working to readjust your child’s sleep schedule so that they will be accustomed to getting a full night of sleep once school starts. If your child has been staying up late and sleeping in over the summer, begin waking them up a little earlier each day in the week or two leading up to the first day of school; that means “lights out” happens earlier in the evening as well so that they aren’t sleep deprived. It’s easier said than done — your schedule might not allow you to be around at bedtime or wake up time — but you want at the very least to set a goal for your child to strive for. 

Back to school involved

Mitzi Ziegner, the Associate Chair of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University, told a local news station that simply having conversations leading up to the first day of school can go a long way in getting them into a positive mindset, especially for kids who are experiencing back-to-school anxiety. “Talking about what you’re excited about, what you’re looking forward to, I think sometimes alleviates some of those fears,” she explained. This can also be the perfect opportunity for them to set their intentions and goals for the year in the context of their academic life. If your child struggled to finish homework on time last year, you might help her discuss ways that she can stay on top of her deadlines. If your child feels like math is his most difficult subject, you can make a point to build a relationship with his math teacher in the coming year to help outline a game plan for success. 

Barriers to Greater Involvement

As a parent, having the opportunity to volunteer or participate in committee work at your child’s school is a great way to develop relationships with your school’s administration and your child’s teachers. However, this level of involvement can be elusive for immigrant parents or families of low-income households.

A 2018 Child Trends report determined that parents who don’t speak English are significantly less likely to take part in volunteer or committee work at school, or even attend their child’s events or parent-teacher conferences. The report suggested that this language barrier makes communication difficult and uncomfortable. If this is something that applies to you, a co-parent, or one of your child’s friend’s parents, it’s worth looking into whether your school has a Spanish-language liaison on staff to bridge the gap in involvement. Note: To be clear, speaking a language other than English at home is a great asset to a child’s academic success and is clearly a great advantage. 

The same report found that the level of parental involvement correlates to poverty status. A resounding majority of parents with incomes at or above the federal poverty level reported attending school functions like their child’s sports events or performances; in contrast, less than two-thirds of parents living in poverty went to these functions, and far less were involved in volunteer or committee work at their child’s school. The authors of the report pointed out that many low-income workers simply don’t have the flexibility or time to take off work in order to be as involved as they’d like to be. 

Get Involved at the Macro Level

Parents who have the time to be deeply involved in their kid’s education may want to consider working as an advocate at the local or state level. 

Being a school board member is an unpaid commitment — Teen Vogue cited an average of 25 hours per month — involving duties like reading documents, attending meetings, staying on top of communications, participating in negotiations, and campaigning in election season. Though many parents may not think of themselves as being cut out for this sort of involvement, having advocates who are truly representative of their communities is crucial to ensuring that a child, along with all of her classmates, is receiving everything that is needed from their communities in order to flourish in school. 

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Consider, also, that being part of a school board is one way to help other Latinx parents in your district be and feel seen. One small survey of Latino parents in the Chicago area concluded that having Latinx figures in positions of power — in administrative or governing positions — was directly correlated with how involved other Latinx parents were in their child’s education. This suggests that the Latinx community could benefit from your presence on a school board, even if they don’t develop a relationship with you or directly benefit from any of your policies. Especially if language or culture has been a barrier to their involvement in their children’s education, you may end up being their point of contact (regardless of your Spanish-language skills), allowing them to voice their comments or concerns about school for what may be the very first time. 

Even if this is not the role for you, you can do your part by, at the very least, learning who your local school board members are and finding out how to contact them. After all, they represent the needs of their district — at least theoretically — and should be responsive to your valuable input. And if they aren’t, the solution is simple: Vote them out!