Disengaging with Age?

As a PreK-12 Principal the past three years I have had the unique opportunity to be involved in the entire spectrum of parental involvement. (Until 2011 my entire experience in education was secondary.)  From my observations throughout my career of my own schools as well as many other schools (many of them award-winning) as students get older…parents consistently become less engaged in their students’ education.


How can we get 100% attendance at Elementary Parent-Teacher Conferences…yet we might go an entire school year without seeing some of our secondary students’ parents?

First, let’s talk about ownership; who is responsible for engaging parents in a student’s education?

Ownership of Engagement:

1)      Parents: Be involved, aware, & advocate for your child’s learning & your involvement           with it at all times

2)      Schools: Schools must be Enablers of Engagement…not disablers;  invite parents to               a “round table” where everyone has an equal place as a stakeholder                                             (via  @gpescatore25)

3)      Students: Parents are allies in your learning journey; inform, share, partner with                   them (do not be disablers!)

4)      Community & Society: Education is not something that occurs in isolation; as a                       whole we must value the connection/involvement of parents in the education                         process & what that means for us as a society.

Why is engagement with parents so much better when students are elementary age?

Elementary is SO FUN!

Something I admire Elementary Schools for is their ability to bring so many fun events and activities to their communities/schools for parents to be part of.  Who doesn’t love a good outdoor read/campfire cookout night?

They also demonstrate the one of the strongest parent-school ‘bond-building’ activities; actively recruiting parent volunteers.

Here at our elementary school we do weekly ‘Rise & Shine’ programs which highlight a different grade with a performance each week, bi-monthly character rallies with fun music & skits, academic celebration nights where students get to show off some of their amazing work, and that’s just a FEW of the opportunities here. This brings a constant flow of parents into our school for positive reasons. We have parents that come in every week and help with different. All of these things make elementary schools attractive to parents when it comes to ‘being part of the culture of the school.’

Elementary students aren’t self-sufficient

Let’s face it, one of the biggest reasons parents are engaged in elementary schools is probably from necessity. You can’t send a five-year old to school with a cell phone and some money on Monday and talk to them about how their week was on Friday. That’s not how it works. Schools/Teachers engage each other out of necessity; they must communicate regarding activities, health, permission slips, practice work, etc… Students at this age aren’t able to ‘fend for themselves’ like students when they get into the older grades (usually I see this start happening around 4th– 5th grade).

Why engagement isn’t better at the secondary level and what can we do about it?

Build Trust/Relationships within our Secondary School Culture

Many times High Schools can be places of isolation where the expert (teacher) keeps to themselves, works on their content, and is only concerned about disseminating that content to their students. Over the past 10 years I have seen a tremendous shift in Secondary Schools, with the push of Professional Learning Communities, Advisory Teams, Career Action Planning, and other initiatives. I believe we as secondary schools have seen that it takes a ‘whole child’ approach to be effective with ALL of our students and the idea of a team concept is now being embraced in most secondary schools.  One of the most important members of this team is the parent. This shift from a culture of isolation to a culture of inclusion/sharing/teamwork is something that has taken time to take roots and has to be pushed forward by strong leaders; including administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

Don’t Allow Students to Be ‘Disablers of Engagement’

Often I see students get to a certain age where they believe they are self-sufficient and they do everything they can to ‘disable’ a relationship between the school and their parents. Sometimes this is teenage angst, sometimes it stems from a lack of trust/relationship between the students and the school or their parents. Unfortunately, parents often don’t put up much of a ‘fight’ so to speak and allow their students to ‘own’ their education solely at the age of 14. These teens are usually more technology savvy than their parents (often disabling communication) and have the keen ability to ‘talk’ their way out of situations where schools or teachers would need to interact.  Honestly, this is one of our largest barriers at the secondary level. The answer I have for the ‘disabling’ teen is genuine relationships. If a student knows you care about them and want what’s best for them they might put up some obstacles, but they won’t be a ‘disabler.’

Content can be Overwhelming

Parents are accustomed to sitting down and helping their younger children with homework. At some point, and it varies with different households, parents sit down to help their students with their work and GUESS WHAT? The work is 1) too hard or 2) a foreign concept to the parent and they can’t help them.  This immediately disenfranchises parents from the schools their students attend. It makes them feel as if ‘they aren’t needed anymore’ or even that ‘they aren’t good enough.’


The need for continuing education with our parents/community is enormous; we must offer a way for parents to understand new standards and concepts, brush-up on ways to help their students; why not…dare I say invite them into our High School classrooms? I always hear this is so taboo…but I’ve yet to hear WHY? Let’s dare to be different and bring our parents and community into our secondary schools; along with investing in the relationship with our parents; local scholarships, business partnerships, apprenticeships, school-to-work programs all begin with relationships, this is a WIN-WIN for everyone.

Study after study has shown the importance of parent involvement/engagement in the success of students in school….SO ULTIMATELY WHO OWNS THIS RESPONSIBILITY?

WE all do: Parents, Schools, Students, Community, and Society……

  “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.”

~Lily Tomlin


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