Research has shown a clear link between family involvement at school and a child's educational achievement. This is especially significant for children who have disabilities (Sheehey, Ornelles & Noonan, 2009). This highlights the importance of schools and families working together.
However, making home-school partnerships work is something that doesn't always come easy. It is important that we look at the things that can make it work.
One of the things that you often come across when reading or talking about working with schools is the concept of trust. As Boult (2006) states:
"The key to success [in creating an accepting climate] is trust and respect of one another's roles in the education of children." (p37)Looking at information about trust in home-school relationships, Adams and Christenson (2000) defined trust as
"confidence that another person will act in a way to benefit or sustain the relationship, or the implicit of explict goals of the relationship, to achieve postive outcomes for students." (p480)In short, to trust another person we need to have an understanding of a common goal (positive educational achievement for the child), a genuine commitment to that goal, and an ability to openly and honestly communicate without fear of negative consequences.
Lewis (2004) lists the ingredients of trust as being "respect, competence, personal regard and integrity" (p483)
As the quote from Boult suggests, respecting each other's roles is important. Conflict can often arise when families feel they are not being heard, or when teachers feel that parents do not understand the nature of their job.
One of the reasons why families may feel disrespected is because teachers or schools may not be recognising the value of their "expertise".
A family's expertise lies in their anecdotal and experiential knowledge of their child (Hughes & MacNaughton, 2002). While this knowledge is different to that of a teacher, it is not less valuable. We can only find out what makes a child who they are by listening to parents, especially if the child is not able to communicate these things themselves. And this is what makes parents such powerful advocates.
But while there is great value in seeing the individual through parents eyes, it is also important that there is clear communication and respect for the nature of the classroom and the education system.
Schools and other professionals must work within a system. This system provides philosophical guidelines, resourcing policies, physical facilities and so on. To create positive working relationships, be open and honest communication about these guidelines and policies from schools is important (Olsen, 2003; West-Burnham, Farrar & Otero, 2007). And schools need respect and support from families to help them make the most of their resources and facilities within those guidelines.
Without this mutual respect and recognition of each other's strengths and limitations, it can be easy to fall into the trap of the blame game (Roffey, 2002). So instead of working together on a solution, a school may "blame" parents for a child's inappropriate behaviour and suggest the family finds solutions. Alternately, the family may feel the child's behaviour is only inappropriate at school and expect the school to deal with it.
With mutual respect, both sides are more likely to be open about the nature of the behaviour, how often it occurs and possible triggers. And this is likely to be a catalyst for positive planning and change (Minke & Anderson, 2005).
In this way we move from seeing the interaction as "parent involvement" and start seeing it as a working partnership.
Having a knowledge of all parties roles and limitations means that we are less likely to have unrealistic expectations. As discussed in the context of bullying, schools have to work within the guidelines of the system. If schools help parents understand these more fully, then families are more likely to see schools and teachers a competent.
However, it is important that both families and schools/teachers are genuinely committed to the process of collaboration. This process involves not only meeting, discussing and planning - it is also about implementing what has been discussed in a timely manner.
Families will find it difficult to trust schools or teachers who they perceive to be slow in acting on what has been discussed (Roffey, 2002). There may be a number of reasons why action may seem slow in coming - including the possibility that approval or resourcing processes take time in the school system, or that the school/teacher has failed to provide the parent with updates about progress. Therefore, it is important that a) the family understand the processes involved in achieving change and b) that the school/teacher communicate regularly with the family about the process.
Informal, frequent contact between teachers and families is just as, if not more, important than formal meetings and notes home. This is because informal contact provides an environment where relationships can develop.
The importance of developing relationships is to ensure there is an understanding of each others' beliefs and culture (West-Burnham, et al 2007). It helps to build common ground on which future problem-solving can be based.
It is also important to recognise that much of the formal communication involves dealing with social, behavioural or academic difficulties. However, to establish trust and a good working relationship, a focus on the positives is important. Talking about the small achievements of students during the day can play a significant part in building a positive partnership between families and teachers/schools (Boult, 2006; Ouellette, Briscoe and Tyson, 2004).
The other element of this is the importance of talking about things face to face (Boult, 2006). Sending a note home, emailing, or telephoning all take away the element of personal contact. It limits the ability of both parties to "read" each others' emotions. It also means that there can be some delay or misunderstandings in an exchange of views. Person to person contact can mitigate the effects of communicating unwanted news, such as concern over a student's development or behaviour, through body-language that communicates respect, support and empathy.
So having conversations rather than formal discussions is a key to developing trust (Croft, 2010).
As mentioned previously, honesty and transparency about policies, procedures, beliefs and limitations are an important ingredient for trust.
Other measures of integrity may include:
- Respecting the level confidentiality expected by the family/school
- Being genuine
- Avoiding assumptions
- Following through with commitments
"A straightforward model of parental involvement requires that parents and teachers come together in a spirit of mutual trust and openness." (Roffey, 2002 p 131)
Adams, K.S. and Christenson, S.L. (2000). Trust and the Family-School relationship: Examination of Parent-Teacher Differences in Elementary and Secondary Grades. Journal of School Psychology, 58(5), pp477-497.
Boult, B. (2006). 176 Ways to Involve Parents: Practical Strategies for Partnering with Families. Corwin Press: California.
Croft, C. (2010). Talking to Families of Infants and Toddlers about Developmental Delays. Young Children, 4(7), p44.
Hughes, P. and MacNaughton, G. (2002). Preparing Early Childhood Professionals to Work with Parents: The Challenes of diversity and Dissensus. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 27(2). pp14-21.
Lewis, A.C. (2004). Schools that Engage Children. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(7), p483.
Minke, K.M., and Anderson, K.J. (2005). Family-School Collaboration and Positive Behavior Support. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 7(3), pg. 181
Olson, L.M. (2oo3). Pathways to Collaboration. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 11(4), pg. 236
Ouellette, P.M., Briscoe, R., and Tyson, C. (2004). Parent-School and Community Partnerships in Children’s Mental Health: Networking Challenges, Dilemmas, and Solutions. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 13(3), pp. 295–308.
Roffey, S. (2002). School Behaviour and Families: Frameworks for Working Together. David Fulton Publishers: London.
Sheehey, P., Ornelles, C. and Noonan, M.J. (2009). Biculturalization: Developing Culturally Responsive Approaches to Family Participation. Intervention in School and Clinic, 45(2), p132-139.
West-Burnham, J., Farrar, M. and Otero, G. (2007). School and Communities: Working together to transform children's lives. Network Continuum: London.