Working with Parents: Middle School Family Engagement

As a new  middle school teacher of special needs students, it was important  to be mindful of the environment that surrounded my public school students. In order to effectively engage my students, I had to develop a relationship with them. It was critical that I knew where these students came from, who they were, and understand what life was like for them. Academic performance and aptitude is not sufficient knowledge to possess about students. They aren’t just numbers: metrics, scores, and statistics– not the ‘big’ picture about anyone at all. Particularly noteworthy is that most of these numbers are not completely valid or reliable with children of color.

Honestly speaking, at first, my students intimidated me, not because I was a new teacher or because they were adolescents, but because I saw them as foreign to my own experiences. I had no point of reference from which to draw insights. So, my first inclination was to get to know this rambunctious group of what I now know were [and still are to most] grossly ‘misunderstood’ youngsters. I set out to find out who these students were. What was life like for them? What their past experiences were like in school and at home.

I remember being their age, and know that children can’t always be relied upon to tell the truth in all matters as they are also concerned with peer acceptance. I imagined that their lives were complicated, as every child, but the lives of this group of kids were complicated in a different way. They were “special needs”, black and hispanic youth who lived in ‘poverty’. On that note, I’d like to emphasize that there is an historical infrastructure that has impacted these children and their family’s lives for generations upon generations.

As we examine our national history, African-Americans were strategically denied rights and along with that, they were denied any semblance of education. No reading or math skills was the law. This was discouraged and severely punished should a person of color dare to read or write. When it was ‘allowed’, these people began their own educational institutions to teach others basic skills for survival. It was not a widely available type of learning setting as people were so spread out, removed from one another,and depending upon where they were held in bondage, the temperament of local whites, and the possibility that a known person of color had such skills to teach, not everyone had access.

Fast forward to the civil rights era and school desegregation. When it was decreed that blacks and whites were to receive the same basic standard education, the achievement gap was born. Not because of the lack of intelligence or potential, but for lack of access to the tools afforded by whites.

We look to parents to help their children to succeed in school today, and we should. But, there is no cause for casting blame onto parents who lack the skills or confidence to actually support their child’s academic success. Mind you, it is not true across the board. However, if we look honestly at how this gap persists or exists, stop blaming or shaming parents. Worse yet, we cast blame and unfairly discipline their children-our students for what they lack. Without access and opportunity, and without a clear reference point, from which the skills we value in education can be acquired, we must know that you can’t display what you don’t have and never received.

In short, we blame parents and their children for our unwillingness to recognize and acknowledge that what they lack is because of us-the system. It was strategically designed that they never gain access to tools and skills that enable their upward mobility in this country. Although times have changed and we say that we understand this, our actions show otherwise. Actually it is our inaction which perpetuate these still persistent gaps. Yet, we place responsibility on people who, while denied any control anyway, have very little control today.

They have no control over us or the system. We complain that parents don’ show up in school, and we say that an entire group does not exercise their rights to vote. When despair, disappointment, and discouragement, along with discrimination has been deciding your future path, your life, mobility, blocking that much esteemed ‘pursuit of happiness’. denying those inalienable rights, and done so very subtly, we are creating monsters. That a figure of speech and perhaps a poor choice of words, may still be appropriate to describe the internal struggle. We have people who are angry, tired, hurt and resentful of ‘our’ system. We begin to resemble ‘the man’.

That man has oppressed, for decades, thwarted and made people of color jump through hoops, as though it is an era in which a new form of slavery exists. You say that there are laws which protect people, everyone, from the behaviors of the past. That is true. However, changing policy does not always accompany a change in practices. People find loopholes, enact similar practices in other ways. Attitude is another way to prevent others from accessing opportunity to success, services. Knowing that people are still crying out against injustice today, and yet when they are before us, we quietly blame them, point fingers, or, and this is funny, deny them access because they were denied access.

We then try to quiet their complaints of wrongdoing, or when we are told that a double standard or discrimination, racial profiling, police brutality exists. There is great denial and a blindness to others’ truths. We say it doesn’t exist, they are wrong, even when it is placed directly before us. We excuse it, and blame the victim. How can we expect for little children to come to school when, at their ages, they are too young to feel discrimination, but their parents know it, lived it. They attended school, and if they didn’t complete their basic education, we shouldn’t blame them. It’s our fault. Learning is fun, interesting, engaging, and challenging too. What happens to those who choose to leave the environment before they graduate, before adulthood?


With systematic denial of access, interest is lost, motivation, intrinsic motivation, is lost. Too little encouragement, understanding. Cultural competence has empathy as a component. In order to be fair and just, we must begin to open our eyes to others’ experiences. Cultural differences are pronounced when a black kid is disciplined, suspended, called disruptive when that child merely uses the skills learned in his cultural environment. We punish children for acting out in class because we fail to look deeper into behaviors, attitudes, and don’t try to understand what adaptive and maladaptive looks like to others. Punishing a child for behaviors considered appropriate in his experiences is wrong. Each time we do, it is like killing the messenger instead of listening to the message. If you don’t understand the culture, then how can you possibly interpret behavior and determine either adaptive or maladaptive?

This is at the center of disproportionality regarding discipline, suspensions and school arrests and racial disparities in special education placements. The problem is ours-not theirs. It is our refusal to face the truths as they appear before us. We don’t want to believe that we could ever be wrong or unfair. We say we are colorblind, and that, too, is a large part of the problem. Since we decided to categorize people, we created a us and them mindset. This prevents us from seeing them not as they see themselves in relation to us, but as we see them without regard for the other.

The point: poverty does not connote an absence of potential, intelligence or being culturally deficient. Cultures are very rich-all cultures. What people within certain cultures may lack is access and opportunity-purely economic and reinforced by social design and systemically supported frameworks.

This structural framework creates a collective mindset that any representative of a governmental agency, including school systems are “the man”. That is not good, for the ‘man’ is the enemy, an adversary. Children absorb this and therefore, trust was something that they didn’t give away too easily. Nonetheless, it was my mission to earn their trust, and help them succeed -defy the odds-debunk the stereotypes.

I began by asking them to write a little life story about themselves. Naive was I to not realize that there were real academic deficiencies which not only made them reluctant to write but they would demonstrate these deficiencies, lack of grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, etc….  Undoubtedly, past teachers had not identified the strengths they possessed, nor outlined a clear pathway out of special education. They had been simply strung along, through the public school system, stuck in this bottomless pit called special education.

Those students who chose to complete this assignment were the measuring stick from which I decided to begin my instruction. Back to the basics! I was determined to guide these children into a place where they would start to dream again. I wanted them to want to learn in my classroom, in all classrooms. They deserved to have hope, to be given challenges, face them, and encouraged while fostering confidence and a growth mindset. I wanted them to feel that where they are now is not their destiny. It was not meant to be permanent, and movement required hard work, occasional failures, but determination to rise higher. I needed them to believe that.

It had to start with the classroom environment and I needed their parents’ support. I know black people and if discipline or regimen is what was desired, their strength of character demanded that this was what happens. Authority figures in the home were just that-authority. I needed to tap into that influence, in order that the work that these kids needed to do was going to get done…in double time. So, I went to plan B.  I asked them to  ‘Tell me about who you are- likes, dislikes, family, siblings,” and the like. I even asked them to tell me their zodiac sign. “Talk about your family, your room[where you sleep at night], responsibilities, when do you go out and play with your friends, curfew, what time does the family eat, who cooks?”, etc….

I wanted to know all about these children, and I wanted to be supported by their parents at home. I needed it. All children can learn and achieve, and they were no different. My goal was not just get to know them, partner with their parents, but to teach them in such ways that they learn, want to learn, and believe that they can succeed in school. I didn’t want them to simply pass onto the next grade, but to progress also out of the special education classroom. They could do it, and it was my goal to ensure that it happened. Never you mind that there were no textbooks. I bought a copier for just my classroom, surfed the web for potential lesson content, schlepped to the teacher supply stores to buy workbooks and reproduced my curriculum for the entire year. Every student was on the same page, only some worked at a different pace than others[differentiated].

Quickly, I found out that these kids were very sophisticated, despite the lack of grade level academic skills. They treated me like a substitute a temporary fly by night teacher, at first, not expecting me to last long, nor did they believe that I cared about them as people. They were disruptive, inattentive, and basically ignored instructions or my directives. They were clearly asking me to demonstrate my authority and place clear consistent boundaries before them. It took about a week to accomplish that and let them know who was the boss, so to speak.

They had begun to challenge me at every turn. It was time to pull out the big guns-it was time to call their parents.The department head and the principal were ineffective. They either removed students from class and used them as gophers for an entire class period or detention/suspension was the other ‘solution’. These kids needed to remain in class because they had no time to lose. Disrupting their learning time was not the answer, especially when very few staff really knew these kids-just their behaviors and the label they were assigned: special needs, learning disabled, emotionally, behaviorally challenged. Everything but children, young learners.

They were certainly a handful, would challenge even the most seasoned teacher, but they could learn and succeed. I was one teacher who was determined that this group would do just that. At the very least, they were going to know that I had their best interest at heart. I believed in this group and was not about to fail them as I thought that teachers before me had-the system had been failing these children. Terribly. But, why?

And, how was I going to be better, do better and get them to do better? First, they had to trust me. They would no longer feel embarrassed about what they didn’t know, but leave that behind them. They had to believe in me-they had to begin to believe in themselves. So, my mission was to make this a reality.

I needed to find out what made these kids tick; what they responded to at home. I needed an advocate, a partner, an ally. Somehow instinctively though, I realized that my first contact with home could not and should not begin with my complaints or problems in the classroom. Contacting parents is more delicate than that.

What I learned was that there are certain rules of engagement when speaking with parents.

#1- Be polite and very patient

Parents don’t want to hear criticism about their child. It tends to send a message to them that reflects their parenting skills. It will quickly trigger defense mechanisms and parents will back off, the opposite of what we want. It is true that some children are extremely problematic, and yet you need to remain patient and polite while working with parents.

#2-Focus on the positive attributes of the student

Even the most calm parents won’t appreciate you complaining constantly about their kids. Some tips for teachers indicate that it is best to refer to some of their child’s good qualities and appreciate those. However, make sure to inform parents in an encouraging tone about the areas the child needs to work on.

#3- Never talk to parents in front of the student

Unless there is a language barrier and no adult staff is available to translate conversations, It is not good to talk about the kid in his or her presence. Whether good or bad news, you shouldn’t do it! Appreciating the kid in front of his parents would make him pompous. On the other hand, complaining can be discouraging.

Make sure parents know you have the situation under control At times, parents will visit you everyday to ask you about their kid. This type of parents will also keep on interfering and trying to guide you to do your work ‘better’. Don’t let this happen! Try to convince them that you can handle the kid but need your space to do that.

Also avoid discussing your lesson plans with parents as they might have their suggestions or recommendations. You are the authority in your classroom, thus your lesson plans are based on what you think would benefit students. On the other hand, this is not to say that parental involvement is to be ruled out. Quite the opposite; you need their collaboration, cooperation and support from where they live during out of school time. Keep parents in the loop and informed as to lessons and instructional sequence.

#4- Maintain confidentiality of your meetings with parents

Sometimes parents ask their kids about the teachers while they are right there. This gives some children the chance to come up with a number of complaints. Don’t let this embarrassing predicament happen as it will not help motivate you to work with the child. You are only human, so your emotions may rule your judgment at times. Ask parents gently yet firmly to meet with you without their children present. Also, ask parents to maintain this confidentiality between you two, and when necessary, speak to their child as though they have a ‘third eye’ into the classroom. That will help to keep their child on their toes, and saves you from being seen as a ‘tattletale’. Understand that we should never undermine or usurp a parent’s authority. It is our job to teach and theirs to discipline. That should be at the center of the partnership.

#5- Keep performance or teacher worksheets close by

Worksheets and your notes are all the proof you would need to show a child’s performance. Keep them close so that you can discuss your students’ problem when meeting their parents. Without teacher worksheets, you might be thinking of what to discuss without creating complications.

#6- Guide parents

At times, a child faces trouble in concentrating on studies due to certain family problems. Parents would not appreciate you trying to guide them, but you should point out that your student is being affected by his parents’ personal issues. This is a difficult conversation, and we will discuss this later. There is an art to these conversations, and an outline will be provided in a future post.

#7- Keep weekly meetings

Even if parents are coming to school everyday, avoid discussing things with them. Do that on a weekly basis or only when absolutely necessary. Maintaining consistency in communications with parents helps to solidify the partnership. Just be positive above all else, but consistent.

#8- Listen first, talk later

A very important tip that is very useful in this case. Never lose your cool or have outbursts in front of parents in attempts to dominate the conversation, and wanting to be ‘right’. Instead, find out what complaints they have and counter them. Once you’re done, you can point out what had not been discussed before. Most important is that you listen;they want to be heard. They deserve to be heard.

#9- Be motivating

Last but not least, always keep a motivating attitude. Parents like a teacher who can offer them a glimmer of hope when it comes to their child’s weaknesses instead of demoralizing them. Show them that within your concerns, there is a plan for improvement with their help and support. Ultimately, it is their support that you need and along the way, provide useful tips and strategies for their practice at home, where they are in charge. Together, teaching and learning and parenting can align for optimal success for everyone of you. Together, achievement is possible and child and family outcomes lean more towards potential than problematic.

With these few guidelines for interacting and partnering with parents, I was able to achieve 100% parent participation during conferences, which rare in special education programs.Every parent communicated with me about their concerns, and positive changes in their child from the home perspective. I was informed of events and home-related situations which may impact school performance. That was extremely important for keeping me mindful when/if behavioral  patterns changed. Forewarned is forearmed!

Bottom line: What was once a ‘rowdy’ class of students, became a group of adolescent learners who were familiar with one another and family, supportive of one another. As I listened and invited partnerships with parents, it starts with listening and partnering with their children. Greater than that, they came to feel special in education, not kids in special education. Every parents wants that for their child, right?!!

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