The expression "Parents are their children's first teachers" is so widely used it has become a cliché. But it is true. We should view and treat parents as the experts that they are.
Still, many parents do not appear to be involved, at least at school. What goes through parents' minds as they consider whether to become involved-or hold back? For starters, they need to feel that they have something to offer, and that they would be welcome if they came.
In their important studies, Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler found that three key concepts influence the choices parents make about being involved in their children's education:
1 - How parents develop their job description as a parent.
(Researchers call this "role construction.") What parents think they're supposed to do to help their children and what their family and friends say about what's important and acceptable deeply affect what parents decide to do. Will they decide to be active and involved, passive and deferential, or angry and critical? Their cultural background and surroundings strongly influence this decision.
2 - How confident parents feel about their ability to help their children.
(Researchers call this "efficacy.") Parents are more likely to become involved if they feel that:
- They have the skills and knowledge needed to help their children
- Their children can learn what they have to share and teach
- They can find other sources of skill or knowledge if needed
- What they do will make a positive difference in their children's learning
3 - Whether parents feel invited-both by their children and by the school.
This "sense of invitation" is strongly influenced by signals that parents receive from their children and school staff. These signals let parents know what their children and teachers want and expect. Their children's age and how well they're doing in school also have an impact.(5) In her current research, Hoover-Dempsey notes that of the three factors, invitation is very often the most important.
In other words, we know that parents are more motivated to support their children's learning when they receive clear invitations and support from teachers and other school staff to be engaged, are confident about their ability to help their children, and are clear about what they should do to support their child's learning.
Obviously, school staff can have a big impact on these considerations, especially on making parents feel invited and welcome. In Chapter 4,"Developing Relationships," we discuss how schools can put out the welcome mat, honor families' strengths and interests, and explain clearly how they can help their children.