From Clueless to Connected: My Parent Engagement Journey

When my daughter started preschool four years ago, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe how quickly the time went by and now my little person was starting her educational journey. And just like most first-time parents, I didn’t know what exactly to expect.

There I was walking to back-to-school night to meet with other families and teachers. I was incredibly excited about the very first steps she would be making in her educational journey.

But there was a problem. I had absolutely, positively no idea what I was supposed to do to be a great supporter of her education and help find the same love for education that I have.

Instead, three months in, I was barely keeping up with various to-do’s between email threads and piles of flyers. I still didn’t know who her friends were at school and was completely puzzled about how my participation in a bake sale would impact her education. Wouldn’t we be better off spending this extra time reading together at home instead?

Between my demanding work schedule and frequent travel in the middle of her second year, I finally decided that I would volunteer for a multicultural event in Sophia’s class. As I was decorating Ukrainian wreaths with her classmates, my eyes met hers and I saw an incredible light that I will never forget. Then her classmates asked me how I made the wreaths so well and Sophia answered: “My mom knows everything!”

This was really a turning point for me. I knew I wanted to be a great advocate for education and a supporter in her journey, but why did it take me two years to realize that coming to school is valuable? How did I grow so disconnected from what was happening inside the school?

This self-reflection has taken me very deep into family engagement research. I went through mountains of studies, interviews and data trying to understand the impact of family support in education and the types of activities that parents can do to really impact students’ success. It turns out that, by attending school events, you model the behavior for your child that you value education, and as a parent you can do this in so many ways.

For instance, you can proactively set high expectations, talk about school, create a proper learning environment at home and ensure you have two-way communication with your child’s teacher. All of these activities are statistically linked to a student’s success at school.

Armed with my research, I started talking to other parents about what I’d discovered. The majority didn’t know what they are supposed to do to be great supporters of their child’s education either, and appreciated the information.

Then I turned to the teachers, thinking that they perhaps have a wealth of professional development and resources at their disposal to effectively engage families. What I discovered was shocking: teachers and school administrators themselves rank parent engagement as the area they feel least capable of doing both in my conversations and studies.

In fact, there is a vicious cycle when teachers are losing motivation to improve parent engagement after their experience with parents over the years, and are now satisfied with over 50% of parents in their class not being fully engaged, according to our own survey of classroom teachers.

When teachers themselves rank family support as a number one predictor of student success ahead of their own teaching skill, the cost is simply too big to turn a blind eye to. I was determined to use what I learned and co-develop a platform with teachers and parents built on effective and simple communication, leveraging the rich body of research I had collected to motivate parents to get involved and help teachers guide both students and their parents to success.

This unexpected journey led me to launch ClassTag in October 2015. Yes, there are multiple communication and scheduling apps out there, but I didn’t feel that they’ve successfully tackled the most important issues – better personal connections, support of teaching at home and visibility into parent engagement.

As a result, rather than creating a band-aid solution, we have focused on creating a repeatable system to enable successful parent/teacher partnerships. So, what can you do as a parent in order to support this communication and set up your children for success? Start with these 3 tips:

1. Reinforce good study habits in the home by designating study spaces and solidifying reading and other after school routines. In the beginning of the school year, create a place in the home that is quiet and has few distractions so that children can focus more easily. Encourage a consistent routine for reading and other activities to help children get into the habit of managing their time effectively.

2. Set high expectations at home that will translate into success in the classroom.
This can include making lists of chores and rewarding children for completing those activities, helping them feel used to having expectations set of them and feeling accountable. It is very important to talk about aspirations, dreams and setting high expectations for the effort and journey ahead. As children begin to bring home grades, it is equally important to talk about what they learned from the experience or mistakes, what and how they would want to improve rather than focusing only on the grade itself.

3. Ask teachers to be involved in what children are learning in the classroom on a day by day basis.
Parent teacher communication outside of giving out worksheets that may not make it home is essential. You can recommend using apps to share experiences from a class trip or great learning moment in the class, and let the teacher know you’d be happy to receive regular communications such as weekly newsletters. Being kept in the loop and learning topics will foster meaningful discussions about school with your child.

As parents, we are the first and most important educators for our children and despite busy schedule these are three simple things we can all do to support our children in their journey. And the impact? Well, apart from developing deeper relationships with our children, researchers unequivocally agree, higher GPA, higher graduation rates and more confident children. Isn’t that what we all should be striving for?

Vlada Lotkina is the CEO of ClassTag

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