Engaging your students' parents these days is actually easier than ever, thanks to the many channels at your fingertips – and theirs. In this article, I want to review those channels and encourage you and your fellow school administrators and teachers to start making the most of the variety of communication channels that can improve parent involvement at your school.
We all know that when parents are engaged, school seems to be a higher priority for students. Homework gets completed on time. Students are more prepared for tests. They’re more active in extracurriculars and the community.
Research from the Southwest Education Development Laboratory (SEDL) found that parental involvement increases the odds for student success in a number of ways, including better attendance, higher grades and test scores, and better social skills and behavior. Students with involved parents were also more likely to attend post-secondary education. In a more recent study, the SEDL underscored that student development depends more than ever on building family-school partnerships.
Numerous studies have been conducted before and after that one, but regardless of the research, common sense tells us that an engaged parent equals successful students. There’s no doubt that parent involvement is critical to student success.
Education professor and long-time parent involvement advocate Joyce Epstein has developed a framework which defines six specific areas in which schools can engage parents:
- Parenting – Schools can offer information and tools that help parents better understand their child’s development and create a home that facilitates learning.
- Communicating – Schools can communicate important school events and information with parents.
- Volunteering – Schools can recruit parents and families to volunteer at the school and at related community events.
- Learning at home – Parents need information on classroom activity so they can help their children continue their learning at home.
- Decision making – Parents want to be involved in important school decisions. Surveys, PTO meetings, and community discussion provide that opportunity.
- Community collaboration – School can develop partnerships with neighboring businesses and organizations to provide services to the community.
You’re probably doing some level of parent outreach in all of these areas. Maybe you’re sending home updates on classroom activity, organizing PTO meetings, and even developing community service initiatives. Perhaps you’re including parents in school decisions and offering volunteer opportunities in the classroom.
Are you effectively reaching out to parents?
So what can we do to promote and improve parent engagement? What’s the best way to increase parent engagement? In what areas should you focus your energy?
If you’re not getting the response you want from your engagement efforts, it may be that you’re not communicating them effectively. Many schools still rely on traditional forms of communication, like emailing newsletters in the form of PDF attachments or sending home paper announcements in students’ folders. Maybe you do use your website to post information to – maybe on the homepage or some other area of your website.
You probably know as well as anyone that parents are busy these days. There may be two working parents in the home who are trying to juggle childcare with their careers. You likely have many students who are raised by a single parent.
To reach these busy parents, you have to make your communications convenient and quick to read. You have to target your outreach efforts in a way that makes them more likely to be received and digested. For most parents, that means online communications. Here are four best practices that you can adopt today:
1. Create a mobile-first parent strategy.
More than anything else, parents want information. They want to know how their children are doing in school. They want to know what activities they have upcoming on the calendar. They want to know when assignments are due.
As you likely know, children are often hesitant to share this information. That can be especially true at the high school levels.
You can provide easy access to this information by giving parents choices about how they want to engage with your school. And we all know that parents are on the go.
The at the core of your mobile communications is a responsive school website that automatically adjusts its design and navigation for any mobile device (tablet, phone, wearable) your parents are using.
The next mobile-first tactic is to offer a notification system that enables parents to receive instant, user-specific targeted text, voice, email, social media and website alerts for time-sensitive news and information.
The last critical component to meeting the needs of your on-the-go parents is a mobile app which has all your content integrated into a branded mobile app that everyone who matters will have on hand.
2. Encourage parent-created content.
Parents know that you want them to be more involved in the school. However, they may not often know what’s in it for them and their child. There’s no better way to promote engagement than to share the stories of other parents who are actively involved.
Ask your involved parents to contribute to your school’s blog or newsletter. Maybe a parent who volunteers in a classroom could share his or her story and why volunteering is so beneficial. A parent who is on PTO or who helped organize a school function could write about his or her positive experience and share it with other parents.
Many school PTOs have their own dedicated websites, distinct from the school website. While some may argue that PTO site should be integrated into the school website, the key point here is that any parent-created website shows that your school puts a priority on parent communications.
PTO Today offers some great tips on how to organize a volunteer-created PTO site. With all due respect to enthusiastic parents who want to publish great content, make sure it’s not a rogue site. Be sure any PTO website is approved by and coordinated with your school’s communications director.
3. Embrace social media.
Your students’ parents are on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and even LinkedIn. If you want to reach them, you have to go to the places where they spend time. That means making a concerted social media outreach effort.
Use Facebook to post links to your blog, announcements, and other important information. Facebook is also great for pictures, so use it to post images from your most recent event. Parents can then see exactly what they missed, as well as information on how they can get involved in the next event.
One resource your school can use it the Social Media Guide for Schools, published by Campus Suite, that outlines how public and private schools can use social media to better connect with parents. The more parents you get to join your online network, the stronger your partnerships with entire school community will be.
4. Conduct surveys.
Want parent input on important school decisions? Get them involved early through online surveys. You can use a service like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms to create and distribute online surveys to parents. The outreach can be done through email, social media, and even on the school website.
A short, five-question survey could be enough to pique a parent’s interest in a particular menu or to get spark some online conversation. For example, assume you send out a survey on changes to the school’s art program. A parent may complete the survey and immediately become more interested in the outcome. That could drive them to attend meetings, become involved in planning committees, and help to formulate the school’s decision making.
Project Appleseed, a non-profit organization dedicated to public school improvement, has assembled a cool parent involvement survey/report card. Even if you're a private or charter school, this survey is still a good one to use as a model if you're serious about assessing parent involvement at your school.
Some content management systems have survey capabilities built right into their software, so the ability to measure opinion or start some healthy dialogue with parents is just a link away.
Parents + online communications tools = engaged parents in your school
With parents busier than ever these days, the challenge of building family-school partnerships has never been greater. Conversely, all the online tools at a school's disposal create numerous ways to connect your school to parents. The important thing about engagement is to make the communication effort in a variety of mediums.
Some parents and students may be focused enough to check folders for notes or to open PDF attachments to emails. However, many aren’t. Your challenge is to find the right 'mix' of online tools to build your parent involvement. By using a mixture of digital communications, you’re creating a more diversified outreach strategy. That gives you more opportunity to reach parents and creates greater likelihood that they’ll become more engaged with your school and students.
As you know firsthand, increased parent engagement is that secret ingredient to student success. Let’s just not be so secretive about encouraging and promoting it. Use the online tools outlined above, and start seeing your parent engagement at your school improve.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.