Taking an active role in your child's education is one of the best ways you can boost your youngster's odds of success. Studies show that parental involvement has a powerful impact on academic achievement -- even more than factors like family income or parents' level of education.
Experts emphasize that this involvement doesn't have to be time-consuming or complicated. On the following pages are details for four expert-endorsed levels of participation:
At home: Meaningful involvement can be as simple as asking the right questions.
During the elementary years: Building a teacher-parent partnership.
During the middle and high school years: One key contact can make all the difference.
Getting involved with the system: For parents with a keen interest in change.
According to a 1992 study published by the Educational Testing Service, factors that parents can control -- namely, preventing absenteeism, providing a variety of reading materials at home, and limiting television watching -- accounted for nearly 90 percent of the difference in eighth-grade mathematics test scores. The message is clear: What goes on at home has a major impact on how children perform at school.
As a parent, you are involved in your children's schooling at home when you:
Talk to your children about their school day. General questions such as "How was school today?" can break the ice, but rarely prompt more than a one-word response. Ask specific questions. With younger children, you might ask about special activities or whom they played with on the playground. It helps if you're familiar with your child's basic school-day routine. For instance, if you know that classroom jobs change daily, ask which task your child performed today. Find out how an art project is progressing. The conversation doesn't have to be long or detailed. Your interest is what's most important.
Monitoring schoolwork. Younger children typically bring home bags full of papers and projects. Don't ignore them, and don't wait for your child to show them to you. Take time to look through what comes home, either directly with your child or in your child's presence. Make specific, encouraging comments. Ask questions about the work.
Establish supportive household routines. This remains crucial throughout your child's school years, from elementary through high school. It begins with making time to read together, every day. Monitoring TV-watching habits is critical. Be sure your children are physically active during the day, eat healthy meals, and sleep well at night. As children get older, schedule daily homework times, and be sure that they have a quiet, comfortable workspace.
Most parents do not maintain close relationships with teachers, according to a survey by The Institute for Educational Leadership/Mattel Foundation. In the survey, 57 percent of parents reported that they had spoken with teachers five or fewer times during the previous school year. Yet experts emphasize the importance of in-school participation by parents.
At the elementary school level, if the teacher doesn't take the first step, you should. The goal is to begin a personal relationship. Here are a few suggestions for maintaining a relationship with your child's teacher:
Write notes. A note is an easy, effective way to communicate information about your child and about minor changes going on at home. With younger children, you may want to pin the note onto the outside of the backpack to be sure the teacher receives it.
Talk on the phone. Some teachers will volunteer their home phone number at the beginning of the year. Others won't, but all teachers are available on the telephone through the school office, and some may even have e-mail access. Periodic chats are a good way to touch base, particularly when you have praise to offer regarding a program or school event.
Visit the classroom. Busy parents tend to overlook this, but experts urge parents to take the time to observe the class in action. In a short time, you can learn what goes on during the school day, which should improve communication efforts with your child. Always arrange visits with the teacher, and follow the school's visitor policy.
Make conferences a priority. Most schools have two official parent-teacher conferences per year. They offer the teacher an opportunity to report on your child's progress.
Before the conference, review your child's schoolwork. Think of specific questions you want to ask, but allow the teacher to do the talking at first. Listen carefully to what the teacher has to say. Most teachers are skilled observers of child behavior, and those insights into your child can be enlightening.
Volunteer in the classroom. This is a rewarding step. Some parents may not have the time or the inclination. But often hesitation stems more from lack of confidence.
Tell the teacher how much time you have and that you'd like to help, but don't know what you can do. Chances are, once you make the effort, the teacher will find something that plays to your strengths.
Some schools have guidelines for the amount and types of assistance that parents can give. Check with the school principal or a PTA officer if those regulations need to be clarified.
Some teachers need help behind the scenes -- planning holiday parties, advising on a computer installation, helping with fund-raising, even writing a grant.
When middle school rolls around, teacher communication becomes trickier. Compared to the relative comfort and friendliness of grade school, middle school can be a shock: there are more teachers to deal with, complicated schedules to understand, a larger building to navigate. In addition, the kids are changing as much as the school environment.
Although children at this age may seem less willing to have their parents involved, participation is still important and recommended.
Parents can continue to communicate with the school, but they must know where to start. Typically, each child is assigned to a guidance counselor or a primary teacher. Use this person as your contact, and develop the relationship as the year progresses. Even in middle and high school, teachers may still appreciate help planning field trips or organizing fund-raising projects for the school.
Information received from teachers can be helpful at this age. In fact, for college-bound children, such talks are as important as ever. The teacher may have insights about your child that may affect selection of college and career.
Although participation is important, parents of middle schoolers must learn to become less directly involved with their children's schoolwork. By middle school, children should be taking most of the responsibility for their own homework.
The final level of parental involvement might begin with the PTA and eventually land you on the school board. How strongly you are inclined to stretch your involvement into policy-making depends on a few factors. Time, of course, is one of them. Parents of older children may find they have more time in the evenings for committee meetings.
How you feel about the quality of your child's education may be another impetus. Budget cuts that affect school programs often compel parents to get involved. Others act when they are dismayed by a philosophical direction the school is taking.
Other situations, too, may warrant parental action, including:
Stay focused; start small and attempt only what seems possible to accomplish. And always remember to be supportive when interacting with teachers and school officials.
The National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education (NCPIE) is dedicated "to developing effective family/school partnerships in schools throughout America."
Pathways to School Improvement includes much information for parents who want to get involved in education, including "Three Ways That Schools Can Promote Parent Involvement." This Web site is a product of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.