For Administrators

Disengaged Parents: 5 Keys for School Leaders

By Brian Gatens December 19, 2012

Bringing disengaged parents — and most likely their disengaged children — back into the life of your school is perhaps your greatest and most important challenge.

Larry Ferlazzo has written about this extensively from the teacher’s perspective at his excellent blog, and I’m happy to add my perspective from the main office. I can assure you that working with disengaged parents is never easy, but the rewards of success are twofold. You not only increase the quality of the child’s life, but you also comfort parents who worry about how their children are doing in school. The ultimate goal is to help parents develop the capacity to work effectively with their children and the school. Here are five strategies I use to help make that happen:

1. Accept disengaged parents for where they are

Disengaged parents are most likely reliving their own school experience through their children’s difficulties.  Time and time again they joke about how they hated being “sent to the principal’s office.” There’s often a direct connection between the child’s lack of engagement and the parent’s negative school experience, so it’s best to take a light touch in the first parent meeting.

I like to begin with just enough data to impress upon the parent the seriousness of her child’s difficulty and then proceed to discussing solutions. If teachers have joined you for the meeting, it’s important to walk the fine line by advocating for the child but supporting the staff members who interact with the struggling child everyday. You don’t want to reach beyond the parent’s capacity to engage herself in addressing the situation and you do want to keep the teachers focused on the child.

2. Embrace any sign of willingness

Even the slightest amount of willingness shown by the parent is the best place to start. It’s easy for administrators to see what the parent needs to do to help his child succeed, but the more important milestone is to get the parent to initiate habits that will lead to greater engagement.

In a perfect world, a parent would check every homework assignment every night, quiz her child and help her prepare projects and assignments. The disengaged parent needs a more realistic start, like sitting down with her child every night and reviewing the homework pad or checking the school website together. Perhaps even the simple goal of side-by-side reading or a nightly “quiet time” to study is a good place to start.

3. Pass the sniff test

Disengaged parents are more suspicious about school administrators. As youngsters, most likely they came across school structures and settings that alienated them from learning. To counteract this, we need to continually drive home the point that our sole focus is to help their children engage more with school.

We must emphasize that their children’s connection to the school — and their subsequent success — will only serve to empower their children, making them more self-confident and better able to deal with the challenges of life. This is no time to be judgmental; that will only set back the parent’s re-engagement.

4. Live your dedication

Your disengaged parent has been told about his child before. I’ve had parents tell me, “the words are the same in the meetings. Only the years change.” It’s especially important for you to show the parent how much you care for his child, how his child’s success matters to you and to the entire school.

A great way to show how much you care is the spur-of-the-moment student conference, a phone call home to celebrate success or to help the child find the right school club or activity to join.

5. Adapt yourself to their perspective

An unfortunate reality of schooling is that few teachers or administrators have ever truly struggled in an educational setting. Face it, we are puzzled and mystified by the parent and child who lack our level of enjoyment and fulfillment.

Unfortunately, this typically manifests itself as passing judgment on the parent. I find it hard to believe that parents knowingly allow their children to falter in school, but I have come to learn that they usually do not have the skill set needed to help their child. It’s our responsibility to help parents develop those skills.

Having engaged parents translates into a more serene family life, a stronger parent-child connection and a firmer conviction that the family can support a strong education. And engaged students lead to more dynamic classes that lead to more satisfied teachers and therefore stronger schools. Getting parents engaged is part of a huge circle of support with successful and satisfied children at the center.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J.  Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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