The beginning of the school year is full of promise for teachers, children and families as they set off on a new adventure together. This is especially true for very young children and their parents who are experiencing school for the first time. Parents want their children to work hard and succeed in school. In fact, research shows that the most consistent indicators of children’s academic achievement and social adjustment are parent expectations of the child’s academic attainment and satisfaction with their child’s education at school. (Walberg, 1984)
One of our goals in the Rice OWL Lab is to make parents feel welcome from the very first day of school. Our hope is that parents will see themselves somewhere in our classroom and know that their voices are honored and valued. A simple idea that has worked for us is to invite parents into our ancillary classroom on the same day they come to meet their child’s teacher for the first time. We take a picture of each family and invite parents to write a wish for their child for the new school year on a special piece of scrapbook paper. The wishes and photos are shared with the children during their first few days in our classroom and then posted on the classroom wall.
Our wall is full of first-day wishes written in different languages by families from a variety of cultures, yet the hopes and dreams expressed are universal. Parents tell their children how much they are loved, how smart they are and how they wish them a successful school year. They want them to try hard and do their best. They describe their children using words like “our treasure,” “my little princess” and “our little piece of heaven.” As teachers we are moved by their words and feel privileged to display them in the classroom. It is so much fun to see the children’s reactions as they look at their family photos and hear the wishes being read aloud. Some smile, others get teary-eyed, and most will immediately start naming each person in the photo and sharing family stories. Their families become a part of our classroom.
Parents will also get to see everyone’s wishes when they return for our first set of Parent Days later this month. We want our parents to know that we share their aspirations for their children and encourage them to be actively engaged in the learning. We invite families into the lab to celebrate the children and model simple activities they can do together at home. Our message to parents is that they already have everything they need to support their children at school through their daily activities as a family. Walberg also conducted research that found that family participation in education was actually two times a better predictor of academic learning than family socioeconomic status. Kellaghan, Sloane, Alvarez, and Bloom (1993), in their book Home Environment and School Learning, explain it this way:
“The socioeconomic level or cultural background of a home need not determine how well a child does at school. Parents from a variety of cultural backgrounds and with different levels of education, income or occupational status can and do provide stimulating home environments that support and encourage the learning of their children. It is what parents do in the home rather than their status that is important.” (p.145)
Consider how you might convey this message to the parents of the children you serve this fall as you plan for Open Houses and parent conferences. If it would be difficult to actually take family photos at school, perhaps parents could send them from home. Maybe you could set aside a few minutes during Open House for parents to write down their wishes and hopes for the school year. As you share your own expectations for the year you can echo the parents’ sentiments. It will mean so much to them to hear that you have the same dreams for their children as they do. Think about how these wishes might be “published,” either by being displayed in some way or perhaps made into a class book. Giving families this kind of a voice and presence in your classroom can go a long way toward building a sense of community and empowerment in parents. We can all share in the promise of a brand-new school year where teachers and families work together to achieve the hopes and dreams that we all hold for our children.
Authored by Lori Espinoza and Debbie Paz, Rice School Literacy and Culture