ERIC Identifier: ED326925
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Liontos, Lynn Balster
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management Eugene
Involving At-Risk Families in Their Children's Education.
ERIC Digest Series Number EA 58.
"I never see the parents I need to see," more than one teacher has complained.
These are the parents of children at risk--at risk of failing, of dropping
out, of having what in today's world accounts to no future at all.
The benefits to children whose parents are involved in the educational
process are well-known: substantial research links family involvement to
both academic and social success of children at school. Of all youth, at-risk
children, whose numbers are increasing, have the most to gain from parent
involvement. Consequently, schools need to find ways to reach at-risk families.
WHO IS AT RISK?
Most children are "at risk" at some time or another. James Comer states
that "given increasing divorce rates, the growing numbers of single parent
families and families in which both parents work, and the general complexity
of modern life, even children of well-educated, middle-class parents can
come to school unprepared because of the stress their families are undergoing."
(quoted by Lynn Olson 1990)
Certain children, however, are in critical need of social intervention.
These are generally the children who have traditionally been termed "at-risk."
They are usually poor minorities often from other cultural backgrounds.
WHY IS PARENT INVOLVEMENT SO IMPORTANT FOR AT-RISK CHILDREN?
The main reason parental involvement with the schools is so important
for at-risk children is that their home and school worlds are so different.
"The predictable consequence in such situations is that children usually
embrace the familiar home culture and reject the unfamiliar school culture,
including its academic components and goals," says Muriel Hamilton-Lee
Suzanne Ziegler (1987) suggests it may be particularly important for
teachers to develop communication with parents of at-risk children so that
both understand the others' settings and expectations which may alter both
settings. That is, school can become more home-like and home can have a
school component. Or, as Joyce Epstein (1987) points out, family-like schools
make students feel part of a "school family," where they receive individual
attention which improves motivation.
WHY HAVEN'T SCHOOLS BEEN REACHING AT-RISK PARENTS?
Traditional methods of parental involvement do not work with at-risk
parents. In addition, the history of relationships between poor and minority
parents and schools has been very different than those of the middle class.
Barriers and misperceptions that exist for both parents and schools include:
Parents. At-risk parents may have feelings of inadequacy, failure, and
poor self-worth, as well as negative experience with schools. Other cultures,
as well as many low-income parents in general, see schools as institutionalized
authority and, therefore, leave it to the teachers to educate their children.
Additionally, there are economic, emotional, and time constraints (some
families are struggling just to survive) and logistical problems such as
lack of child care, transportation, and scheduling conflicts. In cultural
minority families, involving parents can be further complicated by language
Teachers and Schools. Teacher attitudes play a large part in the academic
success of at-risk children. Teachers who have low expectations for at-risk
children, or who believe that at-risk parents don't care about their children
and don't want to be involved in their education may contribute to children's
failure. Teachers also may feel uncertain about how to maintain their role
as experts while still involving parents.
According to Diana T. Slaughter and Valerie Shahariw Kuehne (1988),
schools tend to see the parental role as traditional and perhaps passive
and home-based, whereas many parents are interested in more active roles.
Schools are often guilty of not taking the initiative to ask parents for
help, and of not welcoming their participation. Finally, schools often
organize events for their own convenience and pay little attention to the
needs of at-risk parents.
WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT THESE OBSTACLES?
Schools should consider adopting new beliefs and premises, based largely
on the work of Rhoda Becher (Ziegler), Don Davies (1989), and Jean Krasnow
1. Successful at-risk programs begin with the premise that it's not
any single person's or group's fault that a child or group of children
is not learning; nor is it the school's fault. We are all responsible and
dependent on each other.
2. All families have strengths. Successful programs emphasize them and
let parents know these strengths are valued. This also means it isn't helpful
to view at-risk families as deficients or as failures.
3. Most parents really care about their children. Successful programs
acknowledge and express this. Studies of poor and minority parents in Maryland,
New England, and the Southwest, for instance, have found that parents care
deeply about their children's education but may not know how to help. (M.
Sandra Reeves 1988)
4. Parents can learn new techniques. Successful programs help parents
identify what they're capable of doing and how to overcome obstacles. One
way to do this is by teaching them new skills and behaviors, such as helping
their children through home learning.
5. Cultural differences are both valid and valuable. Successful programs
learn about other cultures and respect their beliefs. They find ways of
building on the loyalty and obedience, for example, that Hispanic parents
instill in their children.
6. Many family forms exist and are legitimate. Successful programs involve
stepparents or even grandparents, and provide family support where resources
7. All individuals and families need to feel empowered, especially at-risk
families who often feel powerless and out of control. Successful programs
ask parents what they'd be interested in doing and work with their agendas
first. Some also train at-risk parents to be part of their school's decision-making
8. Partnership with at-risk families is impossible without collaboration
with other community agencies. Schools cannot provide all the services
that at-risk families need, such as parenting education, counseling, health
care, and housing. The school staff also needs to function in a collaborative
way with each other for real change to occur.
HOW DO I BEGIN A PROGRAM FOR WORKING WITH AT-RISK FAMILIES?
The Hispanic Policy Development Project's publication (Siobhan Nicolau
and Carmen Lydia Ramos 1990) offers guidelines, based on successful projects,
that are useful for most at-risk groups:
*Be sure you're totally committed; half-hearted attempts do not accomplish
much. There must be active support by the principal and staff. All the
Hispanic projects that lacked the support of teachers and principals failed
to increase parent involvement.
*Assign a project coordinator-someone who understands the culture and
background of the parents and is sincerely dedicated. Give the coordinator
time to do the job. Nicolau and Ramos found that leadership was the single
most important element in launching a successful program with Hispanic
*Be prepared to be innovative and flexible. The Hispanic projects that
failed were those where new techniques were not tried, or where things
were done "the way we have always done it."
*Use strong, personal outreach. "The personal approach," say Nicolau
and Ramos, "which means talking face to face with the parents, in their
primary language, at their homes, or at the school...was the strategy deemed
most effective by 98 percent of the project coordinators." Home visits
are a must.
*Make your first event fun. Start with something social as an icebreaker.
Not every event can be a party, and Nicolau and Ramos offer suggestions
for how to sustain involvement once you've gotten it started.
*Do not hold your first activity at school. Events may be more successful
on neutral turf such as neighborhood homes or community places.
*Pay attention to environment and format. Informal settings are less
intimidating to low-income parents. Make them as participatory as possible.
A warm, nonjudgmental atmosphere is mandatory.
*Prepare staff with in-service workshops so that everyone understands
the community being served. Include everyone; you don't want a less than
welcoming secretary to spoil all the work you've done.
*Do not view child care, transportation, interpreters, and meals as
frills. Providing them will make a big difference for at-risk parents.
*Choose different times to schedule events. Do it with consideration
for the parents' availability.
*Do not give up if the initial response isn't overwhelming. Under the
best circumstances, it takes time.
"Keep up the effort," Nicolau and Ramos conclude, "and one day you will
find that you can't keep the parents away."
Davies, Don. "Poor Parents, Teachers and the Schools: Comments About
Practice, Policy and Research." Paper presented at the annual meeting of
the American Educational Research Association (San Francisco, CA, March
27-31, 1989). 25 pages. ED 308 574.
Epstein, Joyce L. "Toward a Theory of Family-School Connections: Teacher
Practices and Parent Involvement Across the School Years." The Limits and
Potential of Social Intervention. (Klaus Hurrelman and Franz-Xaver Kaufman,
Eds.). Berlin/New York: DeGruyter/Aldine, 1987.
Hamilton-Lee, Muriel. "Home-School Partnerships: The School Development
Program Model." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological
Association (Atlanta, GA, August 12-16, 1988). 20 pages. ED 303 923.
Krasnow, Jean. Building Parent-Teacher Partnerships: Prospects from
the Perspective of the Schools Reaching Out Project. Boston: Institute
for Responsive Education, 1990. 66 pages. ED 318 817.
Moles, Oliver C. "Disadvantaged Parents' Participation in Their Children's
Education. Paper presented at annual meeting of the American Educational
Research Association (Boston, MA, April 1990). 20 pages.
Nicolau, Siobhan and Carmen Lydia Ramos. Together is Better: Building
Strong Partnerships between Schools and Hispanic Parents. Washington, DC:
Hispanic Policy Development Project, Inc., 1990.
Olson, Lynn. "Parents as Partners: Redefining the Social Contract between
Families and Schools." Education Week IX, 28 (April 4, 1990). 71 pages.
UD 027 472.
Reeves, M. Sandra. "Self-Interest and the Common Weal, Focusing on the
Bottom Half." Education Week III, 31 (April 27, 1988).
Slaughter, Diana T. and Valerie Shahariw Kuehne. "Improving Black Education:
Perspectives on Parent Involvement." Urban League VII, 1-2 (Summer/Winter
1988). EJ 377 100.
Ziegler, Suzanne. "The Effects of Parent Involvement on Children's Achievement:
The Significance of Home/School Links." Ontario, Canada: Toronto Board
of Education, 1987. 72 pages. ED 304 234.