Parents as Essential Partners in Pivoting their Child’s Education & Fostering Remote Learning

By: Rebecca Holmes

As a mother, educator, former associate state education commissioner, and CEO of the nonprofit Colorado Education Initiative, I have a unique vantage point to the home, classroom, and school. I deeply empathize with the severe stress and anxiety facing students, parents, teachers, and school leaders this fall.

Parents call me daily in tears worried how they will handle the colossal disruption to their child’s education that began this spring. They’ve lurched to solutions and made unrealistic demands from schools and teachers. We are parenting from a place of fear, so easy to do even when we know it’s not good for kids who no doubt feel our tension. Such stress and anxiety diminish the capacity to be creative, learn new skills, and think outside the box at exactly the time we need those skills the most.

Families and Schools: Preparing Kids for the Evolving Future

The problems of parenting and problems of schools are remarkably related. Neither were designed for today’s modern world, and we are struggling to catch up. We as parents make choices largely to align with or reject what we experienced in our homes growing up, and without grounding those choices in what we know about the world our kids will inherit as adults. We’re preparing our kids for a world that no longer exists instead of one that is more volatile and complex. How do we parent for that?

We forget we are a more powerful force in our children’s lives than anything related to formal schooling. Yet, parents don’t know enough about how schools work or why they don’t, and as a result we don’t know how to advocate for better, more modern educational practices for our families and communities.

Great parenting can be taught and encouraged in every family and community, and when we forget that, or we don’t believe all parents and communities have gifts and assets to leverage, we over-emphasize schools as the only way to shape young people. Meanwhile, in education circles, we have to leave behind old battle lines that don’t pave the way for an educational system informed by what we know about the future. I believe we can blend both parenting and teacher perspectives while focused on future-ready kids and practices.

A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, found three in five parents (59%) are concerned about their children falling behind in their education because of the pandemic. Yes, we should certainly think, individually and collectively, about how to make up for what will get missed this year. But we should be equally focused on what’s happening in our homes and think about this as a time to drive independence and collaboration—the very skills we know young people need for the future.

Parents need actionable advice they can make sense of in order to partner with schools to advance innovation and improvement. They also need modern tips for how to parent in a way that better prepares our kids, regardless of the schools they attend. In the school year that’s now beginning, families are essential partners in student learning more than ever before. We need to engage and provide them with a greater sense of agency in their child’s education.

7 Home-Based Steps for Success

Schools pivoting to virtual teaching present real challenges. But there are thoughtful actions almost any family can take to set children up for success this fall and to be a positive force in their child’s growth.

  • Encourage an environment where your child and teacher get to know each other. Start the year with a short socially distant or virtual visit. This kind of interaction helps children learn how to be seen and known by seeing and knowing others.
  • Enlist other trusted adults in the child’s world. Besides teachers, who else can build or deepen a positive relationship with your child? Don’t forget it really does “take a village.” Is there an aunt, coach, or spiritual leader who could visit weekly or take a midday video call?
  • Encourage independence in children. The best and most frustrating thing my family did this spring was support our three-year-old as she learned how to fold laundry, make a sandwich, and feed the dog. Without much else going on, she suddenly had time to try, fail, and try again. Age-appropriate lists of skills like this exist for nearly every developmental stage and offer suggestions of activities for kids to push to the edge of their independence.
  • Practice self-regulation and self-awareness. Noticing our mental state is self-awareness and positive intervention is self-regulation. Helping children develop these skills will help them succeed when things are hard and choose beneficial activities and behaviors whether it’s a snack, nap, fresh air, or play.
  • Explore learning opportunities through academic or other projects. One of the risks of virtual learning is that students receive information but don’t complete enough work themselves. Start with projects kids produce, whether written, video, or art, rather than simply backfilling basic skills.
  • Find a learning buddy. When kids lack socialization, they also miss collaboration—one of the most critical future-ready skills. Is there a relative, friend, or classmate with whom a child could partner on a project of shared passion?
  • Be honest in age appropriate ways. Children are intuitive. Speak to them honestly, regardless of their age, explain your plan, and provide support to manage fear and uncertainty.

With these research-proven suggestions, we as parents can form a plan that sets a positive tone for the school year, offers a sense of certainty for our kids, and bolsters their learning. We can parent from a place of purpose, rather than fear, and use this year to learn more about our children’s unique gifts, talents, and interests. And, when school returns to normal, my hope is parents demand more inquiry-based, student-driven, joyful approaches to education. The good news is that American schools have more and more proof-points of those practices every year.

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Rebecca Holmes is the President and CEO of Colorado Education Initiative (CEI). She was previously Associate Commissioner at the Colorado Department of Education. She began her career as a middle school teacher and spent many years leading a system of schools serving over 90% low-income students. 

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By: Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson

There is near unanimity that early education is vital. In recent decades, there has been a flowering of research from multiple disciplines showing the very profound impact strong, nurturing early childhood care and education can have on a child’s growth, development and long-term trajectory. Beyond the value to a child’s learning, many families’ livelihoods depend on finding childcare so parents can work. But, there are countless childcare and early education options in a particular area and wide variation in quality and approach among these choices. Families lack a common standard by which to access information and evaluate quality and practice. Providers rarely have access to networks to connect with potential families to market their strengths, nor the personnel or skills needed to manage the business aspects of running an early childcare center.

In short, the early childcare space lacks a systematic structure and a standard framework for evaluating the plethora of options.

Enter A Systems Approach to Early Childcare

An innovative new platform,, seeks to bring order to this chaos in a way that is supportive to both families seeking care and high-quality providers. is a browser-based tool backed by a team of educational experts that vet childcare centers and preschools in a particular geographic area, for safety, academic quality and cost. The site provides profiles of all schools that have met these standards with information about educational philosophies, openings and tuition. It also connects parents with a support network of family advisers to help guide them through the preschool selection process, all free of charge for families. The platform launched for South Florida in January 2020 and will be expanding to other metropolitan areas throughout the country.

This seemingly simple design transforms both families’ search for childcare and the providers’ struggle, to market and reach families by creating an easy-to-access, virtual conduit between the two that includes a robust and vetted collection of information.

For families, provides:

  • Rigorous Vetting: The team recognizes that having a safe, secure, and nurturing environment is a nonnegotiable threshold that begins all childcare and preschool searches. The vetting process to ensure this level of quality is the cornerstone of The team conducts “rigorous vetting that goes beyond publicly available reviews to include deep research, calls, interviews and site visits.” Schools that do not make the cut are not included on their platform.
  • Thorough Profiles of School Options: Profiles for schools include an accessible amount of information about safety and security, academic philosophy, tuition information, enrichment programs, and parent reviews. Families can compare options in a given geographic region across categories.
  • Dynamic Search Features: From any computer or browser-enabled device, families can use the site to search for schools by location or other criteria. The site recognizes that many variables impact a preschool search. Families can simultaneously enter their home and work locations and see proximity to both as they consider a specific school. They can sort results by price, location, and openings.
  • Family Advisers: connects families with thoughtful and caring educational experts. These experts assist families in understanding the different educational philosophies across providers, share options for availability, and ultimately help them find the right overall fit for their child and family.

For schools, provides:

  • Marketing Channels: offers schools and centers technical assistance and a network of connections to reach potential families. The platform employs innovative, targeted analytic strategies to match families with potential schools.
  • Increased Enrollment & Retention: makes information available and easily accessible to families so families can truly find the right school to fit their needs, values, and philosophies. Childcare centers and schools benefit from a high retention rate of families and when families find the right fit, they are more likely to stay.
  • Options for Additional Support: Schools that pass the vetting process are afforded the opportunity to formalize the relationship and become Member Schools. These schools, and the families who enroll in them, are offered additional services and pathways for connections. Member Schools are highlighted on the site and receive additional marketing benefits. Families who choose to enroll in a Member School receive their 13th month of tuition free, directly promoting increased enrollment and retention for the school.

A Game-Changer in Early Education has positioned itself to meet a rare trifecta of benefits for families, providers, and broader societal interest. They are able to enlighten families to the differences between options, help providers both clarify and differentiate themselves within the market, and ultimately, are able to increase the number of children well-prepared for entering Kindergarten. Despite the myriad of research on the importance of early education, a systematic approach to access and evaluate quality has lagged. is pioneering efforts to change this game, with the end goal of raising the overall quality of the entire system of early childhood education.

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Thinking Outside of the Gift Box

By: Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson

‘Twas the season of gift giving
And all through the land,
Families were shopping
For gifts that were grand.

Clutter was piled
From seasons before,
Of gifts that seemed great
But were not played with anymore.

So how could this season be different
—Maybe even more fun?
Give the gift of an experience
To a cherished loved one.

These gifts can be more special
Than a doll or a drum;
They are the gift of a memory
That lasts for years to come.

The gift of an opportunity or an experience for a child can extend the holiday magic well beyond when the last ornament is taken off of the tree or when the menorah candles are extinguished. From the anticipation of waiting for the date of a special day to arrive to the excitement knowing that you can visit a local zoo or museum time and time again, experience-based gifts provide many layers of enjoyment and connection. These adventures also invite shared laughter, imagination, and joy among family members that work together to build a rich family culture. Below are some ideas for those on your gift list that span a range of price points, ages, and interests.

Day Passes: To gift an experience, purchase a ticket beforehand, online or in person, or create a homemade ticket or pass that the child can redeem at a later date. Think of gifting tickets to places an entire family might enjoy visiting together or gift a one-on-one shared experience with your child. These experiential gifts can facilitate days filled with joy and laughter and memories for years to come. Consider gifting tickets or passes to a nearby:

  • Do-It-Yourself Pottery or Painting Studio
  • Botanical Garden
  • Historic Settlement
  • Tea Room
  • Open Gym
  • Pool

Tours: To give the gift of learning, consider taking a trip to visit a local business or factory. This is a great opportunity for children to learn about how things are made, make connections to local communities, and explore new career pathways and possibilities. Some cities and popular destinations offer architectural tours or nature excursions, either walking or by boat. You might also think about gifting a tour to visit a local:

  • Food Factory (cheese, ice cream, candy)
  • Toy Factory (Teddy Bear Factory, Crayola Factory)
  • Sports Establishment (Louisville Slugger Factory, stadium)
  • Farm, Ranch, or Garden Center
  • Space Center

Events: Gifting tickets to a special event is another great way to give the gift of a memory. To add to the gift, you might include a T-shirt, stuffed animal, or book that pairs with the theme. Area high schools and colleges, local theaters, performing arts centers, and parks and recreation departments often have concerts, shows, and games that are easily accessible for young kids. Look at upcoming activities or events such as:

  • Live Theater Shows
  • IMAX Movies
  • Music Concerts
  • Dance Shows
  • College or Professional Sports Games (This is a great gift for boys and girls to see older kids playing sports at a high level.)

Year-Long Gifts: Memberships are a wonderful way to give a gift that keeps on giving throughout the year. Memberships also allow a family to focus on favorite exhibits or sections over many visits, alleviating the pressure to see everything in one visit. Oftentimes, memberships offer reciprocity to other organizations within the same network. This is perfect for a family who vacations regularly or travels to visit distant family and friends. Consider gifting a membership to a local:

  • Children’s Museum
  • Science Museum
  • Zoo
  • Aquarium
  • Planetarium
  • State Park
  • Amusement Park

Magazine Subscriptions: A magazine subscription is another way to give a gift that keeps on giving throughout the year. Children of all ages love the anticipation of the mail truck delivering something special. These gifts are a great way to fuel learning and build on hobbies and interests. Some popular subscriptions you might consider include:

  • National Geographic Kids or National Geographic Little Kids
  • Highlights for Children, Highlights High Five, or Highlights Hello
  • Sports Illustrated Kids
  • Ranger Rick, Ranger Rick Jr., or Ranger Rick Cub
  • Zoobooks, Zoodinos, Zootles, or Zoobies

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: One of the most special parts of gifting an experience is that you are giving the gift of time—time to learn, time to explore, time to laugh, or time to connect with family and friends. With that in mind, experience-based gifts can simply be a coupon book for quality time spent with loved ones or a day filled with a few smaller activities. These ordinary moments, sprinkled with laughter and quality time, turn into extraordinary memories. Consider including:

  • Ice cream
  • A trip to a local park with a picnic breakfast, lunch, or supper
  • Ice skating and hot chocolate
  • A movie and popcorn (in a fort)
  • A craft project
  • Library time

Happy Memories for All

So as you give these non-traditional gifts of adventure and shared experiences, appreciate the memories that replace the clutter, the joy of connection that does not expire with the passage of time, and the smiles in the pictures that will be treasured for years to come. And after the holiday has come and gone, may you be left with this new take on an old classic:

The gifts were opened up
The kids were elated,
The anticipation grew
As the children waited.

The concert with Gramps
The trip to the park,
The factory tour
Staying out after dark.

We heard them exclaim,
And they felt joy in new ways;
Happy memories for all
From a lot of fun days.

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Empowering Students Through Choice, Voice and Action

By: Kristen Thorson and Erin Gohl

From year to year and generation to generation, shifts in culture, shared historical experiences and advances in technology change our individual and collective perspectives. Small changes accrue, resulting in an evolution of our social and economic environment. Issues and challenges with a national or even a global impact arise. Some issues unite, some divide and some redefine communities.

A generational identity is forged for youth emerging into adulthood from the cultural cauldron of significant events. Some young people become leaders by framing issues with an honesty unburdened by the excuses that previous generations have accumulated through fear and equivocation. These emerging leaders act with a passion that inspires people across cultures and generations to unite.

The last several years and even just the past few weeks have provided us with incredible examples of youth advocacy for a wide variety of issues. From Greta Thunberg’s plea for environmental action to Malala Yousafzai’s advocacy for girls’ education to Parkland, Florida teenagers leading thousands in a march to demand action on gun control, these young people have proven that kids are capable of promoting big ideas and driving substantial change.

These examples need not be exceptions. Adults must recognize that children can and should participate and contribute to our social and civic dialogue. It’s time to acknowledge that kids, even those just learning to read and write, have valuable insights. We must create space for them to develop their thoughts, share their opinions and take action where they see a need.

Any adult who works alongside young people can help them develop into thinkers, problem-solvers, and doers. We must offer choice so that children have agency in their lives. We must encourage voice so that they can share and advocate for their needs and the needs of others. And we must seed, nurture, and follow our kids’ desire to make a difference in the world. Both home and school can be fertile ground for this kind of growth and development.


From a young age, we can empower children by teaching them that they have the ability to shape their lives. Subtle shifts in offering options to kids can create a dynamic in which children are taught that their feelings, thoughts, and opinions are valued. Having choice promotes feelings of control in their lives and in their interactions with the world. When children are able to act with self-determination in influencing the timing and sequence of required tasks or choosing to complete work individually or collaboratively, they feel empowered. These seemingly insignificant differences may seem subtle to adults, but to kids, they are powerful.

At School: At a basic level, teachers may offer a choice between sitting on a chair or sitting on the carpet to complete a task. They may let students decide when a particular task gets completed, including the order and sequence of their work. Older students may be given the authority to choose whether to present the information they have learned in a PowerPoint presentation, written report or creative diorama. These types of choices allow for multiple pathways to the same learning objectives.

At Home: Parents may let their kids choose which vegetable they would like with dinner or if they brush their teeth before or after they read a story. When older children are faced with decisions about electives, parents may let them dig into their own feelings to make that choice, even if it falls outside of the parent’s expectation. Letting children make choices and then seeing the results of those choices at a young age prepares them to anticipate potential consequences as they get older and face more substantial choices.


Gone are the days of the old adage that children should be seen and not heard. In order to prepare our kids to be productive members of society, we must teach them that their thoughts and opinions matter and should be constructively shared with those around them. Inviting young children into conversations allows them to develop their voice. And listening to what they have to say bolsters the power of that voice.

As children grow older, a strong voice is a productive channel for self-development. Allowing kids to speak their thoughts and opinions and have those words heard, respected and validated allows them to figure out who they are, what they believe in, and to embrace their identity.

At School: Facilitating learning experiences that encourage students to talk with one another provides opportunities for kids to practice using their voice. Within these experiences, educators can teach students words and phrases to accurately convey their thoughts and opinions. Teachers may model active listening, explain how to express a connection to what another has shared, or give examples on how to clearly articulate an opinion. To further the development of voice, educators may choose to include students in individual planning meetings or learning conferences. Students often have unique insights about their own learning preferences and tools that lead to greater success.

Writing can also be an effective tool for students to develop and practice using their voice. Young children may be encouraged to write notes to their families with reminders of upcoming school celebrations or pajama days. This type of task sets the precedent for kids that they hold important information and can share it.

At Home: While reading at home, ask children their thoughts and opinions on the subject matter. When they want to tell you about their amazing Minecraft creation for the fifth time, give them space to share. As children get older, ask them about their thoughts on global issues or current news stories. Letting kids into conversations on these real-world dynamics establishes them as part of the dialogue and as contributors to solutions.


Children do not have to wait until they are grown adults to make the world a better place. Kids have many skills and capabilities to meaningfully effect change. And sometimes they see the issues and the path to change more clearly than the adults. They are not intimidated by the size of the problem or frustrated by historical inertia. When adults say things cannot change, a child often responds, “Why not?” We must recognize their capabilities and desire to make change so that we empower, rather than dismiss, their advocacy with refrains to “wait until they’re older.”

At School: Do not be afraid to introduce young students to big issues in an age-appropriate manner. Answer questions, provide information and share models through books and other multimedia of people who have used their lives to make a difference in the world. When students rally around a cause, invite them to brainstorm actions they could take now to move the cause forward. And when there is a global movement for a change they believe in, work with students to find an accessible way for them to participate. This might include a small protest march during the school day or a letter-writing campaign.

At Home: When children come to you with a concern or an issue they believe needs to be changed, listen. Rather than brushing off what can sometimes seem insignificant, brainstorm with them a path forward. Give children opportunities to research causes and issues, and provide them with access to expertise by visiting a local library or museum for resources or allowing them to email an expert who lives outside of the local area. Facilitate connections with peers who share similar passions and values and encourage them to find ways to volunteer their time and energy to make an impact.

Building a Better World

When a toddler excitedly opts for carrots over peas to have with dinner or a preschooler feels triumphant when offered a choice of what to do first before bedtime—brushing their teeth or reading—we can see the empowerment that comes from having agency over outcomes. When we watch our children and students’ faces light up as they talk about something they are passionate about, we should be reminded that our children have unique perspectives and can enrich the content of conversations and thinking by articulating those thoughts and opinions. And when we give young people the opportunity to transform these opinions or concerns into action, we teach them that they can affect change.

These pathways for growth benefit the individual development of a child. They nurture social-emotional health and development, encourage critical thinking and problem solving, and help fortify a student’s sense of self. They also can serve to benefit the broader social, school, and civic community in which students participate. Having an engaged citizenry who seeks productive dialogue and feels empowered to make positive change when a concern manifests makes our world a better place—both today and in the future.

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Photo credit: Erin Gohl

Small Talk, Big Benefits: Adding Conversations to Reading and Everyday Moments

By: Erin Gohl & Kristen Thorson

All parents want to do what is best for their kids. Fulfilling that aspiration is often challenging and unclear for even the most well-meaning parents given the many variables that affect children, families, and everyday life. However, there are a few axioms that research and practice have told us are unequivocally good for our children. We know we should feed them healthy foods like fruits and vegetables; We know that a good night’s sleep is critical for a growing child; and we absolutely know that reading with our children is uniquely valuable.

Regular exposure to reading and books has a plethora of benefits for children: Reading expands exposure to language and new vocabulary; it builds foundational skills such as prediction, sequencing, and summarizing; and it introduces characters and worlds far beyond a child’s family or neighborhood. In short, reading is really powerful for kids.

In recent years, there has been a flowering of research that hones in on steps parents can take to make reading with their kids even more meaningful. If parents engage in dialogic reading, or conversation-based reading, they can both broaden and deepen the already wonderful benefits of the reading experience.

What is Dialogic Reading?

Dialogic reading is based on the word dialogue and describes having two-way conversations with kids while reading. This is done by having back and forth conversations. It is fundamentally different from broadcast reading, which is simply reading the words in a book to a child. This is also distinct from the practice of asking closed questions that have yes, no, or a right or wrong answer. Dialogic reading promotes the use of open-ended questions to create these conversations while reading. In this dynamic, the child and the caregiver contribute to the conversation in equal parts.

Research: Two-Way Conversation with Kids “Turbocharges Their Brains”

Research from a broad spectrum of disciplines including neuroscience, early childhood, education, and psychology have consistently shown that dialogic reading has tremendous academic and social emotional benefits. Studies have shown that these two-way conversations build language and literacy skills, create a structure for communication and dialogue, and increase parent capacity for engaging with children around learning. Key points from this research tell us:

Dialogic reading stimulates the cognitive development of young children. This 2017 study shows the powerful benefits of dialogic reading. The research describes the effects of having conversations with kids while reading as “turbocharging” kids’ brains. When participating in conversation-based reading, the study found that children were more engaged in the narrative and that key portions of the brain were activated.

There are benefits of parent-child shared reading interventions for children AND their parents. This meta-analysis published by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that Parent-Child Book Reading (PCBR) interventions “are positively and significantly beneficial to the psychosocial functioning of both children and parents.” Shared reading improves parent capacity, parent and child attitudes toward reading, and the quality of the familial relationship. The study found that these reading experiences may also reduce stress levels of the participating parents.

Dialogic reading has an impact on literacy for at-risk students. This article details the research showing that dialogic reading is proven to boost at-risk children’s oral vocabulary skills and argues that its use “is one potential way to help children avoid […] later reading failure.”

The benefits of having conversations with young children extend beyond reading. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics shows astoundingly higher language skills, measured a decade later, for kids who have frequent conversations with parents when young. The authors found that promoting conversations in the home can bring equity to and mitigate socioeconomic-correlated disparities in literacy development.

Family Tips for Fostering Conversations

As children grow and develop, the dynamics of these conversations change and evolve. When conversing with babies, adults can model the cadence of conversations by speaking and leaving pauses for a response. You might mimic the sounds they make and the words they say, and connect their language to the people, places, and things in the world around them. When talking with toddlers or preschoolers, conversations can become more balanced as their vocabulary and language usage grow. Use their words, phrases, and experiences as springboards for deeper conversation. When engaging with school-aged kids, invite them to truly be partners in conversation. It may take some kids more time to respond, so be sure to create space and pauses for them to gather their thoughts. And when they initiate conversations about an interest of their own, promote the behavior by actively participating.

Across all ages, these conversations can be easily integrated into current reading habits and embedded within everyday life moments:

While Reading: Books provide an ideal onramp to high-quality conversation. Before reading, take time to investigate the title and image on the cover. Ask your child what they think the story might be about and why, and share your own predictions and thinking. While reading, notice how characters are feeling and why they might be feeling that way. Share together if you have experienced similar situations or emotions. After reading, discuss ways the book relates to your own experiences. Encourage discussions of more global issues beyond the text. This analysis both reinforces their comprehension of the book and extends their understanding.

On a Walk or In the Car: While you are out on a walk or driving in the car, there are limitless opportunities for conversation. Talk about what you see—from the animal crossing the road to the changing of the seasons—and ask each other questions. For example, if you see a construction zone, talk about what you think is being built. Why are they building that type of structure in that area? How are the construction workers working together? These types of conversations help children to connect to their community and their world.

At a Store: Use conversation to make mundane tasks more meaningful and enjoyable. While completing your weekly grocery run, use the items that surround you to inspire conversation. You might brainstorm together what you can make with certain ingredients. When you see an exotic fruit, you might speculate together on how it would taste and whether you would like it. And for the youngest shoppers, model conversation by simply describing each item you add to your cart and asking their thoughts on the items.

Preparing for an Adventure: Any outing or activity can be an exciting adventure. As you get ready to head to a new playground or park, brainstorm what equipment you might see. Ask and share details of your dream playground, and explain why you would choose each structure. If you are heading out of town, share with one another what you know about the destination, discuss what you are most excited about and why, and talk about what will be the same as your home and what will be different. These two-way conversations build excitement, quell anxieties, and deepen and enrich your child’s ability to think creatively and critically.

Adding Conversation, Building Literacy, Increasing Joy

The research is clear—engaging in two-way conversations is incredibly beneficial for children, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Rooting these conversations in reading and books, the studies show, furthers these benefits and also increases the development of foundational literacy skills while fostering an overall positive attitude toward reading.

But, the benefits of this kind of shared reading far transcend the metrics of scientific studies. Giving children room to express their opinions and feelings empowers them to regularly use their voice. It teaches them that their thoughts and opinions matter and gives them a model for how to effectively share them. These conversations allow for connections to be built between the content of a book and a family’s personal history and background. This kind of dialogue fortifies channels of communication that extend beyond reading and create a space for productive conversations among families about personal and global issues and challenges. And the very best part of having high-quality conversations with your child, where you share interesting details about one another, when you heartily laugh together over a funny moment, and when you genuinely connect with each other after a long day, is that it feels really joyful. So remember, stop and smell the roses. And talk about it.

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10 Strategies for Schools to Improve Parent Engagement

By: Jennifer Larson

Studies of successful schools indicate that a high rate of parent involvement is a major factor in their success and can even help close the achievement gap between groups of students. Yet while 85 percent of parents feel they could personally make “a lot” or “a fair amount” of difference in their child’s learning and academic progress, 46 percent of parents wish they could do more to support their child’s education.

The key to productive and positive parent engagement is a good flow of communication between school and home, and that communication should encompass every stakeholder, including parents, teachers, administrators, specialists, club leaders and coaches, and the parent-teacher organization. The strategies here can help you increase parent engagement at your school.

Understanding the Common Challenges

Ensuring good communication between school and home has become more challenging in recent years due to a number of key trends impacting parent engagement. First, the diversity of family living arrangements continues to increase, so educators cannot assume students are living at home with two parents. Second, families move a lot; in fact, the U.S. has one of the most mobile populations in the world. Third, many school communities include immigrants from multiple countries who speak a variety of languages. Finally, the rise of student support teams means there are often many educators working with each child. Due to these factors, and others, communications efforts by schools can often hit roadblocks, despite good intentions.

Here are some common challenges that impact outreach:

  • Lack of accessibility:  School communications that are accessible only via computer (but not mobile) or only in one language may be overlooked by a significant number of parents.
  • Too many tools: The typical student has eight different teachers, and each teacher may be using a different communication tool, which can cause parents to feel overwhelmed and frustrated.
  • Too many buzzwords: Parents don’t necessarily understand “edu-speak,” so communications full of jargon will fail to resonate.
  • Too much (or fractured) communication: Communications emanating from multiple sources and via multiple platforms can cause parents to miss important information and make it difficult for them to sort through and prioritize.

Strategies to Improve School-Home Communications

Schools have made great strides in increasing the frequency of communication with families, taking advantage of digital tools to give parents more visibility into their child’s day. However, as the challenges listed above indicate, the proliferation of tools has now fragmented communications to the point of leaving parents overwhelmed and unsure what to do with the information they receive. Parents appreciate the school’s effort to communicate, but if they can’t act on the information and the school isn’t sure if it was even received, nobody achieves the desired results.

With this in mind, the next level of innovation is required: rather than concentrating simply on parent-teacher communication, we need to instead design ways to improve the whole-school focus on communications, simplifying the process for all stakeholders and promoting consistency in communication between educators and families. This includes giving teachers fewer tools to manage, reducing the number of places parents need to look for information, and making information more clearly actionable. By ensuring parents have an easier time receiving communications from the school, it will help school leaders gain buy-in for goals and initiatives, help teachers foster the parent engagement desired in the classroom, and help students get the support they need from their families.

Here are some strategies for leaders to establish positive and productive communications right from the start of the school year:

1. Pick one tool: School leaders ought to conduct a communications audit to get a handle on how teachers are communicating with parents, and then provide clear direction on which tool to use, as well as some general communication protocols. Finding one platform that every educator can use and explaining why this is a priority will increase buy-in from all stakeholders, and, collectively, your staff and faculty can enhance their success in engaging parents.

2. Issue shorter, more frequent communications: Don’t kick off the year with one long communication or wait until the end of the term to reach out with an extensive recap. Just as schools have moved to more frequent assessments of students, school communications should also be concise and frequent to keep parents in the loop on an ongoing basis.

3. Personalize: Personalization isn’t just for students. Parents expect it, too, and new technology tools can help parents customize how they’re connected to their children’s schools. This is especially important since not all parents can come into school at designated times. Personalization features include giving parents the option to “subscribe” to the channels featuring updates they wish to receive―personalizing the information, not just the delivery method―which ensures they get the information they feel is relevant without it getting lost amid other information overload.

4. Set the tone: Encourage teachers to share a bit of information about themselves at the start of the year, perhaps at parent night, to set the tone for an open exchange with students’ parents and caregivers. They should develop and communicate a process for regular, ongoing communication throughout the year so parents know what to expect.

5. Build relationships: Teachers should focus on building relationships with parents to establish trust and foster those relationships throughout the year. Schools should also ensure that parents have opportunities to build rapport with their child’s support network, which can include a whole team of people, including learning specialists.

6. Share accountability: Make it clear that all faculty members are expected to participate in the school’s communications efforts. By providing clear guidance on this expectation, along with the proper tools and protocols to make it actionable, leaders can make it a reality. Administrators should also lead by example, demonstrating that they are equally accountable for executing the plan.

7. Invite parents to be partners:  If educators don’t already know the school’s parent body, they should be sure to reach out and learn more about them. Teachers should invite parents to share information about their child’s strengths and weaknesses, what type of support system they have at home, and whether anything going on in the child’s life may impact classroom behavior. Information like this can be essential in equipping teachers to meet students’ needs.

8. Empower parents to opt in: Design opportunities where parents can opt in (or out) of certain information or updates that are relevant, or irrelevant, to their child. Bombarding every parent with every update is just as ineffective as under-communicating, and parents will find it impossible to keep up, if they don’t tune out entirely. By giving parents the power to opt into the communication “channels”―however your school is able to define them―that are relevant to them, they will feel a much greater level of control and ability to truly engage.

9. Provide actionable information: Providing information for the sake of keeping parents up-to-date is recommended, but schools also need to make sure they are sharing information that parents can act on. This can include opportunities for parents to support or prepare their child for classroom assignments, or information about upcoming extracurricular activities and special events.

10. Share the positive: Often, communication will focus on the basics such as daily schedules, homework assignments, upcoming events and in some cases behavioral updates. Parents may dread the rare phone call home, so it’s important to find opportunities to communicate good news, as well.

School Communications as the Glue

A strong school culture leads to a thriving school community where every teacher, parent, and student has the opportunity to connect and be actively engaged, and that culture starts with communication. Therefore, a school-wide focus on communication is key to creating equitable opportunity for all parents and students. A whole-school communications plan ensures that all faculty members are conveying important information in an accessible way, and making sure all parents have access to school-based opportunities. With these strategies in mind, you can transform school communications and experience a new level of parent engagement.

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Jennifer Larson is co-founder and CEO of Hive Digital Minds, the creators of SchoolBzz. She is a technology entrepreneur, charter public school founder, and mother of four. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @startupjen

Featured image is the Parent & Community Center at Valley High, Santa Ana USD

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Family Technology Pact: Why You Need One and the Hidden Benefits

By: Rachel Wigglesworth

I will admit: my kids’ use of digital media is a trigger for me. I’m not sure why – there were periods in my childhood where I watched 4 hours of TV a day. Still, I see my kids walking around the house or sitting on the couch plugged into their devices and it’s all I can do to hold back my judgment and nagging. What I’ve come to realize with much practice and patience is twofold: 1) our children’s use of technology affords them many learning experiences beyond what is immediately at hand, and 2) having clear and firm boundaries around their use preserves the relationship I have with my kids. Ok… there’s a third: I have to keep my use of digital media in check too.

There is no doubt that technology use affords us many benefits. Our devices can open up our world and expand our possibilities within seconds. They can also unwittingly expose us and our children to potentially damaging images, ideas and social contexts such as pornography, cyberbullying and violent images. On top of that, our devices with apps, games, social media and instant replay videos are designed to be addictive in nature. Every notification from the device sends our brain a hit of dopamine, which activates our reward system leaving us craving for more.

When I see my kids lounging on the couch in a technology-induced hypnotic state, I often find myself screaming inside: SHOULDN’T THEY BE DOING SOMETHING MORE PRODUCTIVE? Playing, getting outside, helping out in the house, taking initiative and responsibility, thinking about others, engaging in face to face interaction, working on some creative endeavor…  The list could go on. It’s all I can do (and often not do!) to keep my mouth shut and remember what we have all heard about the importance of balance. To that end, my husband, two kids, and I sat down (that’s us in the feature image) to create guidelines for family media use. It took many iterations and finally ended in what we call “The Technology Pact”.

Before I go into details about creating a Technology Pact I want to note that this will look different for every family. There is no right or wrong here. Each family’s Pact will be based on individual family culture: values, goals, beliefs, desires, personalities and the child’s age. That’s the beauty of families – we can be free to be ourselves and come up with family guidelines based on who we individually are. Thus while I am sharing with you what we came up with for our family, which is imperfect at best, what you come up with in your family may be wildly different – and that’s OK!

A crucial piece of our Technology Pact is that we co-created it as a family. It would have been easier for my husband and me to write the Technology Pact ourselves. After all, I like the rules that I would come up with. However, what I’ve learned over time is that any agreement we have with our kids is not going to work unless the kids participate in the process. Despite my urges to frustratingly announce that we NEED TO REVISIT OUR TECHNOLOGY RULES in the heat of their use (which may have happened on occasion), as a family we found a time that worked for everyone to sit down and calmly discuss our perspectives, observations, and values.

Our Technology Pact starts with what we believe about technology use:

  1. that we should be able to use technology;
  2. that technology use should be in balance with other things we do in life; and
  3. that we all need to learn to self-monitor to achieve this balance.

For me, the most important of these beliefs is the last – our ability to self-monitor. It speaks to my first realization alluded to above that our children’s use of technology affords them many learning experiences beyond what is immediately at hand. Most important for me is that it teaches us the important executive functioning skills of self-control and impulse control. Among other positive outcomes, research suggests that self-control is more important than academic talent in predicting academic success.

In creating our Pact we found that discussions around definitions and how we use digital media were necessary. We created and agreed to screen free times – times when using our devices was off limits. For example, eating dinner together is an important time to connect for our family – thus no one is allowed to check their phones during this time. If a phone dings, we ignore it. How liberating! We built in caveats for “emergencies”, such as being in touch with a family member who is not at home, or solidifying a plan that is set to happen immediately after dinner; we want to allow for some flexibility and are committed to not take advantage of these caveats.

Together we came up with time limits on daily use. To do this we had long discussions about the definition of “use”. That may sound silly – having a screen in front of you is use, right? True, and we decided we didn’t need to limit use if that use entailed communicating with friends. After all, I spent hours on the phone talking to friends as a kid. Kids today communicate differently using text and social media (note my withholding of judgement!), and we decided that beyond excessive social communication, there was no need to limit that kind of use.

To address the balance issue, we adopted ideas used by other families I found on the web. We decided that the kids needed to engage in certain activities before they used their allotted screen time for the day. Thus no devices are to be used before household responsibilities are completed and offers to help are made. We also created requirements for reading, creative time and outdoor/ physically active time.

My husband and I compromised with the kids in some realms – they wanted to be able to check their phones for a few minutes right when they got home so they could be up on any recent social communication. We were fine with that. While I am a firm believer in no screens an hour before bedtime, they wanted to try being given the privilege to use their phone up to 15 minutes before bedtime – so we created a pilot program with this plan to be reevaluated. We allowed for exceptions to our agreements and wrote those directly into our Pact.

Finally, we came up with agreements around self-monitoring our use, how we interact with each other personally when we are using our devices, and individually set goals around our use.

It is always a work in progress. For example, under the category of safety, I just noticed that I’d like to add something about using our devices while driving. Our kids will be driving soon, and my husband and I could make some improvements on how we use our devices while in the car. Finally, we decided that if our kids became emotional in regards to digital media use, this indicated to us that our kids weren’t ready to handle the responsibilities that go along with using their devices. We felt that our kids needed to show us that they could maturely handle stopping their use at the allotted time without us micromanaging and without our kids melting down or begging for more time.

We are by no means perfect at this. I am not always consistent enough in holding my kids accountable to our agreements. This can lead to a slippery slope of my kids not self-monitoring. It is a work in progress.

Benefits of our Pact Beyond Regulating Digital Media Use

One of the most important jobs we have as parents is to teach our kids the skills they need for when they leave the home. Family agreements, such as those surrounding technology use, are simply a conduit for such teaching. Developing self-control around a device that is designed to fight you in that endeavor every step of the way is not easy. The part of our brain that controls self-control is underdeveloped for our younger children, and these skills temporarily diminish during the early teens. Our kids need our support.

The skills used to create the Technology Pact can be another learning experience beyond that of the immediate education technology can provide. When we were able to sit down and co-create our Pact, together we were able to talk about our desires, fears and beliefs surrounding technology use; really listen to the other’s perspective even if we didn’t agree with it; and sit through the discomfort of differing opinions, speak up for our beliefs and find compromise in a plan that worked for everyone. Learning how to negotiate and hear another’s perspective without dissolving into an emotional mess or raging anger is all too important in today’s world. What a better way to practice these skills in low stakes moments and in the safety of home.

My second realization has to do with what I’ve learned from parent educator and author Vicki Hoefle: having strong boundaries around limits with our children helps preserve the relationship. If I have a clear limit with my child that we have co-created, and if I am strong enough to follow through with the limit, then everything becomes clear. There is no need to nag and no need for push-back, thus no need to engage in a power struggle. If we are all on the same page and the rules are known, if the kids break the rules, they know the repercussions, and they take responsibility for their actions.

5 Tips for Upholding your Technology Pact

Creating and holding to a Technology Pact sounds easy in writing. It’s really tough in reality. Our kids are going to push back. Here are some ideas for how to work through those times:

  1. We as parents need to be consistent in a firm and kind way. This means maintaining limits with understanding and empathy. It also means that we have to manage our strong and reactive emotions as well. Not an easy feat, but with practice completely possible.
  2. Help your child develop the skills of self-regulation. If you find your child isn’t able to self-regulate – that you are constantly nagging and engaging in power struggles around media use, then that tells you your child needs some support. If your child isn’t able to hold to the agreement, then use a predetermined and agreed upon natural consequence. It is OK to take away the device for a set time if your child can’t independently stop her or his use. As parents, we have to be strong enough to handle the potential emotional fallout – a conversation for another time!
  3. Help your children be mindful of their use. How are they engaging with their world as a result of their use? How do they feel before, during and after their use? Ask them these questions.
  4. Allow your children to see the natural consequences of overindulging in digital media. Are they unable to get their homework done, take care of their responsibilities in the home (which I highly advocate that they have), interact with others face to face, etc? I remember becoming somewhat addicted to the game “asteroids” when I was in college to the point that it made me late for soccer practice. Soccer was my life at the time! I soon realized that I had to reign myself in and find a balance so the game wasn’t interfering with what was important in my life.
  5. Consider the quality as well as the quantity of digital media use. Is it promoting healthy values and lifestyle or not? If not, have a conversation with your child about it. You may still agree that some of the content is OK to use, and you are talking about the values it is espousing.

Above all, maintaining a strong, mutually respectful relationship with your child is essential. Let your child know you value his or her opinion. While we did not grow up where screens were so accessible, we need to acknowledge that this is an important part of our children’s world. Hear their arguments. Compromise where you can. This kind of back and forth will show your children you value their input, and will go miles in helping them feel valued in the world.

Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is the founder and parent educator/coach at She provides guidance to parents and caregivers through classes, workshops, and individual sessions. You can send an email to Rachel Wigglesworth or find her on Facebook.

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Families are Fundamental: Takeaways from The National Center for Families Learning Conference

Families matter. Literacy changes lives. Family literacy activates generational transformation and change. These tenants form the basis of the 2018 convening of the the National Center for Families Learning Conference held this past week in Fort Lauderdale, FL. A wide array of experts, researchers, policymakers, elected officials, philanthropists, and educational practitioners came together to share and discuss innovative strategies and contemporary efforts for connecting and engaging both child and parent or caretaker with learning and personal growth.

The National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) is an organization dedicated to “eradicat[ing] poverty through education solutions for families.” They see a two-generation learning model as a key to accomplishing this end. A two-generation learning approach creates learning and growth opportunities for both children and adult caretakers. These structured experiences can occur independently, in parallel, and/or simultaneously depending on the particular model. These efforts are characterized by opportunities to have both the student and caregiver provided with integrated supports, a coherent set of developmental experiences, and the underlying belief that their experiences should be shared with each other as they can make a better future for both generations together. NCFL also promotes the notion that a coordinated community-wide approach to creating these two-generation learning opportunities is necessary to tackle the challenges of poverty, disempowerment, and hopelessness. Together, generations within a family and across their community, families of genetic connection and personal bonds, can improve both a tomorrow and today.

Strategies for Engaging Families

The assertion is simple: families are key to literacy development, especially building early literacy skills, in children. Research shows that family engagement in learning has marked positive effects on learning measures across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. And the impact is especially beneficial for children from vulnerable families. However, engaging families from these communities, where poverty is pervasive, previous educational success is limited, and high percentages of members are nonnative speakers of English, in the schooling process can be particularly challenging. NCLF conference presenters made the case that this task can be accomplished despite the immense effort, time, and resources that it is perceived to require. Presenters, many of whom are practitioners in the field, offered several innovative strategies and exemplars for reaching families and connecting them to learning opportunities for themselves and their children.

  • Strive to Understand and Address the Unique, Dynamic Circumstances and Needs of Families:  José Muñoz, Director, Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership talked about his experience leading a community school in Albuquerque, NM.  He explained that a major reason his parents at his school would engage was because they had younger children at home and no childcare. In order to deal with that barrier, the school began providing childcare for events and parent seminars. They also came to understand that two-thirds of their students were food insecure. The school partnered with a local culinary school to create a “Homework Diner” where families can come to school, receive assistance, together, on homework lessons, and receive a hot meal. These efforts to remove barriers to participation allowed to the families to fulfill extant desire to support their students.
  • Meet Families Where THEY are Comfortable: In order to engage parents and caretakers in student learning and to offer opportunities for their own education, families must come into a school site. Many families, especially those from underserved communities and those who are not native English speakers, do not always feel welcome or comfortable in a school setting. Muñoz advised attendees that “you need to go where they [the families] are comfortable until they feel comfortable coming into the spaces we want them to (schools).” Having school events away from the school and in facilities that families frequent for non-educational purposes, such as malls, municipal buildings, and community centers demonstrated both availability to and respect for the families.
  • Focus on “Transformational Rather than Transactional” Services: Shaundelyn Emerson, Program Officer at Children Services Council of Palm Beach County explained that a key to engaging families and building capacity is “moving from transactional services to transformational services…so participants can take ownership in their own lives, their children’s lives, and their community.” LaDevlin Walker, a keynote speaker who was a participant in a family literacy program in Flint, MI described how her experience in a family literacy program gave her tools to support her own son’s learning as well as access to courses and workshops for herself. This experience took her from being “a good mom to a great mom” and allowed her to go from a receiver of services to now a service provider at another local family literacy center.
  • Empower Parents to Participate in Learning Regardless of Literacy Levels: Many parents from underserved communities may be illiterate themselves or do not speak English. These issues can be barriers to parents or caretakers reading with their children and working with them to build literacy skills. Ready Rosie is a communications and content platform that seeks to “bridge the gap between school life and experiences at home.” The site uses videos of real families demonstrating ways to build earning into everyday home life. Videos are shown in English and Spanish and the multiple presentations empower parents with low literacy levels to become active participants in their children’s learning at home. Other attendees noted making audio versions of books available to families, either digitally or via compact discs, to allow parents and caretakers who might not be literate or fluent English speakers participate in reading with their children.

The attendees were clear that obstacles are being overcome and communities are experiencing success. The next horizon of challenge is to nurture these efforts and conform the demonstrated successes to other local conditions.  Success at scale is not replication of specific programs, but the on-going adaptation of multiple, reinforcing approaches.

“Collective Impact”: Community Partnerships are Key to Engaging Families

A common theme from the NCFL conference is that schools are not equipped to solely address the myriad needs that students from impoverished communities live with every day. And, these many issues–e.g., a lack of healthcare, food insecurity, parents who do not speak English–often stymie a child’s learning and literacy development. These students have the capacity to excel but have not been provided, by circumstances structural realities beyond their or their parents control, the experiences and supports that are necessary to use their intelligence and effort in maximizing their preparation for self-sufficiency and civic engagement. Despite these conditions, personal and school educational accountability, including the expectation to have students read on grade level by 3rd grade, is typically seen as the sole responsibility of our public school system, regardless of the broader context in which the child lives.

NCFL speakers and presenters promoted reframing this traditional conception of education. They put forth a much broader vision of the process of educating students and families. They advocate for the approach that the idea that the broader social and economic conditions of many of these students must also be addressed in a coordinated way in order to effectively build foundational literacy skills, and long-term academic success, of students in schools. Participants and presenters shared a common vision that partnerships between community organizations, other governmental institutions, philanthropists, and businesses and the schools has the potential to create a dynamic and productive web of services capable of addressing these complicated needs. Schools are then an important habitat within a larger ecosystem of human development. The health of that habitat is dependent on and contributes to the overall sustainability of the ecosystem and the health of the members, both mature and young.

The concept of “collective impact” is key to this community-wide approach to learning and literacy.  A “collective impact” framework acknowledges that solving complex social issues and problems requires a multi-faceted, multi-layered, coordinated effort. No single institution or organization is equipped to address the complicated social challenges that so many face. With this line of thinking, the individual, the family, and the surrounding social institutions have a coherent language, intentions, and reinforcing efforts. Work is done from a place of common goals and coordinated solutions.

Presenters shared best practices for partnering schools, libraries, community organizations, governmental agencies, and businesses in efforts to promote family literacy. Some key takeaways:

  • Decide on a common goal and plan to get there. This requires agreeing on rhetoric that can be used by all collaborators, publishing common calendars and expectations, and compromising on resource allocation decisions.
  • Create a strategic plan among all institutions that is approved by governing boards and is publicly endorsed in a high profile manner.
  • Engage in mutually reinforcing activities, which means taking time to align calendars and schedule joint events.
  • Agree on data sources and analytic frameworks with shared metrics for gauging impact.
  • Language matters. Participants must use inclusive words such as “ours” rather than “mine.” Creating an additional shared identity for the community respects people’s existing relationships and builds new relationships.
  • Build trust and deliver on promises.  New partnerships, no matter how well intended, must show value in the near-time in order to survive for the long-term.

Family Learning Must Include 21st Century Literacies

The conference closed with a keynote address by Getting Smart CEO Tom Vander Ark. In his speech, Vander Ark extended the conversation from the contemporary work of family learning and literacy to the future, taking into account emerging dynamics and evolving societal, economic, and technological trends. Participants were challenged to take into account the current presence of, and growing pervasive reliance on, artificial intelligence across private lives and public services.  From receiving Netflix recommendations to dynamic credit scoring, from distributing public transportation options to public safety officers, formerly static big data sets are being mined and analyzed to drive resource allocations.  This necessitates a broader approach to life-readiness to empower communities to understand, inform and author the algorithms and machine learning systems with which they interact.

He explained that, with the development of new technologies at an exponential rate, students will face complex issues and questions that we cannot yet anticipate. Because of this, “there are a new set of literacies that are key to unlocking opportunities and creating pathways for children and adults” going forward. These new literacies must be part of the overall conversation around family learning and literacy as the absence will further leave families from underserved communities behind.

Vander Ark described four new literacies that are necessary for success in the emerging innovation economy:

  • Design Skills: an iterative problem-solving approach;
  • Entrepreneurship Skills: taking initiative, marketing, managing a project, learning to deliver value;
  • Social Skills: self-management, collaborating on diverse teams, and decision-making; and
  • Discernment Skills: understanding algorithms, differentiate between valid and invalid sources of information, and staying safe online.

But, he warned, many schools “still value routine and compliance” with curricula focused on outdated conceptions of the kinds of skills and competencies necessary for students and adults to be successful in the future. Vander Ark advocated for opportunities for project-based and deeper learning–for children and adults–to create opportunities to practice confronting and solving the complicated issues they are destined to face. He applauded the efforts of the conference for their success in finding impactful solutions of yesterday and today, and acknowledged their readiness to take on the challenges of tomorrow. Success using the two-generation approach, and in fact success for the every generation approach, requires both persistent effort and constant reevaluation of what and how children and adults need to learn. It can be done.

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4 Tips to Building a Bridge Between Parents and Teachers

By Jose Loera.

Effective communication is the key to making any relationship successful, and this is especially true in the classroom. In 2012, Harvard Graduate School of Education conducted a study to see just how strong the effect of frequent teacher-family communication is on student engagement. On average, it increased the chances of students finishing their homework by 40%, decreased the number of times teachers had to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand by 25%, and increased class participation rates by 15%.

Based on my experience, here are four tips to help foster a positive and rewarding parent-teacher relationship.

1. Change the way you engage families.

As the Southwest Outreach and Engagement Manager at STRIVE Prep in Denver, I’m one of four individuals responsible for implementing the family-engagement strategy across our network. We have about 3,500 students, and my role is to ensure that every student’s family feels they have a voice.

To connect parents and teachers, we used to send paper fliers (which were often lost in backpacks) to schedule parent-teacher conferences so that parents could get to know their child’s educator. Today, the methods in which we engage with families has changed substantially.

To make this change happen, we have a family engagement program that meets three times a year where we meet with families to discuss strategies on how to support their student (s). These are done both in large group and individually to provide parent support. Through these meetings, those parents receive a weekly text on information pertaining to their child. In addition to these meetings, we have ongoing meetings to provide parent leadership training and connect with families when concerns arise.

2. Work to bridge the language gap.

Each year, U.S. public schools add up to 100,000 new ELL students, so teachers need to know how to effectively communicate with these students and their parents. We send notifications from our school communication system, but the system has a one size fit all approach and doesn’t personalize to each families linguistic needs.

About this time last year, we started looking for a resource that would help our schools better connect with parents. We chose a parent-teacher communication app called Bloomz. Since then, we have seen more communication in many ways. For example, families who do not speak English as a first language can change their settings to receive information in their preferred language.

The principal of any school can also send out notifications, such as a school-wide event or a school closure, and families can stay organized and up-to-speed on their child’s education each day in the language of their choice. This app also allows for the school calendar to be within fingers reach so that families can easily see events for the coming months and plan accordingly. This allows parents to stay easily informed and connect with school administration since information can be translated to their preferred language through the app.

3. Create one place for two-way communication.

One important aspect of our new approach is how simple it is. There are fewer phone calls from stressed parents asking to reschedule a meeting. Instead, parents can message the teacher and reschedule a meeting through the app. In that same place, our teachers can post on to their specific class newsfeeds a spreadsheet for parents to choose which meeting times work best for them to set up conferences or links to a website that help students with their homework. In addition, through the class and school newsfeed parents can see what their child is up to when teachers post pictures from class field trips or special events at school. We’ve had parents mention how happy they are to see these photos and know that their child is having fun while learning at school.

Communication is a two-way street. Our goal is always to create a problem-solving partnership, with parents and teachers. With a clear and ongoing stream of communication, we can avoid the pitfall of only talking to the teacher or parent when something has gone wrong.

4. Maintain regular face-to-face time.

We ensure families in our network have a voice by not only communicating with them through our new systems but also by inviting them to additional meetings. Families have opportunities every other month to attend coffee with the principal, monthly family council meetings/PTA and yearly town hall meetings with our leadership. This provides multiple avenues for parents to listen about school updates and to provide feedback directly to our leadership.

We also encourage parents, teachers, and educators to keep the face-to-face interaction present. Having one centralized place for online communication has been an enormous help, but it shouldn’t replace in-person interaction.

A positive parent-teacher relationship starts with strong communication, and I believe that following these steps can help any district bridge the cultural barrier between families and parents.

Jose Loera is the Southwest Community Outreach and Engagement Manager at STRIVE Prep in Denver, Colorado.

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Kids Can Thank Mom by Making a Meal Themselves

This is my fourth annual blog about the concept of family dinner that has run on Mom’s Day. Others include:

When I first started writing these blogs, all three of our boys lived at home and ranged in age from early elementary school to middle school to high school.

As I write now, the age span has crept up to middle school to high school to college. In other words, one has moved out and another is about to do so.

Now more than ever, I see with the lens of “They’re going to be on their own really soon, so they might as well learn those independent skills now rather than later.” Yes, time to develop agency in all aspects of life.

I contrast that with how I felt a few years ago when I thought I was doing the boys a favor to prep all of their meals because “they were so busy,” I see more clearly now that the biggest favor I can do is teach them how to prepare it themselves. I know, I’m stating the obvious. We’ve heard the sayings before, “teach them to fish,”  “you’re teaching your kids learned helplessness if you’re doing something for them that they can do for themselves,” or “don’t over-parent” and so on.

I have a hunch I am not the only parent who gets caught in the trap of thinking it’s faster, more efficient, easier and maybe even more “loving” to do things for them.  Often it is!

However, there is strong research that goes beyond my intuition and that serves as a reminder that doing chores is a big part of developing agency and a “pitch-in” mentality!

Translated to the dinner theme? Let the kids cook!

Benefits of Kids Doing things for Themselves (and Others)

While there are benefits inherent in family dinner itself (see final section), the benefits extend even further when kids are part of the preparation process.

In her 2014 TED talk, Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult, and the former dean of freshman at Stanford University, boiled down the keys to raising awesome adults to two key things:

  • Love
  • Chores (of which preparing dinner can be a part!)

While that may seem like an oversimplification, this advice is based on the Harvard Grant Study, the longest-running longitudinal study in history, (spanning 75 years and counting–from 1938 to the present), in which researchers identified these two things as integral to childhood for those who grow up to be happy and successful.

For an awesome recap of Julie’s speech, along with other tidbits I recommend the  TED Radio Hour podcast Turning Kids Into Grown-Ups.

Further, there aren’t many parents who’d argue with a pitch-in mindset. While not surprising, mothers’ attitudes toward and beliefs about meals and chores matter. According to a group of Texas A&M researchers who published the report Mothers and Meals, when Mom believes dinner is important, so do kids.

Tips for Having Kids Make the Meal: By the Ages

Let me preface this section by saying I am not an expert at having kids make the meal. I always marveled at those parents who had an amazing menu plan and activated a rotation where everyone takes responsibility to cook one meal, rotate chores, and so on.

We just haven’t been that family and our schedules have never felt that predictable. So, we’ve done more “opportunistic” cooking.

Today, we have one son who recently made the transition from high school to college, another from middle school to high school, and another who will be moving from elementary to middle school this fall. So, this “tips” section is more of a narrative around what’s worked for them recently.

High School > College.  Last year, as our senior in high school (Grant) received his “manual” for workouts and nutrition in preparation for becoming part of a college student-athlete, he declared that he wanted to shop for and cook his own food. It was THE best! While my husband (Mac) and I ended up doing much of the shopping, every Sunday, Grant not only cooked for himself, he cooked for the family! After Mac taught him the art of grilling, Grant would cook up enough lean meat to feed us for several meals – his repertoire included salmon, chicken, pork and the occasional steak. Now he grills for his buddies at college.

Middle School > High School. Our son, Adam, is quite creative and loves his ‘snacks,’ so his early high school years focused more on things like smoothies, vegetable dips, eggs and snack mixes. One challenge at this age is to find enough “healthy” snack options. One thing we’ve tried to do since the kids were little is have them help plant a vegetable garden and enjoy munching on peas.  I’ll call it a “win” here to have him help with parts of the meal rather than the whole meal. He’s also learned he can contribute the atmosphere. Cooking may not have been his favorite in early high school years, but he has provided family entertainment by playing his guitar and singing. Here’s a ‘throwback picture’ of Adam living out a family tradition.

Elementary > Middle School. Our elementary-going-on-middle school son loves to prep breakfast. Weekend mornings (when he’s not running off to a sporting event), he loves to make a big breakfast. Recently, his menu included scrambled eggs, bacon, waffles and blueberries. It took a while (and it’s important to eat a quick snack before undertaking the prep!) and he had lots of good coaching from Mac, but he was super proud when we all sat down to eat his meal.

Pre School > Elementary. While none of our kids are currently this age, we have some great memories of preparing meals together. One year, we received this book as a gift and it’s awesome for 3 main reasons: 1. There are huge photos so kids can page through and get excited. 2. There aren’t too many ingredients in each recipe. 3. The recipes are written in kid-friendly language.

How Family Dinner Benefits Learning

Everyone benefits — especially the kids. Research has found that family dinner drives student achievement (and decision making):

  • Improved vocabularies and reading skills. Catherine Snow of Harvard Graduate School of Education looked at how mealtime conversations play a critical role in language acquisition in young children. The discourse at dinner provides even more vocabulary context than when reading them. Improved vocabulary skills lead to better readers.
  • Greater academic achievement. A Reader’s Digest survey of more than 2,000 high-school seniors compared academic achievement with family characteristics. Eating meals with their family was a stronger predictor of academic success than whether they lived with one or both parents.
  • Higher grades. A series of reports on family dinner by CASA Columbia have found striking relationships between frequency of family meals and grades. According to one of CASA’s reports, teens who have daily dinners with their family are almost 40% more likely to report receiving “mostly As and Bs” in school compared to teens who have dinner with their family two or fewer times per week.
  • Unlikely (or at least less likely) to smoke, drink or take drugs. In addition to the benefits mentioned in the relationship section regarding CASA’s findings of reduced use of marijuana and tobacco, teens who eat frequent family dinners are also less likely than other teens to have sex at young ages and get into fights; they are at lower risk for thoughts of suicide; and are more likely to do better in school. This is true regardless of a teen’s gender, family structure or family socioeconomic level.

The benefits of family dinner both to developing agency and to promoting learning are evident.

So, kids, what are you cooking for Mother’s Day?

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