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Setting a Parent Trap

What's the most creative method you've used for engaging parents?
Published: June 19, 2020

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s the parents and not their students who are absent from the classroom—avoiding emails, dodging parent-teacher conferences, not returning phone calls. Work obligations, cultural and language barriers, or a bad past experience may keep some parents away from school. But teachers know keeping parents in the loop when it comes to their child’s education is critical to their learning. And many are willing to go the extra mile to reach out and make parents feel more involved in their child’s education.

Here are just a few of the most interesting ideas NEA members have tried. Try them out and let us know your best methods for engaging parents.

Learning is Great, Wish You Were Here

Educator Nancy Hahn used to go to students’ houses, but now she makes postcards with pictures of hallway posters and student work on them, with the words “Good news from school!” across the front. She writes short notes on the back to update parents on their child’s progress. “Everyone loves them and kids tell me they are always hung up,” she says.

Sweeten the Experience

Kristiny Lorett says luring the parents of her high schoolers into the classroom is tough, so she tries to “sweeten” the experience. “My first parent-teacher conference I offered a dessert bar,” she says. “It was a big hit!” Lorett also gives goodies as parting gifts. In the spring, she’s offered Easter eggs stuffed with jelly beans and inspirational quotes or a big basket of ripe, red apples. She also gives students bonus points if their parents come to the conference, and an additional homework pass if the student accompanies them. “Bribery works!” she says.

Go Where the Parents Are

Megan May Murphy says many of her students’ parents don’t have access to a phone or computer. Instead of trying to get parents into the classroom, she decided she’d meet them outside of it. She started going to WalMart on Saturdays because many of the students’ parents did their shopping there, and she could run into them to chat about their child. “Hang out where your parents and kids are,” she says. “It builds rapport, and it’s less scary for some parents than coming to the school.”

Let Students Take Center Stage

Nancy Rawlings, who teaches in Portland, Oregon, says conferences at her school involve the children and their parents, and the students lead the conferences. Rawlings makes sure the parents know their students spent time preparing for the conferences, so the parents are less likely to skip it. For other events, Rawlings says having students perform is the “secret” to parent attendance.

Request the Pleasure of Their Company

Middle school teacher Trina Dickerson says communicating with parents is the “most crucial element” of engaging students. Her school as a whole is very proactive, quickly calling parents if students have a change in behavior or their grades suddenly change. For parent teacher conferences, Dickerson says parents receive a phone call from the school to tell them about the meeting, they see an alert in the school newsletter, and Dickerson also extends a personal invitation to all her students’ parents. At the conference, parents can decide if they’d like to meet with a single teacher or with all the student’s core teachers, and they can also decide if they’d like their child to join. “We do a lot of listening,” Dickerson says.

Kristiny Lovett agrees. The most successful strategy she’s used is sending personal invitations out to all her students’ parents. “So many [parents] came in and said they had several children in the school system and they had never been ‘invited to a conference.’”

Be Flexible with Meeting Times and Locations

Bob Munoz, a sixth-grade teacher in Reno, Nevada, has been engaging parents for over 30 years, even in a school where students speak 16 different languages. He says teachers need to experiment with new ways to involve parents. “Encourage your parents to visit the school whenever they want to,” he says. “We’ve had parents come in and help set up and clean the cafeteria after lunch, or coach soccer games during recess. I’ve also set up a day each month to meet different parents for coffee before I arrive at school, which gives me an opportunity to visit with parents in a more informal setting. It’s a tremendous ice-breaker and allows parents to see you as a person and not just as a professional.”

Munoz also attends all school functions, especially if he knows his students’ parents will be there. “I sit and talk to them, and eventually we become acquainted.”

Find Out What Parents Need

Eighty percent of the 500 students at Hallman Elementary School are Latino, and almost 100 percent of them qualify for free breakfast and lunch. “The parents here are not wealthy, but they are generous, caring people,” says education support professional Juan Trujillo. Trujillo wanted to encourage more parents to attend PTA meetings, but he knew how intimidating they could be. So, he organized Friday morning parent meetings called cafecitos, where parents could get together for coffee, pastries and homemade tamales. While chatting with parents at the cafecitos, Trujillo realized they needed help with anything from getting a job to opening a bank account, and tried to put them in touch with people he thought might be able to help them. While only 10 parents used to show up for PTA meetings, after the cafecitos, sometimes 80 parents would attend.

If Parents Can’t Come to You, Go to Them

Parent/teacher home visits have been incredibly successful at Roberts High School in Salem, Oregon. Principal Lorelei Gilmore says, “I’d rank home visits at the very top as a key to getting these kids to succeed. Once you establish trust between the family and school, you can make some real breakthroughs.” Teachers at Roberts High go to parents’ houses just to chat and catch up, and eventually a partnership forms.

Be Culture-Conscious

If it weren’t for a few parents of Glendale Middle School students, a group of Muslim girls would’ve failed P.E. – simply because they couldn’t wear the uniform. Fortunately, a group of families formed Glendale’s Refugee Task Force to talk about how they could get more involved at school, and their first concern was the P.E. uniforms. Glendale’s Assistant Principal Jennifer Mayer-Glenn worked with the task force, and soon enough they had a plan for a new P.E. uniform – a long sleeved dress with pants that could be worn underneath. She took photos of the outfit to the school sewing club, another parent group, and within a week they had a prototype. The task force was thrilled, and their only request was to change the color of the fabric.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.