I’ve sat through a lot of family education* presentations, both as an educator and as a parent. A few of those talks were transformative, giving me a perspective that changed the way I approached working with young people (whether they were my own kids or my students). Many more, however, felt like I was listening to a canned speech that had already been delivered dozens of times.
The more I’ve attended family education events, the more convinced I’ve become that most schools’ programs aren’t actually designed for adult learning. Sarah Hanawald, our Assistant Head of School for Professional Development, says that best practices in adult learning direct educators to include practical applications for new concepts and information. We’ve moved beyond “the sage on the stage” in our classrooms--so why are so many schools still teaching parents and guardians this way?
As adults, we recognize the feeling of sitting in a classroom and listening to an expert. That familiarity is inherently reassuring. Whether it’s an author or a local professional, experts have the star power to bring parents and guardians to school in the evening. One challenge arises, however, when schools locate the expertise about children and adolescents outside of their school community. This is a missed opportunity for a school to demonstrate their deep well of experience with the social, emotional, and cognitive experiences of their students specifically.
When education for parents and guardians centers on hiring outside experts, it reinforces a framework that contributes to anxiety. The overload of information generated by social media, online sources, podcasts, and more has created the sense that it’s impossible for any person to know all they need to know in order to raise a “successful” child. Family education event question-and-answer sessions run the risk of being performative (the humblebrag can be raised to an art form in these sessions) which can create a culture where families with students experiencing challenges feel like outliers, rather than passing through normal phases in social and emotional development.
A shift to a skills-based approach to family education can focus attention on the realities of raising children and adolescents, rather than on parents’ and guardians’ anxieties. That’s because this approach is based in a growth mindset, which sees students as constantly evolving and changing, rather than a fixed mindset which locks both children and their parents and guardians into “successful” or “unsuccessful” roles.
For example, take the discussions of resilience so many schools and families have had over the past eighteen months. When an expert describes the qualities of a resilient adolescent, they’re contributing to the sense that some students are inherently resilient and others aren’t. When a presenter, instead, describes specific practices and approaches that build resilience in young people, there’s a way for every parent or guardian to implement the strategy, no matter where their student falls on the resilience spectrum. A skills-focused approach makes it clear that a singular standard against which parents and guardians can measure their children is, in fact, a fallacy.
A skills-based approach provides adults with actionable, real-world frameworks, which means that family education can make a difference in the lived experiences of families. When that instruction can be delivered by a person in your community, you help parents and guardians trust your experience and empathy. All learners acquire new information most effectively when they feel connected to their instructor, so bringing family education in-house provides the opportunity to take advantage of the trust your families feel in your teacher-leaders and counselors, making it more likely for parents and guardians to implement their learning.
Rethinking parent education can shift the understanding of child-rearing as something that should be professionalized and optimized by experts, into an alternative framework that sees adults, adolescents, and children as part of a web of relationships and resources that can grow and respond to needs--a framework that all communities need to help young people thrive.
*Many schools still use the term “parent education” to describe programming for parents, guardians, and caregivers. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve chosen the term “family education” to acknowledge the wide range of family and care structures in school communities.
As we head deeper into September, we find ourselves in the midst of back-to-school nights, meet-the-teacher events, and more. Over the past year and a half, distance learning provided many parents and guardians with the opportunity to see into their child’s classroom (a sharp difference from the access they had pre-pandemic, when some schools shared little more than term grades and critical updates). Now that students are back on campus, some families want to continue having access to their students’ academic experience. It’s tempting to say, “We don’t do that,” but simply closing the window to their view may be counter-productive. In fact, it’s important to realize that some of the adaptations that schools developed are likely to become standard practice.
“We’re doing almost all our parent and guardian meetings remotely now—--and we couldn’t be happier!” We’ve heard this comment over and over in conversations with academic leaders about how they’ve adapted pandemic strategies for the future. Online meetings allow academic leaders to make crucial connections while minimizing disruptions to work or family schedules. As a former tech director, it warms my heart to learn that technology facilitates personal connection and interactions.
Maybe that power to connect via video conference is really just the tip of the iceberg. During the last year, campus leaders engaged in massive system overhauls, both structural and virtual, to better support students and their families. This year is the time to figure out how these new systems might enable us to provide families with insights, rather than just information. Just as my colleague, Liz Katz, charged school leaders with using our LMS to power-up new faculty onboarding, let’s consider what else can we power-up with our new capabilities.
Providing parents and guardians with total access to classrooms and courses would be inappropriate both in terms of community norms and students’ developmentally appropriate autonomy. However, there are ways in which giving parents insight into their students’ lives and educational experiences can facilitate connection between the parent/guardian and their students.
Every year, parents and other caregivers have lots of questions, and as Academic Leaders, a big part of our job is ensuring those questions are answered, and guiding families in making the best academic decisions for and with their children. Most of us publish course books and progressions, but those overviews don’t capture the classroom experiences that make our schools great. The question now is how to leverage the systems we put in place last year to help build community and connection this year.
Let’s recognize that teachers are a key part of this process. Academic Leaders need to help educators understand that effective communication builds trust between families and teachers, which in turn will translate into stronger relationships in the school-home partnership. When families trust teachers, that trust extends to the school as well. Digital systems allow educators to share more than the syllabus and textbooks; instead, they can use their tools to let families know what it’s like to share insights in a fourth grade literature circle, complete a lab in AP Physics, or present about a significant historical event in an eighth grade assembly.
The great gift of digital resources is how easily they can be shared, minimizing the burden on teachers and maximizing benefits to families. A video of an experiment that a teacher created last year can be embedded in this year’s back-to-school night PDF, or in next year’s course selection materials, making the experience more dynamic and engaging. Lower-tech works too. Laura Cox, a humanities teacher at Marin Country Day, takes the poem she reads to her classes every day, and sends it out to an opt-in parent/guardian email list. These messages give parents a sense of classroom discussions, articulate Laura’s goals for her students, and provide an opportunity for families to extend the conversation at home.
As we move closer to post-pandemic life, the technology that schools used as a solution for social distancing can now be repurposed to bring more connection to our campuses. Digital systems and resources are an essential new tool for strengthening the home-school partnership and inviting parents and guardians into the lived experience of the classroom--an essential element for building the relationships that make independent schools so strong.
What else can you think of that might pose a creative use of your newfound technical expertise to invite parents and guardians into the lived experiences of their children?
Early on in the pandemic, I asked a friend what she was hearing from parents, guardians, and caretakers at her school. She answered, “They’re all worried their kids are going to be behind.” Even after that night, I kept thinking about the word behind, and all the parental anxieties and preoccupations it revealed: that growth should be linear, that students are being measured against each other, that “success” as they define it is a scarce good, with limited access.
Months later, I was reminded of that conversation as I read articles describing recovery from the global and domestic recession as K-shaped. Most economic downturns, when plotted on a matrix, are V-shaped or U-shaped: they drop sharply, then turn back upwards, for all sectors. A K-shape reveals that the recession has widened income inequality. After a short universal upturn, the wealthy continue on the path to economic recovery, but poor and working-class families’ growth reverses—they revert to a downturn.
Parents and guardians are managing two acute sets of anxieties. The first revolves around their child’s emergence from the social and emotional impacts of the past eighteen months—how they are now as life returns to its usual trappings. The second set of anxieties concerns what comes next. With all indicators pointing to expanding inequality, parents and guardians feel urgency to ensure that their children will have access to opportunity as they launch into adulthood. In essence, they are searching for certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. The truth is that the phrase “kids are resilient, they’ll be fine” that parents have been hearing over and over doesn’t align with their plans; “just fine” isn’t what they aspire to for their child.
Within this context, parents and guardians are trying to create certainty wherever they can by making sure their child has access to every possible opportunity. This may include anything from an opportunity to perform on stage, compete in an academic competition, or play on a sports team. Then there are those who are anxious about a transition to the next educational institution, and that admission is a limited resource with a zero-sum outcome; and parents didn’t know how to prep their kids to excel in pandemic learning. If parents and guardians perceive that an academic leader or an institution is putting up a barrier to an opportunity, they will react from a place of fear or anger—emotions that make it difficult to maintain a sense of perspective and proportion.
As academic leaders, when managing family anxieties, one of the most important things to do is reject the intimidating influence of generalization. In order to work well with these parents and guardians, really listen to and acknowledge their concerns. Don’t serve up platitudes. Instead, put their concerns in context. Address the relevant social factors, but also reassure them by demonstrating how well you know their specific child—their strengths, their interests, their particular struggles. Make sure they know that you know that their child is not just a statistic or a trend.
Educators are not going to get rid of parent and guardian anxiety, because anxiety is a natural cognitive process, even at the best of times. (These are not the best of times.) Minimizing or ignoring those anxieties doesn’t resolve the issue; instead, it alienates parents from the educators who have the power to diffuse their fears. By addressing parents’ and guardians’ worries with empathy, perspective, and clarity, we can help them move through their fears and support their children.
When I worked in face-to-face schools, I loved the carpool line. Yes, really. It was a chance to greet students at the start of the day, or send them home with a smile on their faces. But, it was also a chance to get to know parents and guardians better: answer their questions, squash any rumors, and build trust. Those casual and happenstance community opportunities -- the carpool line, watching a school sporting event, attending an art show -- have largely been taken away from us over the last eighteen months or have moved online. Building trust with families has become harder, at the exact moment when trust between families and schools has never been needed more.
Add on top of that the trauma everyone still and continues to have. Last week, the New York Times journalist Kara Swisher interviewed Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, on her podcast Sway. In that interview, Weingarten said: “COVID affected all of us differently. Communities that were poor, black, and brown got more affected. [COVID] created lots of trauma. And then having leadership that was more political as opposed to more focused on the health and safety of America was really problematic. So we have you know that crisis and then on top of it we had the death of George Floyd and then on top of it a 2020 election and then an Insurrection. So there's huge trauma… When people are so traumatized, when there's a question about future, when there's a question about what's going to happen to my kids, what’s going to happen in a year from now, my kids didn't get the graduation, they didn’t have kindergarten. It becomes easy to exploit this, and that's what I think is happening.” We have trauma being exploited on a number of levels, both hyper locally and nationally.
As Academic Leaders in independent schools, we have fewer tools for community and trust building that we had before and the tools that we do have are different (requiring us to build new skills), all at a time when we are surrounded by and experiencing trauma ourselves--meaning that building trust is more essential than ever. We had hoped that we could go back to our old tools of in-person connection this fall, but with the resurgence of COVID-19 outbreaks, being together in person is only an option for some of our families in some of our schools, and some of our communities. Returning to our old strategies and leaving out the people who aren’t ready or able to join us on campus isn’t an option, because it magnifies and expands the inequities that are already present on our campuses.
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is greatly impacting the health and well-being of our students, worrying parents and guardians further. A recent McKinsey survey noted that: “Roughly 80 percent of parents had some level of concern about their child’s mental health or social and emotional health and development since the pandemic began… Parents also report increases in clinical mental health conditions among their children, with a five-percentage-point increase in anxiety and a six-percentage-point increase in depression.” The CDC notes a 7 percent increase in mental health events among 5-11 and 12-17 year olds respectively during the COVID pandemic. And in turn, parents and caretakers themselves have reported elevated levels of stress. An APA study notes that 46% of parents have a high level of stress compared to 28% of non-parents.
Parents and guardians need their schools to be partners in order to have a positive impact on the life of kids as never before. That’s why we’ll be exploring how Academic Leaders can work effectively with families and expand trust and connection within their communities throughout this month.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)