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Educator: What Does Parent Engagement Look Like in High School

What Does Parent Engagement Look Like in High School? 


Educators at high schools across the country say the same thing: many high school parents just aren’t engaged. They don’t join the PTA, they don’t come to parent/teacher conferences, they can’t help with chemistry homework — heck, they barely check the online grade reports. Teachers and administrators may even use this to justify the notion that parents shouldn’t be involved in the first place. Aren’t students growing up and learning to be more self-sufficient, after all?

But look a little deeper at what’s going on in high schools. Watch the way parents text and “friend” their children on social media. Look at all the parents at sporting events or band concerts, or listen to the conversations happening around kitchen tables — What colleges are you thinking about? Don’t stay up too late working on that history project — and you can see that parent engagement in high school is there. It just looks different than in elementary and middle school.

The parent/child relationship gets complicated in high school. As adolescents push and pull toward autonomy, there can be a lot of friction, especially around school, friends and time management. Dr. Evanthia Patrikakou points out, sometimes families and schools can misinterpret this as a reason to NOT be involved. But, in fact, research has shown that parent involvement at every level is important and can positively impact student achievement.

There are many ways you can help parent engagement in high school but it must include effective communication and an investment in personal relationships.

So as educators, we should stop narrowly defining parent engagement as helping with homework or coming to PTA meetings. Instead, we should take time to really think about what the parents of our high school students want at this stage in their child’s life.

When I was a high school teacher, I looked forward to parent teacher conferences. But the parents often surprised me in what they wanted to know. Yes, yes, I’m glad he’s passing but tell me, what is my son into? Does he seem happy? He’s said he wants to be a chemical engineer. Is he taking the right classes? Their concerns seemed to coalesce around three big ideas:

  • Their child’s future. Parents want their kids to be prepared to be successful at the next step and they want to help them get there.

  • Their evolving relationship with their child. Parents crave opportunities to positively interact.

  • The mental and social health of their child. Parents want to support them through this transitional stage.

I suspect that the families at your school would share these concerns. But of course, the best way to know is to ask them and then design parent engagement strategies that help address those concerns more specifically. I can help you do that. In the meantime, here are a few ideas to help:

  • Start with the principal. One study from Australia found that “parents considered the attitudes, communication and leadership practices of school principals to play a crucial role in fostering and maintaining relationships between parents and schools.” Principals must consistently send the message to teachers and parents that families are an important part of the high school community. One way to do this is to encourage parent participation in school decision making. Sound a little scary? Read more about it here (link coming soon!). Parents who believe they have a greater voice in what happens with their children are more likely to be involved.

  • Educate parents about the importance of their role and how that role is changing. No one is born knowing how to parent a teenager. Share with parents that while their children are growing toward autonomy, they still need someone to help them “keep their eyes on the prize.” For example, time is a limited and precious resource for families and teenagers. Certainly cell phones and social media have changed the way that students interact with each other and with the adults in their lives. But research has shown that technology, such as a smart phone, can actually positively affect the parent/ child relationship if it’s coupled with some old-fashion conversation. Encourage families to protect some time to check-in consistently (not just when there is a problem) and spend time together. Be sure these workshops or information sessions don’t turn into “kids-these-days” lectures. Keep the information positive and helpful, and treat parents like equal partners in the process.  

  • When asked, parents will overwhelming say they have high expectations for their high schoolers. This is fabulous and will make a measurable difference in the child’s academic success. But sometimes, parents may need help communicating these expectations and putting them into real action. This is where the school can help. Host career nights (ask the parents to be the speakers), college fairs, take-your-student-to-work days, resumé-writing workshops, financial aid nights, college application writing parties, research nights--you get the idea. Invite both the students and parents to attend. This will help convert those kitchen table conversations into real action.

  • Personal relationships, personal relationships, personal relationships. There is a lot of evidence that if parents and students feel like they belong to a community and that the people at school know them and want them to succeed, they will do better. This can be hard because students often have multiple teachers who also may come from a different background than their students. Consider organizing the school so that teachers move up a grade or two with students in some subjects, or implement a homeroom or advisory period that is the same throughout high school. This way each student and family will have at least one adult at the school that can be their “point person.”

Also, as Dr. Mapp and Dr. Henderson suggest in their excellent synthesis of research on family engagement, make a consistent effort to “Explore ways to enhance what families are already doing. Create small, friendly settings during occasions such as class meetings, teacher parent conferences, grade-level potluck dinners, and family breakfasts that will encourage families to speak.” Feeling welcomed and free to speak their minds will help you support what parents are already doing.

  • As part of the emphasis on personal relationships, consider implementing a home visit program (read about more home visits) in your school. This can be especially important in 9th grade (to ease the transition to high school) and 12th grade (to support the transition to college or career).

  • Recently NPR reported on an approach to improving attendance and students’ grades—an automatic text every time the child is absent or missing an assignment. On the surface, this may seem like a good idea and it did help with grade point averages and truancy. But remember, the parent/teenage child relationship is already full of friction. A program like this must be complemented with a “positive call” program to help increase the likelihood of those positive interactions between parent and child. And Dr. Patrikakou adds, “It is critical to expand child-specific communication to include positive news. Such a strategy will foster a positive climate and make parents more involved and responsive to future school outreach.”

  • High school students are at stage where they are proving to themselves and the adults around them that they are growing into capable and successful adults. So high schools should give them an opportunity to showcase real skills. Project based learning, capstone projects and other academic showcases can be important part of preparing students for life beyond high school. This is a natural way to involve parents as audience members, judges or project mentors. Invite them to help shape the requirements for these projects, based on the skills they need on their own careers.

  • High school is a time when those “soft-skills” such as time-management, project management, goal setting, researching skills and working in a group can make a big difference in academic success. While parents may not be able to help with chemistry homework, they can help with these life skills, especially if they are trained. Invite parents to participate in (or even lead) these workshops so they can better support their students at home.

  • Teachers should have a transparent grading system with multiple chances for redemption. Much of the conflict that arises between parents and students and teachers is, not surprisingly, around grades and then a round of “he-said-she-said” when assignments are missing or incomplete. If teachers can clearly and repeatedly communicate the expectations in their class to both students and parents, then they can head these problems off. Hint: looking at a grade-point average on a computer communicates little about grading policies or expectation. Try to routinely share models and exemplar work (Read more about sharing student work here) with both students and parents.

  • Train teachers and staff on parent outreach, conflict resolution and communication. Protect time in the teacher’s day specifically for developing the skills of family engagement.

  • Help families tap into resources in the community. As students get older, families will look to the larger community for extracurricular activities, jobs and other social services. The school can help by hosting community organizations and information sessions in the school.

Having a high-schooler in the house is an exciting (and tumultuous) time in the life of a family. Schools should remember that as they reach out and support families, those families can better fulfill their role as the emotional anchor that helps students navigate their transition into adulthood.

Start here: Send out a survey to the parents of your high school students. Ask them what concerns they have for their child and how you can help.

Challenge yourself: Read and discuss this thought-provoking case study from Dr. Steve Constantino with a colleague.

Read more about the importance of personal relationships between teachers and students here.

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