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Helicopters Or Hummingbirds: Why Families Should Engage In Their Child's Education
Updated September 6, 2017 2:23 PM
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(UNDATED) - We have all heard of "helicopter parents," parents who continually hover over their children, rescuing them at the first sign of struggle, says Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute.

I recall my child's 4th grade teacher instructing parents not to complete an assigned project. It seemed laughable, until the picture-perfect replicas of world landmarks were displayed, making it clear some families had no problem directly disregarding the teacher's plea. Research shows that helping with homework is one of the least effective ways families can ensure student success, and overzealous parenting can harm a child's education, self-confidence and independence.

Yet plenty of research shows the benefits of family engagement in education. Students with engaged parents are more likely to have higher grades, enhanced social skills and better test scores. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports parental engagement associates with health benefits like decreased likelihood of student smoking, drinking and pregnancy.

Family engagement is also linked with greater teacher satisfaction and lower turnover rates. So how can we understand, encourage and support this positive parent engagement? Parental engagement is defined as a partnership, where families and school staff work together to support and improve the learning, development, health and well-being of students. The key to high-impact engagement is meaningful, sustained connections between the students, parents and educators. Lenore Friedly, manager of family support and engagement, Partnerships for Early
Learners, says this updated view of parent engagement centers on building trusting relationships rather than attending activities.

Ideally, in these partnerships, parents are viewed as the child's first teachers, with the potential to reinforce and extend the teaching beyond school hours. Experts also recommend parents view teachers as an extended family for their children, playing a critical role in a student's educational attainment as well as their social-emotional well-being. It's a partnership grounded in shared responsibility, communication and accountability that, when well implemented, leaves students, parents and educators feeling connected and supported.

Unfortunately, not all families have equitable opportunities to become engaged in their children's education. Work and transportation conflicts are common challenges, especially for lower income families. Language and cultural barriers may inhibit a family's comfort with schools and educators. Finally, a parent's prior negative experiences and interactions with schools can make them reluctant to trust their child's teachers. While these barriers are significant, it is critical to recognize that more than 80 percent of parents want to be involved in their child's educational and developmental success.

Federal policy has long emphasized family engagement as a critical contributor to education. School districts are charged with putting communication and outreach plans into action, and are continually looking for new ways to reach all children. Experts agree that schools must listen to parent concerns and constraints, be adaptive, and look for ways over hurdles. Dr. Michael Yogman, of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has incorporated both a parent partner and a parent advisory group into his medical practice to increase responsiveness and family engagement. Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, recalls a struggling single father of five who could not attend parent-teacher conferences because of work, so the school agreed to meet him at his workplace over lunch break.   

What can parents do to support their child's success? Take the first step of contacting your student's teachers, letting them know the unique aspects of your child's personality. Look for ways to reinforce classroom lessons at home, such as measuring cooking ingredients or calculating grocery costs. Include extended family members as part of your family engagement team. Above all, parents should clearly and repeatedly state their expectations for their child's
academic achievements.

There is no recipe for effective parent engagement. Each district, school, classroom and family must strive to find the balance between student, parent and educator involvement. Those of us working with kids need to create the tools, pathways and support systems to help these critical relationships flourish. We know effective parent engagement reaps critical benefits for all parties. Rather than constantly hovering, perhaps we should become "hummingbird parents," staying at the edge of engagement, but buzzing in regularly yet briefly for quick support. Striking this balance will allow our children to feel supported yet independent, and keep quality relationships with educators intact. After all, family engagement is something parents and teachers want, and all students deserve.

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