Parent or guardian engagement is essential to help students succeed. However, teachers sometimes feel like they are communicating into a black hole. They send out information and updates but get nothing back. Even with virtual learning in 2020, some teachers still struggle to engage parents.
What does successful parent engagement look like and how can educators tap into it? Here are some lesson plan ideas to help you out and a few pieces of advice to make sure parents are receptive.
Why is Parent Engagement Important?
Parent engagement creates a team of adults that support students. Engaged parents can back teachers up and help their children remember the material, for example, when they encourage lesson reviews at home.
The team at Waterford says there is a significant difference between parent engagement and involvement. With parent engagement, parents and teachers share the responsibility to help children learn. Parents set aside time for their kids and collaborate with educators. Parent involvement, on the other hand, means serving as an advisor to the teacher while placing the majority of the burden on the education system. Many parents are involved in their kids’ education but aren’t as engaged as they could be.
Kids reflect the values of the adults around them. If parents aren’t excited about education and the classroom, then students won’t value the lessons their teachers provide.
Understanding the benefits of parental engagement is one part. The next part is actually nurturing it. In early 2020, the Center for American Progress think tank released its findings on a study about parent engagement. Through extensive research, it found that parents preferred frequent communication from the school, and found that most schools did a good job of communicating. However, more consistent and personalized communication would be helpful.
Individual student achievement was one of the most commonly listed communication priorities by parents.
Communication is particularly important as more students are learning virtually this year. Not only do parents need to know what students are learning, but also how they are engaging with the material.
“Just as educators are in uncharted waters, most families are nervous about managing the logistics and content of their children’s education,” write Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson, columnists for Getting Smart. “They need messaging and interactions from educators that are supportive, positive, compassionate, and encouraging in order to effectively facilitate this learning at home.”
The lesson plans you develop can help parents connect with the material. The lessons shared in this article can be applied to students of all grades and won’t intimidate parents who might not have strong educational backgrounds.
Create a Family Tree
One of the easiest ways to connect families with the classroom is with the creation of family trees. This lesson plan can be used to introduce any history class, while also having relevance in art class, writing and even science.
“It’s a great way for kids to find out more about their extended family and learn about different places and different times,” Danielle Lautrec, an education officer at the Society of Australian Genealogists, tells KidsNews. “I think it’s very important to understand about different types of families and different types of people, and for children to feel connected to the people in their family.”
This flexible lesson plan can be done in a variety of ways. Kate Jackson at Family History Daily, shares a list of resources for kids and parents to develop their own family trees. Students can create them with a printed worksheet or use advanced genealogy tools.
Turn Students Into Citizen Scientists
If you are looking for projects that can engage the whole family, turn to citizen science initiatives in your area.
“Citizen science doesn’t have to involve committing large quantities of time to being part of a research team,” Liz Harper writes at American Forests. “It can be as simple as taking pictures over time to help scientists gauge habitat changes. That method has been used around the world, and its simplicity makes it easier for citizens to participate in the data collection.”
Citizen scientists report light pollution, track bird species, make note of erosion on shorelines, and study clouds. These tasks only take a few minutes each day, but when several people collect this data over time, the information is valuable.
There are multiple ways to get families involved in citizen science. SciStarter.com is a website that highlights science projects people can do as a community. You can assign basic projects like identifying animals through a free artificial intelligence app or ask students to collect trash out in nature each day that gets turned into art.
Another website to use is CitizenScience.gov, which allows government organizations to crowdsource information related to various departments. Some students may want to sign up for a project at the start of the semester and see what they learn over the course of a few months.
Get Musically Creative
Projects that involve art and creativity are some of the best ways to engage families. If one child is having fun, then their siblings will be curious about what is going on. Soon the whole family is participating and bonding while they learn.
For example, the bloggers at Play & Go Adelaide share music videos that families created during the pandemic lockdown. These range from silly videos of families dancing to intense performances that could impress concert directors. You can assign a similar assignment to your students, asking them to create a music video parody on a topic or to write a song about something they are learning.
Music-based lesson plans also have a place in the history classroom when discussing cultural diversity and inclusion. Jennifer Katzinger, a program coordinator at the Northwest Language and Cultural Center, encourages parents and teachers to listen to world music to help them connect with their culture and learn about the cultures of others.
“Turn on world music any time of day — while driving the kids to and fro, cooking or studying,” she writes. “It’s easy to do and provides a melodic portal into another culture.”
Teachers often use food to connect students to their culture and will let students enjoy a multicultural potluck during the year. However, with virtual learning still commonplace, you can incorporate multicultural learning and creativity through music instead of through food sharing.
Create a Classroom Newspaper
Parents don’t always have to be involved in the projects you assign. There are a few ways to encourage engagement while still ensuring the students do most of the work. One option is to create a classroom newspaper with important updates.
Laurie Henry, Ph.D., dean of Salisbury University’s Seidel School of Education, shared a 10 session lesson plan on newspapers for grades 3-5. Students learn about journalism and develop their own classroom newspaper. They learn to write newspaper articles, edit the work of their peers, and learn how to lay out the paper to make it engaging and readable.
If your students aren’t able to create their own newspapers, they might be able to contribute to them. Consider asking your students to identify a news source to submit a letter to the editor (this way your local paper doesn’t get flooded with letters). Students need to research their subject and create a persuasive argument on the subject. Some older students might reach out to media outlets and ask to submit opinion pieces to understand the journalistic review process.
The organization Teaching Tolerance created a useful lesson plan for writing letters to the editors. This is a good place to start with your classroom activities for grades 6-8 and 9-12. To involve parents, ask students to learn about the media that their families engage with and see if various family members can help with the editing process.
Parent Engagement Doesn’t Have to Mean Major Projects
If you are trying to engage parents in your classroom, you may be tempted to assign projects that students need to complete with their families. However, this can create stress for everyone involved. Instead, look for small ways that parents can help without taking over the work.
“Quite small things that parents do are associated with a child doing better in life,” Helen Pearson, Ph.D., science journalist and author of “The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives,” says. “Things like talking and listening to a child, responding to them warmly, teaching them their letters and numbers, taking them on trips and visits. Reading to them every day seems really important too.”
Something simple like asking students to read to their parents can have a big impact on engagement without placing a burden on families to help students do the work.
Another reason to avoid major family-involved projects is to avoid the condition where the parents do the work while the child sits back and watches. Letting parents do the work for their children may limit their abilities in the long run. They will always turn to their parents for help and are more likely to give up because they know an adult will do the task for them.
“When parents do their kids’ work, they can sap their confidence,” Stephanie Loomis Pappas, Ph.D. writes at Snackdinner. “That’s bad enough, but the effect can also ripple out across the classroom, where kids who did do their own work but may not be as skilled at identifying parent-completed work lose confidence as well.”
Kids who work hard to complete the task might not think they are good enough because they don’t realize that parents are helping their peers. Even if they do realize this, they may wonder why their own parents won’t help them.
If you are looking for additional ways to engage parents, school content specialist Emily Boyle, created a useful guide at School Webmasters. Many of her ideas come from a school-wide level, but you may be able to bring them down to events for just your grade or your classroom.
One of the best things you can instill in your students is a love of learning. If the parents of your students are able to get excited about projects (whether they are creating a family music video or looking for stars in the sky), that excitement will be contagious. When families learn and read and play together, they create positive memories that last a lifetime — and will always be tied back to the classroom.