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Critical Issue: Creating the School Climate and Structures to Support Parent and Family Involvement

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ISSUE: Evidence shows a strong connection between parent and family involvement in schools and children's academic achievement, attendance, attitude, and continued education (Henderson & Berla, 1994; Hickman, 1996). But families may not become involved if they do not feel that the school climate--the social and educational atmosphere of a school--is one that makes families feel welcomed, respected, trusted, heard, and needed.  Research (e.g., Comer & Haynes, 1992; Epstein & Dauber, 1993) suggests a connection between the school climate and the extent to which parents and families are involved in their children's education. When schools create a positive school climate by reaching out to families and providing structures for them to become involved, the result is effective school-family partnerships. Such partnerships connect families and schools to help children succeed in school and in their future.

OVERVIEW: The relationship between school climate and family involvement is reciprocal: Each one feeds the other in a cyclical pattern. In a positive school climate that encourages family involvement, the parents' perceptions of the school improve.

Joyce L. EpsteinJoyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, comments on the positive results of a good partnership between schools and families. Excerpted from "Theory to Practice: School and Family Partnerships Lead to School Improvement and Student Success," by J.L. Epstein, 1994, in School, Family, and Community Interactions: A View from the Firing Lines, edited by C. Fagnano and B. Werber, Boulder, CO: Westview Press. A text version is available.

Frequent and positive school-to-home communication (in the form of phone calls, progress reports, conferences, personal notes, newsletters, and home visits) helps parents feel more self-confident, more comfortable with the school, and more likely to become involved. The Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning (1994) reports that parents are more likely to participate in schools if they receive information from teachers about classroom activities, the progress of their children, and how to work with their children at home.

Epstein (1995) points out that the involvement of families in schools leads to overlapping spheres of influence between the home, school, and community. Thinking of the school as an extended family can help to create a positive school climate. Even the simple use of language--such as saying "children" instead of "students"--can make a difference in making families feel welcomed and accepted in the school.

Educators also contribute to a school's positive climate when they demonstrate openness, enthusiasm, and understanding toward all students, and when they show respect for parent diversity. Epstein (1995) points out the need for teachers and schools to increase their understanding and respect for student and family diversity, creating a more caring school climate. Letting parents know that they are valued and acknowledging their time constraints and familial obligations are other key elements of school climates that are conducive to family involvement.

Interviews with educators (Nathan & Radcliffe, 1994) indicate that educators recognize the importance of improving skills needed to work effectively with parents and families. Educators who are skilled in working with families can make a significant contribution to the positive climate of a school and the development of partnerships with families.

To formalize their commitment to accepting mutual responsibility for children's learning, some schools and families have developed a family-school compact for learning. Such compacts or agreements affirm the importance of school-family partnerships by defining goals, expectations, and responsibilities of schools and families in educating children.

Joyce L. EpsteinJoyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, points out that the development of a partnership between school and family is a process that involves careful planning and time. Excerpted from "Theory to Practice: School and Family Partnerships Lead to School Improvement and Student Success," by J.L. Epstein, 1994, in School, Family, and Community Interactions: A View from the Firing Lines, edited by C. Fagnano and B. Werber, Boulder, CO: Westview Press. A text version is available.

Bonds between families and schools also can be forged or solidified if ways are found to involve families directly in the ongoing work of the schools. Comer (1988) describes structures for involvement--parent participation on governance and management teams, as classroom assistants, and as organizers of school events--used to increase parent participation and promote positive interaction between families and schools. Davies (1991) suggests three ways that schools can promote parent involvement: establishment of a parent center, a home visitor program, and action research teams that examine methods for involving parents. Exceptional parent-involvement programs use these and other structures to develop two-way communication between school and home, and to involve parents in decision making, planning, assessment, and curriculum development. By creating a climate in which parents and families are regarded as partners in learning, schools can make parent and family involvement a reality.


ACTION OPTIONS: Educators can take the following steps to establish and maintain a positive school climate that encourages parent and family involvement:

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS:  Inconsistencies in individual interactions between families and school personnel in various situations can undermine a positive school climate. Cultural differences also can bring about mixed or wrong messages affecting how families feel when they participate. Therefore, cross-checks must be made to ensure the consistency of the school's atmosphere across all types of families and situations.

Some parents are reluctant to engage in their children's education and may never perceive schools as friendly, accepting places. They may feel confused about typical school procedures and intimidated by the school staff. Others parents may believe that school provides hope for their children's future but are uncertain how to become involved. Schools must make numerous and continuous attempts to reach reluctant families through a variety of means.

Some parents may try to use their influence to control what goes on at school (for example, in classrooms when they volunteer) and what decisions are made in school committees. Such parents overstep their boundaries by using an "I know best" attitude instead of a "we" concept. To prevent such situations, schools can designate a parent volunteer coordinator to inform parents about school policies and philosophy and to keep a close check on parents as they participate in school activities.

Some administrators, school board members, and teachers may have difficulty relinquishing their decision-making power. Although they may give the appearance of encouraging parent involvement, they prefer to remain in total control of making all decisions. Such educators also may be suspicious of parent motives for involvement. By promoting the participation of many different groups of parents and by providing numerous forums in which parents can voice their opinions, schools can prevent one person from becoming omnipotent.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW:   Despite encouragement from teachers and administrators, some parents may be reluctant or unable to become involved in their children's school. They may view education as the business of only the people who work in schools.

Although many teachers relate family involvement with student success, better teaching, and a positive school climate, some think they cannot improve the level of family involvement in their classrooms (Epstein, 1992).

Some principals and administrators may wish to limit parent involvement to bake sales and PTA meetings, thereby excluding parents from decision-making and governance roles in the school. They may believe that they have a better perspective of what is necessary and helpful for their school.


The parent-involvement approaches of the following schools and programs reflect a welcoming climate symbolized by respect for parents and families:

School Development Program

Home-Oriented Preschool Education (HOPE)

Profiles of Successful Partnerships that promote family involvement


Appalachia Educational Laboratory
P.O. Box 1348
Charleston, WV 25325-1348
(304) 347-0400 or (800) 624-9120
Contact: Jane E. Hange, Senior Manager

Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships
(formerly Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning)
Johns Hopkins University
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
(310) 516-8800; fax (401) 516-8890
Contact: Joyce Epstein, Director

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
1509 16th St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20036-1426
(202) 232-8777 or (800) 424-1426
Contact: Pat Saphr, Information Services Director

National Parent Teacher Association
330 N. Wabash St., Suite 2100
Chicago, IL 60611-3630
(312) 670-6782; fax (312) 670-6783
Contact: Patricia Yoxall, Public Relations Director

Partnership for Family Involvement in Education
(formerly Family Involvement Partnership for Learning)
600 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20202-8173
(800) USA-LEARN or (202) 401-0091; fax (202) 205-9133

School Development Program
47 College St., Suite 212
New Haven, CT 06520
(203) 737-1020; fax (203) 737-1023
Contact: Edward T. Johner, Acting Director


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Georgette Comuntzis-Page, adjunct assistant professor of journalism at West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia, and a child-care specialist for the West Virginia University Extension Service.

Development and production of this Critical Issue was a collaborative effort of the Appalachia Educational Laboratory and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Date posted: 1996
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