[Moore, T. 2003. Investing in Parental Involvement. In Children and Families, 17 (Spring): 12, Alexandria, VA: NHSA]

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.”

Today in Head Start programs, 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?

I’ve had many opportunities to meet low-income parents and learn why they seem hesitant 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; instead of bringing all their kids to a school event, they stay home. 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. There’s a good reason for schools to put forth the extra effort to get parents involved: combined with appropriate learning and playing activities at school, 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 involvement at your program?

Let parents see a variety of cultures incorporated into the classroom and curriculum. Choose books, play music, and put drawings on the walls from many ethnic groups. Low-income parents trust teachers more when those teachers are knowledgeable and respectful about all the cultures in their classroom.

Recognize the importance of building trust. When minority parents trust you and other staff members, they will be more supportive of your program. After decades of work with Head Start and other early childhood programs, I’ve found that parents participate more in smaller communities. Why? Close, trusting relationships.

Are some teachers in your Head Start center especially effective in involving reluctant parents?

Learn from them. Share their ideas with other teachers and staff members.

Do your best to be free of bias against any ethnic group. If a parent gets the sense that Head Start staff members are biased against her culture, that parent will not feel welcomed at the center.

Be patient. Though not all parents will respond to your efforts, many more will. Celebrate the parents who do attend parent-teacher conferences, especially if they never have before. It is possible to reach low-income parents.

Myrtle Hoffman encouraged my parents to get involved with our education when we were in preschool and 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, 2003 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.