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Parent Coffees: Applying the Research

Ann Know, Principal, American School of Rio de Janeiro

Many parents want to be involved in the education of their child. Research tells us the earlier they are involved the better, and it also tells us that the most effective forms of parent involvement are those which engage parents in working directly with their children on learning activities at home (Cotton and Wikelund). In my experience as a middle and elementary principal, involving parents in meaningful conversations and sharing strategies that they find relevant can solidify a partnership, creating lasting positive effects for all.

I find that this positive involvement guides and shapes their participation. Sometimes, topics that educators are immersed in for years are not consistently translated into usable information for parents. Because we are so immersed, some of it seems too basic to share. Parents who do not work in education do not have many of these educational basics but will eagerly act on information shared. If educators and administrators take the time to sift through some of the important topics in our community and analyze possible next steps to promote deeper involvement, it can have an impact both on outcomes and community climate.

However, it is not always easy to establish the venues for these conversations to occur. And even with the correct venue, the way information is shared can enlist or repel the parent population. There is one venue I have found particularly effective: Parent Coffee presentations.

While there is no shortage of research and information on parent involvement, I believe some how-to basics are not as well addressed in the literature. The best research in the world is not necessarily helpful if it does not have the logistical planning element to apply it effectively. At the Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro we have been providing at least quarterly “Coffee with the Principal” sessions. I utilize parent feedback and relevant parent-friendly research to plan topics, then I create interactive sessions that will engage them in the material. This is just one part of our communication plan, and it is one of the most important tools for garnering support and proactive involvement.

Here are some important logistics that have helped me to apply the research for our population: 1. Topic selection: Topics need to be organically developed based on the current needs of the parent community. For starters, a large-scale survey is not necessary. Instead, start with the PTA. Ask an open question but have a few topics ready to suggest. Ideally, at least a couple of the presentations may be sensitive to larger school goals (character education, curriculum areas of focus, etc.).

2. Presentation: Utilize best practices in teaching to engage parents. Have written and verbal information, but also have visuals, planned interactions in small groups or pairs, one or more activities to deepen their understanding or provide an experience, provide questions for discussion, and allow Q & A..

3. Feedback: Utilize a variety of methods to get feedback in order to adjust future presentations and set topics. I use survey monkey, the PTA and I strike up conversations at dismissal time to gather more informal feedback.

At the most recent event, I presented information on the power of praise (How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise by Po Bronson) and the importance of cultivating character qualities such as grit (What if the Secret to Success is Failure? by Paul Tough). Because much of my parent population is not native English speaking, I prepared excerpts of the articles. The presentation included “turn and talk” where parents were able to share kinds of praise they typically utilize. Then I presented the research and the recommendations, after which parents were asked to practice and explore the concept of praise and help each other select specific phrases that promote effort.. When we moved further into the presentation and I shared information on grit and how they can help foster this quality in their children. To better understand it from their own vantage point, I provided a short test on grit which they took and scored.

These two articles went well together in terms of providing parents with some specific information and skills that they could act on which could make a significant difference in their children.

The feedback I received was positive, and the resulting conversations at drop-off, pick-up and community events are also productive and positive. The Parent Coffee venue has been a positive forum to share relevant research and initiatives with parents, to provide specific kinds of support that can help their child to succeed, and to firmly establish a commitment to a parent partnership that will make a difference.

Cotton, K., Wikelund, K., Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, School Improvement Research Series. In Parent Involvement in Education.

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