Tomasito: Lessons Learned from an Online Discussion

Susan Phillips
January 31, 2002

From January 14 to 21, 2002, Connect for Kids invited everyone who came to our Web site to think about Tomásito, a third grader showing signs of trouble in the area of mathematics. His teacher, Linda Brady, and his parents, Ria and Tomas Montero, didn't seem to be communicating very well about the problem. We hoped his story would spark a discussion of some of the barriers teachers and parents face in working together in support of children's learning.

We also spoke with parental-involvement experts Dorothy Rich, creator of the MegaSkills program; and researcher Rosalind Edwards of Great Britain, who has interviewed children about their views on parental involvement.

The results? While we had hoped to have more people participate in the online discussion, those who did join in had a lot to say. There was near-unanimous support for the idea that parental involvement is very important for children's school success, but real differences of opinion over what makes good parental involvement so difficult to achieve.

A Barrier Built of Blame?
Under-involved parents; inadequate teacher training; bully teachers; over-aggressive parents?each of these was identified by various contributors to the discussion as posing a serious barrier to productive parent-teacher partnerships.

"One thing is for sure," wrote Tom Mason of Santa Fe. "Parental involvement is key to the success of the child." Mason identified himself as both a parent and an educator. "From my experience in being the administrator for a program that helped low-income/educationally disadvantaged kids prepare for college, I can say with confidence that getting under-involved parents into the loop is close to impossible," he added. Mason suggested that in those cases, mentors provided through programs like Big Brothers/Big Sisters could help.

"Teacher education courses and advance degree programs do not currently include family and community partnerships as a significant part of an educator's professional work," wrote Melissa Whipple. "When parent involvement isn't part of the course work, the message is it isn't part of the job? Many teachers experience high levels of anxiety when it comes to communicating with parents about student performance or behavior. They may avoid communicating with parents (especially bad news) until they have no other option."

Parent S.M. expressed frustration with an experience one of her children had with a teacher who was, in her view, a bully. "I see we have a program for kids bullying kids but we also need a program addressing teachers bullying kids," wrote S.M. "The entire school supports teachers and staff? A teacher laughing with the class when a student makes a smart remark about another student is very inappropriate?Children are labeled with bad names and it is passed from one teacher to the next, without anyone ever thinking or seeing that the child has changed." Parents and children, said S.M., have no chance of overcoming the united front presented by teachers and administrators in such cases.

Martha Allexsaht-Snider, one of the moderators for this discussion, noted that "situations where students and parents feel that students are unfairly treated are relatively common." She also said that "many teachers?are concerned about parents who seem to be very aggressive and critical and, in their view, trying to tell them what to do in their classrooms. We are in serious need of processes and settings in which people can talk and negotiate through these kinds of conflicts."

Ideas for Moving Forward
Dorothy Rich suggested that not all parental involvement programs need to be based in a school—a setting that is uncomfortable for some parents. "Involvement with Boys and Girls Clubs?could be an important facilitator for parental involvement with the school. Let's find ways to connect the Boys and Girls Clubs with the schools, and we will all benefit from increased parental involvement for those parents who may find the clubs?easier to be involved with."

Holly Kreider, a project manager at the Harvard Family Research Project and one of our discussion moderators, suggested that educators should educate themselves on the ways that parents are already involved. "In our research?we found that low-income working mothers were often unable to attend school events, but while at their workplaces they would call their children at home to remind them to do homework, or would even bring their children to work to use the computer or learn something new."

Leslie Brunetta, a parent, said that "If teachers and principals want parents involved in a way that makes it easy to have frequent informal contacts, they'll have to get to them early, often, and in a way that is immediately rewarding." She says that regular, low-key family involvement is a part of the curriculum at her school. "I can see that the teachers know much more about every family—especially the good about every family—than my teachers ever did when I was a kid."

Deborah Neuman said that programs that build relationships between parents and schools pay off increasingly over time. "Families share with schools as the relationship grows in the same way we all share about ourselves, once trust and respect are established."

Whipple suggested that teachers in training be required to take a comprehensive course in parent involvement, including a solid grounding in the research linked to effective practices; training in classroom-level practices for building strong partnerships with families; and information about school-wide approaches.

Kids Really Do Care
While one problem Tomásito's parents and teacher struggled with in their relationship was Tomásito's view that having parents come to school is only for babies, contributors to our discussion made the point that behind this common attitude lies a strong desire on the part of most children to have their parents involved in their school lives.

"Our research didn't find that children were anti parental involvement," noted researcher Rosalind Edwards. "Even if they wanted their home life to be ?private' and might be embarrassed about their mother or father coming to school, this doesn't necessarily mean they didn't like their parents being involved."

"Several years ago one of my graduate students did a small study where she interviewed mostly white and middle class second and fifth graders in the southeastern United States about their parents' involvement with their school and homework," wrote moderator Allexsaht-Snider. "She found?that most children rather wistfully wished that they saw their parents more at school and at home and that their parents had more time to talk to them- about anything, including their schoolwork."

And Whipple had this suggestion for parents whose children are trying to push them out of the schoolhouse: "I would say something like this to my child, ?I love you so much I will always be interested in everything you do and that includes what you do at school...You are very precious to me and so is your future. When it comes to you, I need lots of information to make good decisions. I love you and I believe in you. You are worth my time and attention so—get used to it!"