How to Increase Family Engagement in a Diverse, Digital Age

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The rapid increase in accessibility to technology has changed the way we live our lives. Today’s parents are busier, their lives move more quickly, and it’s common for their attention to be more divided than their own parents’ were. Yet, parental involvement remains an essential aspect of child development. An increasing concern is the unequal accessibility to technology amongst all families. This presents teachers with unique challenges in an increasingly diverse and digitally driven society.

Although digital tools can be highly valuable both in education and in improving communication among parents, students, and teachers, it can be difficult to integrate these tools into student learning while also avoiding exclusion. The increasing trend of schools providing individual students with tools like laptops and tablets may seem to address the issue of equitable access, but fails to consider the unique home life of each student. It makes the assumption that all students have access to internet at home, which is not the case and can result in marginalization of the students who do not.

It is important to continue to bolster parental engagement as well, particularly in a time when it’s typically assumed that it’s easy for parents to stay in the loop with their student. This is a dangerous assumption that further contributes to marginalization. Improving parental engagement for all families requires a broader look at the tools available. By looking to what today’s parents consider important, we can determine the best ways to engage them. Speaking to what parents value can foster meaningful connections and help encourage impactful involvement in student learning.

As families become more diverse, it is vital to identify tools and strategies to improve the inclusion of families of all backgrounds and income levels. Changes and advances in society, technology, and education continue at an increasingly rapid rate, and as such it is necessary to constantly reevaluate teaching methods and strategies to ensure they are optimal for all students. Consider these three factors to improve engagement with parents:

Scheduling

Societal and economic shifts have lead to a fundamental restructuring of the American household. According to data from the Pew Research Center, in nearly half of all U.S. families, both parents now work full time. The number of undergraduate college students who are parents increased by 50 percent between 1995 and 2011, with total numbers of undergrad parents nearing 5 million in 2011. Increasingly busy parents face unique scheduling challenges while juggling careers, their own educations, and the needs of their children.

If the goal is to boost parental engagement, then it is vital to identify resources that can help parents plan. Parents and teachers alike share the challenge of time management and may find a common solution to the issue strategic scheduling methods. Even free collaborative scheduling software, such as Doodle, can help simplify the process of finding time to connect with parents about their students. Using a calendar tool, like Google Calendar, can also help provide transparency to parents when it comes to teacher schedules.

The increase in parent students leads to a unique situation that can be leveraged to help meet multiple parental needs: time spent with their children and engagement with their school work. It has been shown that today’s parents greatly value time spent with their children, despite scheduling challenges. If it is achievable for them, parent students and their children may benefit from spending homework sessions side by side.

Safety

Safety is a major concern for many of today’s parents, many of whom have grown up in the post-9/11 United States, in a time when the definition of privacy has vastly evolved. Providing parents with resources that allow them peace of mind and assurance that their student is safe at school can be a great way to encourage engagement with their student’s learning and foster positive parent-teacher connections. By addressing basic parent concerns like safety, it becomes easier to address other, higher-level concerns.

Luckily, there are a variety of tools that can help provide assurance to parents that their children are safe at school, such as PikMyKid (a school dismissal monitoring app) and CompuGuardian (web browsing safety software). The widespread use of cellphones allows many parents to be instantly updated if there were ever to be a security concern at school, and establishing a formal, school-wide email and text alert protocol can be a great practice. Similarly, increasing accessibility to technology tools like live streaming camera monitors can give busy parents an easy way to stay updated on what their child is doing at school or in daycare, which can be particularly valuable when children are very young.

However, as with any tool or strategy that requires online access, it’s important to address the needs of parents who are not able to regularly access the internet. As such, it remains important to continue to seek out more traditional communication channels to address the needs of these parents.

Communication

Although class-related gaps in internet use have been shrinking, many families still face barriers to online access. Many parents who do have access to the internet rely primarily on mobile devices, as opposed to comprehensive online workspaces. While online-intensive tools like Blackboard and smartphones apps can help build a bridge between the home and the classroom, students and families that do not meet the assumed standard of accessibility can suffer if expectations are set that are not realistic for their unique situations. Still, regular communication with the families of these students is just as important as that with those who live in households where internet access is easily accessible.

A failure to account for discrepancies in accessibility leads to unfortunate situations where inequalities arise in access to teacher time and attention. It’s important to establish consistent standards when communicating with all parents to avoid being permissive of parental entitlement and unequal treatment. In order to avoid these situations, the value of more traditional forms of parent-teacher communication channels should not be outruled.  Phone calls, planners, paper calendars and newsletters remain essential tools for parents and students whose access to the internet is limited.

Although it’s been addressed that time is a major concern for many parents today, teachers and school officials should continue to regularly schedule open houses, family events, and parental involvement meetings. The National Association for the Education of Young Children discusses the value of restructuring PTA meetings to meet evolving parental needs in increasing engagement, and suggest using tactics such as incorporating dinners into meetings and opening them to children, so parents no longer need to seek out childcare to attend.

When schools address what is important to parents, it makes it easier to collaborate and work towards student success. Schools and teachers cannot do it alone; they need the support of parents. Continuing to adapt to changes in the lives of parents, the tools available to aid students, and the increasing diversity of the classroom is essential to optimizing student learning. Consider implementing some of these strategies in your own classroom, and you’ll likely find that student needs will be better met and relationships with will parents continue to strengthen.


Avery Taylor Phillips is a writer with a focus in early childhood education. She is a community activist passionate about equity in access to educational resources and has developed a deep understanding of the way children learn in the face of challenges due to their family circumstance through her work. In her spare time, she works to advance the progress towards equitable education opportunities.