Parental involvement is key to a student’s academic success, but communicating with families, especially when there are culture and language differences, sometimes makes it challenging to tap into the value of a student’s “village.” Immigrant parents sometimes have perceptions about schooling that seem incongruous with American practices. For example, they may feel that receiving communication from a teacher is cause for shame and indicates that the student has done wrong (even if the teacher’s intent is to communicate growth or a positive occurrence). When parents don’t volunteer on-site, communicate with school personnel about family goings-on, or attend conferences or school events, teachers may get the impression that parents are uninterested in school life. Meanwhile, the parents have a different definition of involvement: they get their kids to school on time, make sure homework is finished, and support in other “behind the scenes” ways. Parents may seem distant because of self-consciousness or shyness about their own educational backgrounds or English skills, but the majority are eager to promote their children’s academic success. If you’re able to communicate effectively, the domino effect is student growth and that’s well worth it. But how do you get to that sweet spot?
Recent research has found one way that seems pretty foolproof. Researchers from Harvard and Brown universities discovered that a single message home per week was enough to reduce fail rates among struggling, low-income, often EL high school students. Two message types were used: One was positive, the other was constructive, indicating a concrete skill that the student could stand to improve. This improvement group saw the greatest gains. The researchers posit that “actionable” messages work better for parents. I think it strikes two other nerves for foreign parents: It gives them a concrete way to get involved in their child’s schooling and incorporates a specific accountability system between home and school. The teachers in the study reported spending only about a minute per student per week on drafting each message, yet the fail rate dropped by a whopping 41%. Wouldn’t you like to see such a huge return for such seemingly little effort?
I also wonder if the improvement messages were successful because their tone was neutral, rather than being either accusatory or congratulatory. We know from our work with second language speakers of all languages that clarity often goes far in transcending cultural boundaries.
There are some amazing resources on the web for building family-school relations (see below for a few links), and I bet you have some ideas of your own. What are they?