“Family, Society and School: Where do we want to go?” is the theme of the May 2012 Education conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, attracting 15,000 educators from around the world and as the only Australian speaker, I am nervous! Apparently, I will be fielding questions from the audience pertaining to the cooperative relationship between schools and families, otherwise known as Family-School relations.
Family-School relations differ between schools and between families. Some families are very involved, others are not. Some schools throw their doors open to parent volunteers, others do not. The question of, “where do we want to go?” encourages us to develop an ideal scenario for our children, incorporating the positive input of families, schools and greater society.
The Best Case Scenario
In my opinion, the best case scenario for primary school students is to see their parents regularly interacting with teachers, other parents and students in the school grounds. Similarly, I like the concept of parent volunteers in the classroom for reading support, weekend working bees in the school vegetable garden to generate a sense of belonging at school, as well as open communication between educators and parents on any given day. Younger siblings who feel welcome in playgrounds with parental supervision are more likely to experience an easy transition from home to school upon commencing Kindergarten.
In reality, our child psychology clinic commonly receives referrals from frustrated parents seeking support when their children are refusing to attend school, or when both parent and child would like to change schools after months or years of family-school conflict. Other parents report strict school policies limiting parent-teacher contact to avoid a bottle-neck of parental traffic in classrooms before and after school. We also work with the parents of children with diagnosed Learning Disabilities or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These families most regularly request classroom or playground observations. Some mothers sing the praises of schools, doing everything possible to increase classroom support for their child and others reports teachers have suggested they seek out another school option to gain more appropriate support.
Inside a Brazilian School
The Quirky Kid Clinic started researching school culture in 2006 as part of the School Days Project. The video below offers insight into what a school in Brazil looks like, through the eye of 10 year old, Riana, a student from Curitiba in Southern Brazil.
When parents disengage
A global perspective on Family-School relations suggest many schools are struggling to receive any support from parents. In Northern Brazil, for example, teachers often report minimal involvement from parents despite their attempts to make contact, particularly when there are large sibling groups attending the local school. In some cases, parents are working long hours to support their large families while others with limited educational opportunities in their own childhood, may lack confidence and avoid engaging with teachers.
There are many reasons parents disengage with teachers and this phenomenon is common across all socioeconomic groups. How many time-poor parents in Australia put school activities on the bottom of their agenda? And how many others find the active parent community overzealous and off-putting? Most importantly, how can we reach all parents and teachers in a meaningful way to ensure a common connection in the interest of the student community?
When I ask the young clients I work with about their family’s involvement with the school, they commonly report their parent’s opinion of the school, stating, “Mum wants me to change schools because my teacher won’t tell us anything”. In my experience, when parents have a negative opinion of the school, the teacher or the homework policy; students typically follows suit, with an identically negative opinion. Mental note, never put a teacher down in the presence of a child! Parental opinions count, at least in the eyes of your school-aged children.
Educational psychology research emphasizes the importance of consistency between home and school to increase a child’s sense of stability in both settings. A student’s connection to school is increased with parental involvement in activities such as reading support or canteen duty. Students with a sense of stability and connection to school are less inclined to ‘drop-out’ of school or struggle with academic motivation. Parental motivation to become involved in school activities is similarly relevant in this story, as a means of modeling a positive life skill to young people.
Generating change in Family-School relations
School events, such as a disco, fete or sports carnival often generate support from parents when resources are limited. Importantly, parents have the capacity to positively influence the school-family relationship. An active parent community will generate ideas for fundraising or similar and delegate jobs between themselves. Schools soon learn the value of this input. Alternatively, schools wishing to generate more parental involvement would do well to promote the benefits by acknowledging families for their participation while providing diverse opportunities to appeal to a broad range of skills, from gardeners to craft assistants. Parents who volunteer to assist with sports or weeding at school, typically report the benefits of physical activity as well as fostering the parent-child relationship. Being present at school is also an opportunity for parents to observe their child’s friendships; to gain insight into teaching techniques and to gain confidence within the school community. Making a start on Family-School relations requires both parents and teachers to find traction and build momentum before the results become clear.
So, family, society and school: where do we want to go? My aim is to be part of a supportive, functional and resourceful community where educational aspirations are achieved and dreams are encouraged. Every school could be a microcosm of the same ‘warmth and generosity’, demonstrated by the most committed and kind-hearted teachers and school volunteers. The ones who dig deep within themselves to present all children with a world of opportunities and unwavering stability. But let’s not forget to mention the potential of time-poor working parents, who would love nothing more than to volunteer and see more of their school-aged children! By making the family-school relationship a priority in our society, children not only have the pleasure of recognizing a familiar family face in the school crowd; we also begin to work towards a common goal.