Tag Archives: parental involvement in learning

Pragmatic parent-school partnerships

You’re a concerned parent and you’ve laid the foundation for your child’s educational success. Your home is full of books. You read or tell stories to your kid in bed. She likes conducting experiments, doing puzzles with you or reading an endless stream of bad jokes from her joke book. Even when you ignore your child, adult conversation in the home makes her aware of the world about her.

You’ve done a good job, not always intentionally, of preparing her for school. Perhaps it’s the state school down the road, or you’re paying a small fortune to a private college. At this stage you might begin to wonder what your role is.  Should you sit with your child while she completes every homework task, or should you leave it up to the school – after all, they’re the experts aren’t they? Should you defend her against every injustice or should you trust the school’s mechanisms to deal with your child’s issues?

I asked six teachers we know, from various schools, to give one piece of advice to parents. Here’s what they said:

  • “Don’t impose your memories of school on your child. Be knowledgeable about current teaching without being an interfering irritant.”
  • “Come to parents’ evenings. Keep in touch.”
  • “Work with me rather than gossiping in the parking lot. If you communicate contempt for teachers at home, believe me, we’ll know from your children’s behaviour at school.”
  • “[For school matters] let your child decide for herself and learn from her mistakes.”
  • “Raise your children in the home to see that learning is fun.”
  • “Get your kid organised. Teach them how to plan.”

The theme that runs through these comments is that you most definitely have a distinct role to play in the parent-child-teacher team, but understanding the parameters of that role is vital.parent-teacher-student1

Rule number one is to stay in touch with the school. Go to parents’ meetings and assemblies, respond to queries from teachers, check and sign homework where necessary, take part in some school activities aimed at parents. One teacher told me, “I probably shouldn’t admit this but if I know the parent well I give better service. ‘Seeing’ the parent’s face or ‘hearing’ their voice while I’m teaching or marking makes me a little more attentive to their child.”

Rule number two is to understand your limits. Support your child by encouraging organised work habits, responding to questions or providing advice, but don’t make decisions for them or do their work. A simple technique is to ask questions when your child comes to you for help, rather than give answers. If he asks you which famous person he should do a project on, don’t tell him – rather ask him to name the various people he admires and which one most interests him.  If he can’t solve a maths problem, don’t give him the answer – discuss various problem-solving strategies and then let him work out the answer, even if it’s wrong.

Like teachers, parents should not be out to gratify their own ego in the short term by coaching a child to false success. Rather allow children to learn from their own successes and failures.

The worst thing you can do is openly undermine teachers. Be realistic and realise that they, like you, are not perfect. Teaching is a tough job – it’s like running a children’s party on your own for six hours a day, every day. In your dealings with the school, bringing with you an understanding of teaching will increase the school’s support for you and your child. A friend of mine who is a parent makes a particular point of beginning the first parent-teacher meeting with a question or sympathetic comment about the difficulties of teaching – this helps him to actively imagine the teacher’s perspective and also makes the teacher feel understood.

What happens if there is a real problem at the school and your child is not able to deal with it himself? Perhaps a textbook is clearly racist, your child is being bullied or you believe the teacher is acting in some completely inappropriate way. Rather than moan about it in the parking lot or phone the principal, first contact the person with whom there is a problem. You teach your child a very powerful lesson if you first meet with the relevant teacher – that one should be brave enough to deal directly with a problem, and that both sides have a right to be heard before a matter is escalated. If that does not work out, take the next step up the school hierarchy.

Some reassurances – it’s ok if: one of your kid’s teachers is very strict; a teacher makes a mistake that will have no long term effect on your child; your child is given detention for a minor infringement; your child gets a B for a test, not an A, even though she always got As at her previous school; or your child doesn’t get a subjective award like Best Hockey Player. In the long term you want your child to be robust and resilient, which is less likely if you treat every mistake by the school as a major catastrophe or a plot against your child.

It all comes down to balance. It’s right to feel entitled to good service from your school. In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that better-educated parents and their children, unlike those from disadvantaged areas, feel much more entitled to ask teachers questions or interrogate their ideas, which contributes to their success in the world. On the other hand you want to avoid being the kind of over-complaining parent who seldom lets his child make mistakes, suffer disappointment or find a way to deal with an imperfect world.

Parents make the difference

I wrote this column at the start of 2012. Matric results for the previous year had just been released and it made me think about what contributes to academic success – is it all a matter of the school your child goes to, or the amount of extra resources (and money) you devote to your child? And what about those parents who are not equipped themselves to make up for the distressing deficiencies in many parts of the State school system? How can all parents make a difference?

Parents often believe that they need a lot from experts to help make their children successful. That good school with its waiting list. That brilliant maths teacher whose students all seem to get distinctions. The occupational therapist who improves your son’s poor fine-motor coordination. The educational psychologist who recommends that your child get a scribe for exams.

As useful as any one of these experts is, think of him or her as only one runner in a relay race waiting for you, the parent, to pass on the baton. Unfortunately, some parents hand over the baton well after the others. These are parents who are less aware of or interested in the requirements of their children’s education, and the result is their children may forever struggle to catch up.

It’s a common sense belief that some parents or communities are better at preparing their children for school and careers than others, but how do we know this to be actually true? Various studies have confirmed this, one of which was published recently.

Every three years an international development agency, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), tests 15-year olds from various developed countries, focusing on numeracy and literacy. Past studies have shown that the most skilled and well trained teachers have a significant impact on children’s school results and future success.

But the OECD recently undertook to investigate the role of parents. By 2009 the parents of 5000 students in 18 countries had been interviewed and the test results of their children correlated with the parents’ practices in the home.

One of the findings from the OECD research, as reported in The New York Times is:

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during the first year of primary school show markedly higher scores … than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.”

Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD, also said, “Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.”

Another interesting conclusion from the study was that even in poorer and less educated communities, where individual parents frequently read books to their children in grade one, the children of those more involved parents scored about 14 points higher than other children from the same background.

This finding has potentially huge implications for our country where, clearly, far too many children every year grow up in communities where parents, because of a history of educational disadvantage and deprivation, don’t really understand what schools require and are poorly equipped to prepare their children for school.

What I like most about these findings is how they point to very simple actions that any parent or caregiver can take immediately that will have long term benefits for their children.

Outside of the expensive, well resourced world of private schools and some of the better state schools, education is in a dire situation in South Africa. It’s something that we should be righteously angry about. The best minds in our government should be specifically tasked with saving our country from the future nightmare of masses of uneducated, illiterate and unemployable 18-year olds.

There are many reasons why the government’s responses to poor education results have been polite, beaurocratic and policy-focused rather than tackling real obstacles on the ground. There are powerful constitutiencies that would need to be taken on and, to be fair, the government already spends a huge proportion of its money on education.

However, the OECD report suggests there are steps we, as parents, can take now to help our children that don’t require challenging obstructive constituencies or spending lots of money.

In the meantime the best we can do for our children is to take action ourselves. Spread the word in your community about the importance of parental involvement in all aspects of education. At the very least, keep books, magazines and newspapers in your house. Read and tell stories to your pre-school children. Read and talk about what you’ve read in front of your children. Turn off the TV sometimes.

And when your children start school, ask them questions about their school day, about what they’ve learnt, what projects and group work they are doing. Attend school functions and parent-teacher meetings. Monitor your child’s progress, not in order to make sure they are coming first in class, but to show them that you care about how they are learning and are interested in what they are thinking.  

You can’t wait for the government to fix the schools or rely only on the experts to help your children. You can make the difference.