How do you engage your parents at your school? Most of can answer this in many ways--parent conferences, back-to-school nights, college/career nights, topical programming, and coffees or teas, just to name a few. However, take a second and think about how you engage the parents of minority students or under-served populations at your school? If you think that by doing all of the ideas listed above you are keeping them engaged, you might want to think again. In the May issue of Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association, Dana Griffin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote an article about the need to advocate and engage African-American parents in the schools. Dr. Griffin felt that there is a perception "that African-American are uninvolved in their children's education." (source: ct.counseling.org) She looked into research on the topic and found that African-American parents are most assuredly involved in their children's education, but that often it centers around the home and community centers, and not in the schools. Why is this? She took a focus group of 16 African-American parents and found that:
- They often did not feel welcomed into the school and felt that the schools do not have their best interests at heart. Further, they felt that parents from other cultural groups received more in depth information and communication from teachers about their children than they themselves did.
- They felt that the school did not want their input or want them to take on leadership within the schools. When they asked how mothers from other cultural groups had been given the responsibility of leading an activity or planning a trip, they stated the response was that the teachers had asked them personally to spearhead activities. (source: ct.counseling.org)
- Help to facilitate feedback from parents of all cultural groups about how they perceive the school and community. Do a needs assessment and utilize surveys after events. See if parents are interested in forming sub-groups--Latino parents, African-American parents, parents of LGBT students. You could then have representatives from these groups on your Advisory Council to help better inform the needs and perspectives of your entire school community.
- Work with parent liaisons and other parent leaders within the diverse cultural and minority groups within your school. I do not know how I would be able to effectively do my job without our parent liaison who is also a strong link to our Hispanic community. She helps me to both communicate with families as well as advocate for them and their children. Further, it is often your parent leaders from all of the various groups in your school that can go into their communities and help to bring other parents into your senior night or back-to-school event.
- Go to the parents. Are there community venues that you can visit that would help to connect you to families? Maybe you can offer to do a college/career presentation at a local community center? Further, when you have events at school, make sure that you are actively going out and talking to parents and not just waiting for them to come to you at a table. Oftentimes I walk around at our various parent events and simply ask families if I can answer any questions for them or assist in any way--you are able to start some meaningful conversations this way.
- Just as we teach students to become self-advocates, we can help parents to become more familiar with ways that they can productively work with schools to be heard and become more involved. I find that if you, as a school counselor, have worked to establish a good relationship and built trust with a parent, they will call you or stop in when they need something. You can then help them to work out what the plan of action can be with them at the lead. (source: ct.counseling.org)
In the same May issue of Counseling Today, John Sommers-Flanagan of the University of Montana wrote about seven tips for working effectively with parents:
- Be self-aware. As with all things in counseling, it is important to know your own natural reactions to things. Dr. Sommers-Flannagan gives the example of a parent who is spanking their child. If you yourself had negative experiences of being spanked growing up, your immediate reaction may be one of defensiveness and possibly anger. It is important to know your biases so that you are then more able to listen and respond effectively.
- Know what's hot in parenting. Do you know about a Tiger mom is? If so, it might lend you credibility with parents if they ask you what you think or refer to it. It is important to keep abreast of larger trends in parenting--chances are that if it's on the morning shows and in newspapers, your parents are talking about it and have questions.
- Empathy should come before education. We have to remember the same things with our students, which can be a challenge sometimes when you only have five minutes! However, one of the universal truths I hold in this profession is that most of the time people simply want someone to listen to them and acknowledge that they have been heard. If you allow this to happen first, most people are very receptive to any education or thoughts you may have to assist.
- Be direct and collaborative. Honesty is very important--if they want to know about your background working with kids, let them know. If they want to know if you have kids, its okay to be honest. However, what separates us as counselors from other professionals is that our training tells us to examine why they want to know that particular information and acknowledge the thoughts or feeling that may be behind it. If they are asking the questions above, they may be worried about your inexperience. Acknowledge that you understand their concern but that you'll do your best and that together, you can all come up with some ideas.
- Parents usually know their kids best. When something happens at school and you call the parent for more information, more times than not they have pretty spot-on ideas about where motivations or issues may be coming from. I find that parents are often pretty realistic about their kids, both their strengths and weaknesses. As school counselors, they are a font of information about our students. After all, they've lived with them over all these years.
- Come from a strengths based model, especially with the parents. I've written about this before, but I think it is awfully challenging to be a parent nowadays. The media and society at large put a lot of pressure on parents to be perfect so that they can raise the perfect kids who will go to the perfect college and have the perfect life, and if anything goes wrong along the way it is the parents' fault. Always acknowledge the wonderful things you think the parents are doing well and let them know all of the things they already have in place to help support their child. This can lay a strong groundwork to come up with a plan to help their child.
- Give advice and then listen for their feedback. If I propose a plan or a solution for a student, I always ask the parent what they think about it? Do they think it will work? Do they think its realistic? Do they think it is something they can try? If it's not, then we need to go back and come up with something else. Just giving advice, without checking in and seeing what they think, and without collaborating, will usually not work very well. (source: ct.counseling.org)
This article from NPR's Planet Money is something to share with your parents, ideally in an e-newsletter that you send out. It is no secret that the economy is on the forefront of everyone's mind. Research at the University of Arizona in Tuscon is finding that those families who talk to their children about money, savings, and involve them in such family financial matters as buying cars or houses are more likely to raise children who will be making responsible financial choices. These kids, as they graduated from college, were often found to be using budgets and delineating between items that were "needs" versus "wants." The researchers also recommend that families with young children discuss expectations about how much of their allowance and monetary gifts is expected to go into savings and follow through with that plan. They acknowledge that these conversations can be tough to start, but can have positive life-long effects. Click here for the full article.
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