Poor Parents Find School Intimidating

[Thomas Moore, "Poor parents find school intimidating" Charlotte Observer (02/11/03): 11A]

It’s a myth that these families don’t care about education. A few weeks ago, I drove to Gastonia for the funeral of my preschool teacher, Mytle Hoffman. Mrs. Hoffman was known for her ability to motivate parents and for her dedication to educating young children. I sat quietly for most of the service with a friend. Suddenly my friend, a UNCC professor of child development and one of the few white people there, broke her silence. She responded "Amen" when the minister said, "Because she cared about the children, Mother Myrt encouraged the parents." I smiled and thanked God for the people who encourage parents.

Today in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, many teachers and administrators are trying to encourage low-income parents to be involved in their children’s education. It’s not always easy. Low-income parents tend to stay away from their children’s schools. Where are they for the parent-teacher conferences? For special events? Why do they sometimes ignore notes sent home? Don’t they care?

Through my work with Head Start programs across the country, I’ve had many opportunities to meet low-income parents and learn why they seem reluctant to get involved. I’ve also discovered ways to encourage these parents so they understand -- and really believe - how important their contributions are to their children’s education. Some barriers for low-income parents are obvious. They may depend on public transportation or an unreliable car. Others have jobs that prohibit leaving during the day, so they can’t volunteer at school or attend daytime conferences. Single parents may lack childcare at night. But there’s an underlying issue few middle-class people recognize. For many low-income parents, school is intimidating.

Some parents didn’t do very well in school themselves and can’t imagine they have anything to offer their children. Others may feel threatened by authority figures at school. Rather than deal with the fear, they just don’t show up. While lack of interest may be a problem in some families, it’s a myth that low-income parents aren’t as concerned about their children’s growth and development. The parents simply view their role in a different way. They see their primary responsibility as feeding, clothing, teaching cooking and other basic skills, and helping their children survive the rough neighborhoods where they live. It might take most of their energy to keep undesired people and influences away.

But there is hope. A study in the Review of Education Research found that schools serving low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhoods can and must make greater efforts to welcome families, because families often feel excluded due to differences in ethnicity, income and culture. Combined with appropriate curricula, parents can provide the glue to sustain a child’s growth and change a community.

What can teachers, administrators, and other parents do to encourage school involvement?

  • Recognize the importance of building trust. Minorities focus on relationships. Europeans focus on the product. When minority parents feel more comfortable with their children’s teachers and school leaders, they will get behind the product -- school. After decades of providing programs for PTAs nationwide, I’ve found that parents participate more in smaller communities. Why? Close, trusting relationships. 
  • Let parents see a variety of cultures taught through history lessons, literature, and social studies projects. Have children study great thinkers from many ethnic groups. Low-income parents trust teachers more when teachers show they respect and value their students’ backgrounds. There are many urban classrooms where this isn’t happening yet, according to education researchers Peter McDermott and Julia Rothenberg at The Sage Colleges in New York.
  • Are some teachers in your school especially effective in encouraging and involving disenfranchised parents? Learn from them. Share their ideas with every teacher. The same process can work among parents at a school. 
  • Support our local Bright Beginnings program, Bethlehem Center Head Start, and such groups as Parents as Teachers (www.patnc.org), which provides parent education. It’s a good start. 
  • Be patient. Though not all parents will respond to these efforts, many will. Don’t give up because of one or two disappointments. Success is around the corner. It is possible to reach low-income parents. Myrtle Hoffman encouraged my parents to get involved with our education when we were in preschool. She continued her support as we grew older. With six children at home, my mother and father both entered an adult education program at our local high school and earned their high school diplomas. Later, my mother completed her nursing degree. That gave me something to think about - as I finished my Ph.D.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books "Where is Thumbkin?" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man?". He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series "Music, Movement and More". He has also produced ten recordings for children.