Blaming by Another Name
I recently attended a Social and Emotional Learning conference excited to interact with K-12 educators. During the keynote, the speaker invited three high school students up onto the stage and asked them a few questions. One question asked was, “What would you change about schools?” One of students responded, “I would increase parent involvement in the school.” The audience of over 200 mostly teachers and educational support staff applauded.
I smiled because this was confirmation of one of the central points of the session I had been leading with teachers that day. I submit that “parent involvement” is the acceptable, politically correct way that we blame parents for the failures or deficiencies of their children. I want to change the institutional dialogue represented in this phrase from rhetoric to cognitive exercise to action plan. In this piece, I want to outline the operational considerations for reforming our understanding and expectation of “parent involvement.”
The Power of Institutional Support
If we think of the educational system as the community, the knowledge system as the school operations, and the family system of the home life and the student, we have three systems with which to address the problems, deficiencies, or needs. Notice that we also, in clarifying the systems, identify specific areas for parent involvement. In SCME language: the institution must support the integration of these systems and provide specific interfaces for the human resources that are available. This step outlines the system in preparation for identification of controllables, uncontrollables, and execution.
Community: Educational System
The educational system is comprised of every system that could potentially interact with the school and family system. They can be categorized into groups: health care, child care, transportation, housing, employment, safety, emergency services, and faith. Health care includes clinics and mental health services, but also grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Child care includes day-care, but also after-school programs, sports, and other extracurricular activities whether sponsored by the school or not. Transportation includes buses, but also car dealers, loan financers, and car repair shops. Housing includes apartment complexes, but also realty firms, mortgage lenders, and community housing supports. Employment includes business employers, but also employment support services, training programs, and unemployment supports. Safety includes police/community service, but also includes shelters, the judicial system, and home security companies. Emergency services include fire, police/law enforcement, and hospital services, but also include community social support like rent and utility assistance programs. Faith includes faith groups such as churches or synagogues, but also civic organizations, fraternities or sororities, clubs, or coalitions. Each of these may touch parents on a daily basis. Each of these is a potential venue and relay for your message of education in the community.
School: Knowledge System
The knowledge system is comprised of many people, but institutionally we look at the procedures or mechanisms that purport to “educate students” or “facilitate learning.” These include assessment, intervention, support, engagement, feedback, formative adjustment, sharing, data capture, and summative system improvement. Again, the goal is to create intentional, specific ways that the human resources provide services in these mechanisms.
Home: Family System
The family system is comprised of the parents or guardians, siblings, family support/extended family, and the child at the individual level. Institutionally, the family system has interface points that mirror general system categories and processes that mirror institutional mechanisms. The interface points include health care, child care, transportation, housing, employment, safety, emergency services, and faith. These are the ways that the family system communicates and receives messages from the external environment. These interface points must be identified, prioritized from the perspective of the family system, and added to a profile of engagement for that family system. You must utilize their individual profile to effectively communicate with each individual family system.
The institutional mechanisms of the family system may include assessment, intervention, support, engagement, feedback, formative adjustment, sharing, data capture, and summative system improvement. Often, these mechanisms are in need of creation, information/training, capacity building, cognitive restructuring, and best practice rehearsal. An example is a family that assesses that the role of the school is to “teach the student” without any active support from the parent. This understanding must be cognitively restructured so that the parent realizes the transaction that is most sustainable for student learning. Support capacity must be built for the parent realizing that resistance to the concept of parent involvement may be due to deficiencies felt by the parent. Intervention must be modeled to the parent so that he or she has a pattern of HOW to carry out this new responsibility.
Creation of Culture
Your opportunity is to build a system of interaction that specifically provides interface between and among the systems outlined. The first step is to consider the message that will be communicated from throughout the educational, knowledge and family system. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) provides a relevant context and action structure. The second step is to operationalize the communication of the message for each of the systems. 2a) the opportunity for participation in the school must be clarified with a detailed schedule of engagement. 2b) each system engages with information in different ways. The communication mechanism will necessarily be multi-modal and multi-media. A most effective method is to partner with subsets of the systems to develop and disseminate the centrally branded message in the voice and language that is comfortable with that population. 2c) a method of evaluation and reporting ensures that the organization learns from the endeavor and improves operations in each successive implementation. A third step solidifying culture, is to assign and resource (new hire or reward system) an individual to maintain the practice of family and community engagement. School social workers are a good choice.
For example, Step 1: your first step was crafting an SEL-based message of Social Awareness. 2a) The goal is to get officers interested in volunteering to provide training to students in your school. You outline time for 5 officers to present to 5 classes for 50 minutes each third Thursday of the month. The opportunity is called Officers and Social Skills. 2b) You partner with a community service representative from the police force, Officer Perry, to develop the message to be communicated to fellow officers. Officer Perry consults on voice and language for the volunteer solicitation and recommends that you deliver the call for volunteers to be presented by the precinct captain during roll call. 2c) You develop a social awareness scale and survey teachers and students before and after the visits by officers. You present the findings to the officers, along with letters and certificates of participation thanking them for their service. Step 3: your school social workers are tasked with family system engagement, knowledge system support, and community integration. The site director of social work also seeks and secures external funding for the system inclusion programs.
I fear that too often, the expectation of “parent involvement” is present without the consideration of the mechanisms of the family system, and certainly without institutional structures that build create, inform, build capacity, cognitively restructure, or provide rehearsal. Reform on the institutional side of the coin can be bolstered through a SCME approach that 1) clarifies systems, 2) identifies system interfaces, and 3) creates culture.
[Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is MAWMedia Group President. An individual and institutional consultant, Wright has over 16 years and dozens of consulting contracts completed. For educators, associations, and organizations, Dr. Wright offers curriculum, online strategy, and capital development consultations. Contact Dr. Wright here!]