Parents Need to Learn: Five Ways to Engage Parents in Student Learning


By Arina Bokas, Glenn Gualtieri, and Meredith Copland

Research shows that children of engaged parents perform better in school. Yet, as many changes have been occurring in education (e.g., how schools approach curriculum, methodology, and student assessment), the gap between parents’ own educational experiences—stemming from decades ago—and their children’s learning is continuously widening. We believe that now, more than ever before, parents need to understand the learning process and their roles as partners in their children’s education. Schools can facilitate this process in a number of ways.

Nurture Partnerships Centered on Learning

Allowing parents to take initiative on learning-related matters is vital in forging productive partnerships. Because parents generally see things differently than educators, they might find effective ways to present educational concepts to other parents and serve as a good resource for teachers.

Our school’s PTA leaders, for example, conducted a sample study of teacher-parent communication and surveyed parents on what information they needed to receive from their teachers to feel like partners in their children’s education. After the results were shared at the staff meeting, many teachers made some adjustments to their weekly communication practices. Opening the door to continuous collaboration is not easy, but it has proved to be beneficial to everyone, especially children.

Offer Learning Opportunities for Parents

The most powerful example of meaningful parent learning we have witnessed was during a community visit. Our school invited community members to spend two or three hours one morning observing the type of learning students experienced at school. After the initial exploration of ideas and a short presentation by the principal, parents had an opportunity to see examples of student thinking displayed in the halls and visit a classroom where 4th grade scientists reasoned and collaborated while writing headlines about electricity. Following the observation, we involved participants in some hands-on activities, leading them to a deeper level of thinking and understanding. Not only did parents leave the school with a better grasp on the latest instructional practices, but they also gained a better perspective on how to support their child’s learning at home.

Training or mentoring sessions for parents of students who need extra support or enrichment in various subjects could offer good learning opportunities as well. We trained and scheduled parent volunteers to provide an extra ear during conferring sessions (a brief student-teacher “conference” regarding a project  or an activity on which a student is working) and mentor students that might need a more support. We taught parents about the school’s Positive Behavioral Intervention System and Love and Logic programs, which gave teachers, parents, and students a common, consistent language and message to support positive learning behaviors in and out of school.

Re-Envision Curriculum Nights

Curriculum nights are good opportunities to establish a shared vision for learning and let parents experience learning firsthand. In one classroom, we engaged parents in a math routine just like students experience at school. We asked parents to look at an answer and think of the question to which it could be the answer. Parents worked together and shared ideas. We told parents that this is how their children learn—collaboratively—and that their thinking is visible not only to a teacher but also to each other. This was an effective way for parents to experience how student learning and expectations have shifted since they were in school—from rote learning to a discovery model of developed shared thinking.

Turn Parent-Teacher Conferences into a Story about Learning

As we began to shift away from letter grades, parent-teacher conferences became a time to talk about what really matters—the unique learning journey of an individual child. While sharing a student’s learning story, teachers let parents see artifacts and hear how their child had grown as a learner, person, and contributor. Each learning story also highlighted the student’s strengths and challenges, as seen through the lens of work samples. At these conferences, teachers provided parents with tips for helping students at home and gave them an opportunity to ask questions and add to the story by sharing insight into their child. Both parents and teachers ended the conferences with a telling picture of the child’s learning.

Open Classrooms

We asked students to invite their parents for an hour of learning. Because we wanted parents to understand cultures of thinking routines used in our classrooms, children wrote invitations using the Claim-Support-Question thinking routine. Parents completed a Think-Puzzle-Explore thinking routine to access their prior knowledge of cultures of thinking. Many of them shared that they knew very little about it and were interested in learning how it tied in with the curriculum. It became apparent that some inquiries could not be answered via e-mail. To truly understand, parents had to see it for themselves.

During our open classroom event, students led parents on a walking tour of the classroom and hallway, where visible thinking routines were on display. They gave a brief explanation of each routine and answered questions. Later, parents observed as the students engaged in a Micro Lab Protocol with their book club members, followed by a whole class Number Talk session. We concluded by inviting parents to join students in a Chalk Talk routine, featuring math equations similar to those covered in the number talk.

Parents reflected on their experience by completing the I Used to Think/Now I Think thinking routine, which showed a shift in their perception of both learning practices and their children’s abilities. Letting parents observe their own children thinking, making connections, and applying what they know during the learning process does more for achieving consistent at-home support than any other strategy.

Involving parents in learning might be a demanding task, and “many schools assume that their parents need to be entertained with carnivals and snacks instead of selectively called into the school to strategize around improving student learning,” state Jonah Eldeman and Tyler Whitmire in a Hechinger Report article. “But only the latter leads to increased student outcomes. . . . To increase student learning, family engagement must be treated as rigorously as any other key educational strategy.” And it starts with giving parents opportunities to contribute and learn.


Arina Bokas is the editor of Kids Standard magazine and the producer of the Future of Learning TV series in Clarkston, Mich. For the last four years, she has been serving as the president/vice president of the Bailey Lake Elementary PTA and Clarkston PTA Council. She comoderated the #MichEd Parents as Partners Twitter chat. Connect with her on Twitter @arinabokas.

Glenn Gualtieri is the principal of Bailey Lake Elementary in Clarkston, Mich. Connect with him on Twitter @Glenn_Gualtieri.

Meredith Copland is a 2nd grade teacher at Bailey Lake Elementary.