Understanding the Power of Parent Involvement
As their children’s first teachers, parents have an amazing opportunity to nurture their children’s growth and development and to advocate for their education. And many parents want to be involved in their children’s education. I realized early in my teaching career, however, that families often face obstacles to engaging in the school experience.
During my first year working in a preschool setting, I was dismayed to see how many parents left their parent-teacher conferences upset or even crying. In my own conference with parents, one mother of a delightful, very verbal child was understandably disappointed when I explained that her daughter’s academic and social-emotional skills were not as far along as her verbal skills. She had assumed that because of her daughter’s verbal abilities, she was on track or ahead in other prekindergarten skills. The mother was unsure of what was expected at this age and had missed some opportunities at home to help her daughter develop academically. And I had missed opportunities to help her acquire the tools to do so.
As I moved through my career, I found that many parents were perplexed as they navigated the educational system with their young children. Many had little understanding of child development or developmentally appropriate practices. They wanted to help their child, but they didn't know how. They often arrived at their first parent-teacher conference to find themselves bombarded with unfamiliar educational concepts and terms like phonological awareness and numeracy.
Families with limited resources may experience even greater isolation from their children’s educational community. Many have had negative school experiences themselves, which may make them apprehensive about coming to the school or interacting with teachers. Some may hesitate to speak to educators because of a lack of confidence, out of respect for the teacher’s authority, or because they have been discouraged in such interactions in the past. When meeting with their child’s teacher, they may not know what to expect and may have little prior information about their child’s progress. It can be intimidating for parents, even when teachers have the best of intentions. This may push parents further away from their child's educational setting and discourage their participation in her academic growth and development.
When parents do not feel comfortable in the school setting, they are less likely to support and participate in school events or speak to their child’s teacher or principal about their concerns or goals for their child. Everyone misses out on valuable opportunities to strengthen the home-school connection and support children.
During my career as a preschool teacher and director, I was fully aware of the importance of engaging parents in the program. But for a long time I avoided addressing it, because I hadn't figured out how to do it. I realized that inviting parents into the classroom more was key to meaningfully involving them in their child's education, but that seemed like a difficult process. Working closely with parents was an integral part of teaching preschoolers, but it required a different skill set along with a significant commitment of time.
Twenty years into my career in early childhood education, and still struggling to understand how best to help parents advocate for and support their children’s learning, I encountered HIPPY USA. I fell in love with its approach and joined the staff. HIPPY, or Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, empowers parents as their child's first and most important teacher. Home visitors provide support, education, and mentoring to parents who may lack resources and education or experience isolation.
Through their experiences in our programs, parents gain skills in supporting their child’s learning, learn what to expect from their child’s school, and become comfortable working with teachers.
Twenty years of research have shown that the this model helps to increase parent involvement and improve children’s readiness for school, classroom behavior and attendance, test scores, and academic performance.
In addition, parents who have participated report spending more time with their children and in their children’s school. They provide an environment for literacy in their homes and cut back on their children’s screen time. Parents also report being motivated to help with their children’s homework thanks to their participation in the program. Teachers report better participation from parents who have been in HIPPY than those from who have not.
I’ve learned that many parents want to be involved in their child’s education but may lack the confidence and knowledge to do so effectively. To help them become meaningfully engaged in their child’s education and school experience, we have to help them develop the tools to do so. Programs like HIPPY help parents learn what to expect and how they can contribute to their child’s learning. With guidance and support, parents can confidently take on their role as their child’s first teacher and biggest advocate and become partners with teachers. It’s a powerful connection that can make all the difference for children, parents, and educators.
Cuenca, K. (June, 2003). Findings from the Florida HIPPY Parent Survey. University of South Florida. Department of Child and Family Studies.
Black, M.M. (2010). HIPPY Americorps Evaluation: Parental involvement in literacy activities and volunteer activities in the community in California, Florida and Hawaii.University of South Florida, Department of Child and Family Studies.
Donna Kirkwood has been a nanny, a teacher’s aide, a teacher, a program coordinator, a director of an NAEYC accredited program, a college professor and a NCATE and ECADA program reviewer. She is currently the National Program Director for HIPPY USA.