Parent Involvement in Education
By Susan Jarmuz-Smith
Parent involvement is important—period. As school psychology graduate students, we intuitively understand this and hear it often in our training; yet, what does parent involvement truly mean? What does it look like and how do we make it happen? As a parent of a child with special needs, I also ponder the perspective of parents as they navigate the educational juggernaut. How do they feel about their own abilities and capacity to engage in the educational process?
To be effective school psychologists, it is essential that we form a personal understanding of the importance and significance of parental involvement, including the legal and ethical obligations that further home–school connections. This foundation then sheds light on the mechanics behind a parent–teacher shared educational responsibility and how, as future school psychologists, we can encourage and increase parental involvement in education.
Why Support Parental Involvement
It is an easy task to find research bolstering the intuitive idea that supporting parent involvement ultimately benefits students academically, socially, and occupationally. For example, Christenson, Rounds, and Gorney (1992) found that any amount of parental engagement positively affects student outcomes. This is a great finding for parents with little time to spare.
In Best Practices in School Psychology V, Esler, Godber, and Christenson (2008) note that parental involvement is critical because learning occurs across multiple settings and that collaborative and problem-solving partnerships with parents ensure the greatest chance of student success. This underscores the importance of consistency across the contexts of school, home, and community. In fact, NASP’s (2005) position statement on home–school collaboration proposes that a student’s education is a shared responsibility among educators in the school, parents at home, and members of the community.
Legal And Ethical Obligations
A great way to build knowledge about parental involvement in education is to understand the legal and ethical obligations of school psychologists. The main legal frameworks are the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). These are important laws for graduate school psychologists to recognize, know, and understand.
ESEA, previously titled the No Child Left Behind Act, mandates (through Title I) parental communication and significant parental involvement in developing school improvement plans. IDEA encompasses provisions that ensure parents are a significant part of the special education process. These provisions, known as procedural safeguards, include giving parents appropriate notice of meetings and upcoming decisions, explaining parental rights as a member of the decision team, and providing information about the dispute resolution process. FERPA is about parental rights to access and review student educational records. There are varying options to this access, such as encouraging parents to review the access logs and informing them of opt-out procedures. In essence, these three federal laws provide the legal mandates that ensure increased opportunities for parental involvement in education and provide the information needed by parents to make informed decisions regarding their children’s education.
In addition to legal mandates, there are ethical guidelines that address parental involvement. NASP’s Principles for Professional Ethics (2010) state that school psychologists must aim to "encourage and promote parental participation in school decisions" (pg. 4) and "respect the wishes of parents" (pg. 5). Clearly, it is an ethical obligation of school psychologists to honor and respect a parent’s choice while providing accurate information to aid them in becoming fully informed participants.
Building Parental Involvement
Many parents ask, "How can I get involved?" A small, but potent way for parents to become engaged is to read communications from the school that include listings of ways they can become significantly involved, such as participating in classroom lessons, volunteering at sporting events, or providing support as a parent liaison in educational task forces. Feuerstein (2000) found that increased communication from the school naturally increased parent involvement: Just the small act of communicating with parents about the needs of the school motivated parents to become involved. The goal, then, is to provide concrete ways for parents to engage and tell them all about it.
Communication is just the start. Getting parents in the door increases their overall involvement and builds capacity for engagement in ways that are more significant. Epstein (1997) found there are six types of parental involvement:
- Communication: providing information about student progress, service, programs, and offering a pathway for parents to communicate with the school.
- Parenting: providing information to parents about child development and ageappropriate expectations.
- Volunteering: meaningful assistance that works with parents’ schedules.
- Learning at home: ideas and strategies on how parents can assist with homework.
- Community collaboration: two-way connections between community, business, and schools.
- Decision-making: parents becoming involved in organizations, committees, and school boards.
Undoubtedly, there are a variety of ways for parents to become engaged. Our creativity in applying these variations in ways that work with our local culture is what will affect our success.
Parental Involvement and Families With Special Needs
Families of children with special needs present a unique situation because they endure unique and extremely potent stressors (Smith, 2010). As an illustration, Poller and Fabe (2009) recorded that the divorce rate of parents with a child with special needs was between 85% and 90%. To say these parents are frazzled may be an understatement. As school psychologists, we may sense the tension and at times frustration these families face as they not only navigate the special education system, but also the general education system, their child’s program of medical needs, and the unique family dynamics that occur. Yet, this is not a reason to ignore their potential involvement. In fact, encouraging parents of children with special needs to become involved in their child’s education in ways that work for them fosters a relationship of respect and collaboration that may have otherwise been strained by Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings or a focus on challenging issues.
With all these stressors and potentially negative interactions occurring, some educators and school administrators come to the IEP table with a defensive posture, hoping to avoid litigation. This situation sets up a noncollaborative relationship between school personnel and parents and is a significant barrier to cooperation. In these cases, it may be helpful to take a step back from the table and attempt to understand the differing perspectives in the room.
What School Psychologists Can Do
NASP’s (2005) position statement on home–school collaboration states that the role of a school psychologist is to become involved in efforts to promote meaningful and fully collaborative parent involvement. NASP encourages school psychologists to explore ways to encourage this full collaboration through understanding the need for consistency across contexts (home, school), utilizing evidence-based parent involvement models, enabling parental participation on school-based teams, advocating for the resources to support parental involvement programs, and supporting meaningful bidirectional communication.
Many districts know that parent involvement is a key component of ESEA and student outcomes; unfortunately, engaging parents often falls low on a school’s priority list compared to the demands of making adequate yearly progress (AYP) and other measures of school success. In the hope of remedying this, organizations such as the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) National Center for Family and Community Connections (http://www.sedl.org/ connections) provide parent involvement toolkits that include do-it-yourself information sheets, checklists, letters, surveys, and more. Districts can also turn to local universities for assistance. In Maine, the Southern Maine Area Resource Team (SMART) for Schools, which is affiliated with the University of Southern Maine, offers consulting and professional development that support parent involvement (http://usm.maine.edu/smart).
As practitioners, we will need to stay current on research and tweak things as needed from year to year to create a parent involvement program that works with the local culture and dynamics of our individual school systems. The school year schedule presents us with a unique situation that supports gathering baseline data, implementing a parent involvement program, reviewing its effectiveness, making alterations, and trying again the following year. Since school psychologists are trained to look at data-based outcomes, it is reasonable to review and improve our attempts to increase parent involvement each year.
Overall, the key to parent involvement is providing meaningful engagement opportunities that offer concrete ways for parents to build knowledge of and the capacity to involve themselves in the educational system. If we ask parents to help, research shows they will, and this directly and positively affects student achievement. Fortunately, there are many ways for parents to be involved, all the while gaining the needed capacity to make influential decisions. This variety breaks down existing barriers to parent involvement and utilizes the skills, expertise, and abilities of parents to support their school system.
As a graduate student, I am trying to understand the legality and ethics of parent involvement in addition to the realistic and effective ways to involve parents in an important part of their children’s lives. Through connecting parents to the inner workings of their child’s day, we will increase interest and engage parents in education. A goal for all school psychology students is to create pathways toward effective parental involvement; this fulfills our purpose of positively influencing all students’ academic, occupational, and social outcomes.
Christenson, S., Rounds, T., & Gorney, D. (1992). Family factors and student achievement: An avenue to increase students’ success. School Psychology Quarterly, 7, 178–206.
Epstein, J. L., Coates, L., Salinas, K. C., Sanders, M. G., & Simon, B. S. (1997). School, family, and community partnerships: Your handbook for action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Esler, A. N., Godber, Y., & Christenson, S. L. (2008). Best practices in supporting school– family partnerships. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp. 917-936). Bethesda, MD: NASP.
Feuerstein, A. (2000). School characteristics and parent involvement: Influence on participation in children’s school. The Journal of Educational Research, 94, 29–40.
National Association of School Psychologists. (2005). Home-school collaboration (Position Statement). Bethesda, MD: Author.
National Association of School Psychologists. (2010). Principles for professional ethics. Bethesda, MD: Author.
Poller, J. L., & Fabe, A. (2009). Legal and financial issues in a divorce when there is a special needs child. American Journal of Family Law, 22(4), 192–201.
Smith, S. (2010). Distress and hope in families raising children with special needs. Counseling Today, 53(1), 54–56.
Susan Jarmuz-Smith is a PsyD student in the school psychology program at the University of Southern Maine.