Examining the Origins of Our Beliefs About Parents.
"Bradley is such a cute kid. Too bad his parents don't care more about him. They never come to school."
"Bridget is a handful! At school we do the best we can to teach her how to behave, but with no support from there is a limit to what we can do. Her parents just spoil her rotten."
Statements like these may be heard in staff lounges and faculty meetings, coming from teachers, caregivers, administrators, aides, and preservice professionals (Davies, 1997; Galinsky, 1988). It certainly can be frustrating when it seems parents do not care enough about their child's education to support and follow through on what teachers try to teach. When school policies are not supported from home, teachers may feel that their efforts are being undermined. It is discouraging to teachers - who know the importance of parental involvement - when a parent does not show up for parent-teacher conferences (Lueder, 1990).
Are there really "bad" parents, however? Are there parents who don't care about their children? Perhaps we should be asking how these parents are showing their care and concern for their children, and are we recognizing and acknowledging their efforts? What influences our expectations of parents, and are these expectations realistic? To answer these questions, and ensure constructive relationships with all families, we must carefully look at ourselves and our assumptions.
Educators' expectations of parents originate from various sources, including their personal backgrounds, their experiences, the professional literature, other early childhood educators, the media (as it reflects the larger culture), and children. When reality conflicts with expectations, one can be tempted to place blame. Blame, however, is seldom constructive; in fact, it is often destructive (Davies, 1997; Hendrick, 1996).
First Images of Parents
Our first images of parents come from our own families. Many teachers and preservice teachers grew up in middle-class families and communities that valued education, and so they enjoyed sufficient, if not abundant, financial and social resources and support (Coleman & Churchill, 1997). Because their families valued school, they grew up doing well in school themselves.
But not all families have good feelings about school. Parents who had adverse education experiences may still harbor resentment or fears about school and teachers (Barbour & Barbour, 1997; Berger, 1991; Hendrick, 1996). Those who dropped out may tee! embarrassed by their lack of a diploma (Comer, 1980). Others may remember elementary school as a place of humiliation or punishment, where their needs were seldom met or where they felt psychologically or emotionally uncomfortable. As parents, their only contact with their children's teachers may be when problems arise (Comer, 1980; Davies, 1997).
Teachers also may have acquired prejudices and biases about certain characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, race, or religion. These feelings can influence what teachers expect of parents (Greenberg, 1989; Powell, 1989). Some middle-class teachers, for example, may believe that all parents living in poverty are neglectful of their children. And, when some parents are even hostile toward teachers, it can be difficult for teachers not to take it personally. They may find it hard to continue to welcome parents into the classroom, or to speak kindly to them on the phone. Thus, the negative cycle continues.
Preservice Experiences With Parents
Students in university and college teacher preparation programs typically receive firsthand experiences with children in practicum and student teaching settings. By the time they earn a teaching certificate, preservice teachers may have amassed hundreds of hours of work with children in classrooms and child care centers. They also have had informal opportunities to observe and interact with parents, and to discuss their observations with practicing teachers. The ideas and opinions they form of parents at this stage may stay with them throughout their careers. They may be greatly influenced by the comments of teachers in whose classrooms they are serving practicum placements. On several occasions, the author has heard student teachers report that the teacher said a particular child does not do well in school because "his parents just don't care."
Unfortunately, not all teacher preparation programs have a course, or even a segment of a course, devoted to parent or family involvement with schools and teachers (Coleman, 1997; Greenwood & Hickman, 1991), and so there is no forum in which preservice teachers can examine these negative attitudes and learn proactive strategies. While there is general agreement in the field, among parents and teachers, that successful home-school partnerships are an important component of a child's education (Rosenthal & Sawyers, 1996), teacher candidates rarely receive corresponding formal preparation (Evans, Dumas, & Weible, 1991; Galinsky, 1988; Greenberg, 1989).
Images From the Professional Literature
The professional literature in the field of early childhood education and child development supports the notion that the more parents are involved with their child's education, the better an education the child receives (Gelfer, 1991; Greenberg, 1989; Marcon, 1994; Powell, 1989; U.S. Department of Education, 1987). Even so, if some parents do not participate in school events or show up to parent-teacher conferences, teachers should not conclude that these parents are not doing a good job of rearing their children, or that they do not care about them (Brewer, 1995; Greenberg, 1989).
Images From Professional Colleagues
Educators often discuss parents and families. Student teachers report feeling shocked at some of the conversations they overhear in the staff lounge when teachers vent their frustrations about pupils and parents. Inexperienced preservice teachers may be strongly influenced by the opinions of these veterans under whose tutelage they are learning, and so they may adopt some of the same attitudes toward those families, perhaps even toward families in general. Although supervising teachers may be unaware of how their behavior influences undergraduates, they should remember that casual remarks, spoken out of momentary annoyance, may make indelible impressions on the minds of young student teachers (Dohrer, 1995). Even veteran teachers may be influenced by colleagues who have had unpleasant experiences with a particular family, and form a subconscious bias against parents before ever meeting them.
Images From the Media
Images from the popular culture often portray parents in an unflattering light: television situation comedies often feature them as foolish people doing silly things calculated to get a laugh, movies of the week dramatize physically or emotionally abusive mothers or fathers, and the evening news airs reports on neglectful parents who leave young children home alone while they go on vacation. Conversely, images of virtuous parents are seldom deemed newsworthy, nor do they make interesting entertainment. The so-called "family" programs or movies may depict parents in a more positive, although no more realistic, light. Important issues are easily solved in an hour or two, sometimes through the intervention of a mythical or magical character, such as an angel. In real life, families struggle daily with the business of living, and problems are seldom solved within an hour.
Images From Children
Although teachers should not ignore signs from young children that suggest problems at home, teachers must exercise caution. Young children's memories are not always accurate, they may have misunderstood a situation, or they may simply lack the vocabulary or language skills to accurately articulate an experience at home. Even when children in dramatic play act out family scenes in which "parents" hit or scream at children, their play may not truly reflect their experiences (Katz, 1995).
Expectations of Parents Teachers will do well to continually reflect on and examine their expectations of parents. Stereotyping parents, judging them as "good" or "bad," or glibly offering them unsolicited advice about rearing children is not helpful. Teachers should carefully examine their assumptions and biases about parents and families (Berger, 1991). It is important to recognize that preconceptions might arise from one's background and be affected by unpleasant experiences that have no connection to the immediate situation (Sturm, 1997). To avoid judging parents by unrealistic or misinformed standards, teachers should maintain some form of contact through informal conversations, phone calls, questionnaires, interviews, home visits, parent-teacher conferences, and other appropriate means. Many strategies exist to encourage two-way communication between parents and schools (Davies, 1997; Rosenthal & Sawyers, 1996).
Parents who are too busy to visit the school can borrow photo albums, audiotapes, or videotapes that represent a typical day at school, and enjoy them at home (Greenwood, 1995). This strategy helps families feel a part of their child's school experience. Newsletters (Jones, 1996), suggestion boxes (Bundy, 1991), informal get-togethers (Berger, 1991), and shared parent-teacher journals also can nurture relationships with families.
Family involvement with school projects can enhance the child's learning and the parents' attitudes about school. Materials sent home with simple instructions for craft projects or book making can encourage and support positive parent-child, as well as family-school, relationships (Kokoski & Downing-Leffler, 1995). Portfolios of a child's work help parents understand the school's learning goals, as well as how their child is progressing toward achieving them (Carter, 1996; Ginishi, 1996).
School personnel should be aware that "parent involvement" may be defined in many ways (Coleman, 1997; Coleman & Churchill, 1997; Davies, 1997; Reynolds, 1992). Helping with homework, buying tickets to the school carnival, and saving newspapers and milk jugs for school art projects are all ways for parents to be involved. Once they get to know their pupils' families better, teachers can design parent involvement strategies that match families' needs and abilities (Davies, 1997; Spiegel, Fitzgerald & Cunningham, 1993). By providing child care at parent-teacher conference time, for example, schools acknowledge that some parents have difficulty affording or arranging in-home child care. Another way to accommodate parents is by scheduling meetings in the evenings or on weekends, which allows working parents to meet teachers without having to use leave time. Teachers might meet parents somewhere that the parents find to be more convenient and less threatening than school, such as at a local fast food restaurant. Although parents' presence in the school itself is helpful, it is not the amount of time parents spend at school, but rather how respected they feel by school personnel that is important in the school-family relationship (Greenberg, 1989).
Teacher training institutions can plan courses that give preservice teachers more formal training in working with parents and families. New teachers will then be better prepared to work with parents, and will realize the importance of including them in a child's education.
Teachers commonly complain, "The problem is that his parents just don't care about him." We should ask ourselves, "Am I sure they don't care at all?" There are very few parents who truly do not care about their children (Brewer, 1995). The issue is more likely to be that parents do not always demonstrate their caring in ways that meet teachers' expectations or approval (Greenberg, 1989).
Teachers and school personnel must continually examine their preconceptions about parents, broaden their definition of parent involvement, and recognize that they must find new ways to include parents in their child's education. Effective educators need to develop beyond traditional ideas of parent involvement. Misunderstandings or erroneous assumptions will be corrected only by reciprocal, respectful relationships with parents and families - by listening compassionately and believing what they say. Rather than blaming parents, teachers can empathize with them and see their point of view. From here, it is a short step to working as partners with parents.
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Sue Grossman is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Teacher Education, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti.