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Web Posted on: December 21, 1998


Diana Muldrow
Internet: muldrow@admin.njit.edu

Rosa M. Cano
Internet: cano@admin.njit.edu

Howard Kimmel
Internet: kimmel@admin.njit.edu

New Jersey Institute of Technology
Center for Pre-college Programs
University Heights
Newark, New Jersey 07102
Tel: 973-596-3550
Fax: 973-642-1847


In the fall of 1991, the Center for Pre-college Programs at New Jersey Institute of Technology developed a plan for more effective science instruction for children with learning and other disabilities. The project developers, after two decades of implementing programs in science, mathematics, engineering and technology for underrepresented populations, believed that a holistic approach would better serve children with differing abilities. The proposal was written to include special education and elementary teachers, counselors, children with disabilities and their families. The National Science Foundation also appreciated this approach, funded the proposal and Project SMART was born in March of 1993.

While each component of Project SMART is as important as the next, working with families of children with disabilities has proven to be the most rewarding for several staff members. Geographically the project serves northern and central New Jersey. However, the majority of the children involved in the on-campus, summer program are from Newark and nearby urban communities. Typically these parents have been difficult to involve in our programs for K-12 students. It was no different for Project SMART at the first parent workshop in September of 1993, "Improving Study Skills for Students with Special Needs." Our total attendance was two family members, neither a parent.

Needless to say, we went back to the drawing board, did additional research, copied some successful parent programs and have now developed what we consider to be an effective program to include parents in the education of their children. The following information will provide the "short version" of strategies and interventions that can increase the participation of parents in the educational process.

The Research

The role of parents cannot be taken lightly. Parents who have lower career aspirations for their children with differing abilities can fail to provide the support necessary for a successful transition from elementary school through the initial years of employment. The transition concept, like career education, requires interdisciplinary cooperation in the schools and with community service agencies, as well as meaningful parent involvement (Brolin & Gysbers, 1989).

Working with parents that successfully prepare their children for schools and establish communication with teachers does not require complex strategies. However, many families want their children to do well in school, but do not communicate with educators and other professionals impacting on the learning process (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).

A lack of free time due to demands of employment and families keeps parents away from school. While racial and ethnic minorities and parents with limited English proficiency tend to stay away, even though their children are often more at risk of failing in school (Smith, et al., 1995). These parents require extra efforts at involvement in education. Making them feel welcome is the first step in attracting them to innovative strategies to improve their children's learning.

Minority children with disabilities face double discrimination and a double disadvantage in our society. They are more likely to be poor and undereducated and to have fewer opportunities than other members of the population. Due to the greater likelihood of their being from a lower socioeconomic status and poorer health, they are at greater risk of not receiving needed services if they have a disability (National Council on Disability, 1993).

Parental involvement has been touted for years as an important predictor of student success (Hester, 1989). However, the quest for effective family participation in and support of learning is not easily accomplished without understanding obstacles and how to overcome them (Jesse, 1986).

While many well-intentioned efforts have been offered to parents and families, they often fall short in either attraction or continuation of effort. Take, for example, "Family Science" and "Family Math." These one or two time events can attract many families and engage them in interesting hands-on activities. However, after the activities stop, so does family participation. Parents aren't informed of how to facilitate children's learning, what course selection is required in order to pursue a degree in science, math, engineering and technology, and how important it is to increase their expectations of their children. Most importantly, parents are made to feel as "invited guests" instead of active participants in the educational process.

Another program that contains a great deal of useful information and effective strategies to improve family involvement in education is the Department of Education's "Helping Your Child" series. Some questions about their effectiveness are: Are these publications widely available to all parents and are they being put to use in the manner that was intended? If a parent is presented with information that is not understood, are answers sought or is the material laid aside? Has a dissemination strategy been developed that will present the information to parents in a manner that will allow for interaction between them and trained facilitators? How many parents have access to the World Wide Web and therefore these pamphlets? How many parents, or educators for that matter, know of the existence of these materials?

Parental involvement has been defined from a shifting perspective (Davies, 1991). As society, communities and schools restructure, parental involvement is also being transformed. Nontraditional family units are much more common than in the 1950s. However, alternative family structures are effective and should be recognized. Some new beliefs emerging about parents and families include (Liontos, 1992).

  • All families have strengths
  • Parents can learn new techniques
  • Parents have important perspectives about their children
  • Most parents really care about their children
  • Cultural differences are both valid and valuable, and
  • Many family forms exist and are legitimate.

According to Vandergrift and Greene (1992), there are two independent components of parental involvement: parents as supporters and parents as active partners. Project SMART chose to direct its efforts towards increased parental involvement and expectations in four categories:

  • Parents as teachers
  • Parents as partners
  • Parents as decision makers
  • Parents as advocates.

In large part, parents of children with disabilities often feel overwhelmed. A complex social service system and an overabundance of red tape will discourage even the most resourceful parent. When a family learns that a child has differing abilities, they begin a process filled with unfamiliarity, complex decisions, contact with a variety of professionals, specialists and educators, and require up-to-date information on programs and services (NICHCY, 1993). Most parents feel isolated, alone and uninformed. Many families deny the disability and refuse assistance.

Project SMART was also privy to a good deal of first-hand knowledge, since two of the project developers were parents of children with disabilities. Now that we were armed with information, we set about comparing what worked and what didn't.

What Makes a Successful Parent Program?

Parents of all backgrounds seek assistance from schools on ways to help their children learn better (Chavkin & Williams, 1989). Unfortunately, efforts by schools stop at the fall open house and parent-teacher conferences. Parents must be made to fell welcome and a part of the education of their children. Parent resource centers do an effective job of creating a family-friendly environment at school and in other educational settings.

If we support parents as both learners and teachers by providing materials and a space where parents can get together with other parents, faculty, administrators and staff, we send a positive message to parents that they belong in the school and are welcome. In addition to information about current school programs and events, reading material aimed at guiding parents in the facilitation of their children's learning, games, books, videos that can be borrowed and resources that provide specific educational materials to be used at home, the parent resource center can provide meeting space for parent groups. The center can be a great location for information and guidance about college and career opportunities, cultural and community services and agencies that provide social, educational and health assistance to families.

Any attempt at parent education must begin with an assessment of parent needs and interests. By beginning with a questionnaire sent to the families of participants, we can determine the needs of parents rather than assuming what they require. While we may want families to increase their general knowledge of science, a caregiver may desperately need information about their basic rights in special education. When needs are identified, a survey of available resources must ensue. Identification of appropriate agencies should be made and extensive efforts at linking parents and children with agencies best suited to their needs is critical. Many specialists, skilled parents, practitioners and educators are great workshop leaders.

In order to maximize participation, families need to be informed and have their interest piqued. Workshops should be offered at convenient times for families, not staff, advance notice provided to potential attendees, transportation services or reimbursement for travel and childcare are critical factors for increasing attendance. Parent-student workshops can be particularly effective, especially when students are featured "stars." Project SMART staff learned early on that by focusing activities around their children, parent participation increased dramatically. "What I Did Last Summer Starring...." has become a staple of our program. Not only did the children get to show-off their newly found skills, they were able to teach their families what they had already learned.

Another successful strategy has been scheduling children's workshops at the same time as parent workshops (piggyback events). A caregiver usually provides the transportation for their ward. Since travel to and from the workshop location is already required, they don't seem to mind staying for a session on a topic of interest to them.

Since an increasing number of children live in single parent and stepfamilies, approaches to communication should be sensitive to non-traditional families. We should not make assumptions about the family structure and avoid letter greetings that start with Dear Parents. Messages can begin with "Friends" or "Dear Family.

In many two-parent families, both parents work full-time. If we provide activities and child-care services for non-participant children, the challenge of increasing their participation is minimized.

Competitions are an effective strategy for increasing the participation of parents, especially fathers. Not only do the children have an opportunity to demonstrate ingenuity and achievement; families can be engaged in both preparation and the competition itself.

A "Compact for Learning" can provide a set of instructions of what is expected of parents and children and what they count on from education providers. A compact is an opportunity for all partners to accept the responsibility for helping children learn. Commitments of all partners should complement and build on one another. The compact facilitates a coordinated effort to improve student learning and performance (DeKanter, et al., 1997).

While there are many other strategies to increase effective parental involvement, the key lies in the establishment of an atmosphere of ownership of the program by families. Parents must feel that they have a voice in what services are provided for them, that their comments and suggestions are appreciated, and they are always welcome.

References Cited

Brolin, D.E. and Gysbers, N.C. (1989). Career Education for Students with Disabilities, Journal of Counseling & Development, November/December, Vol. 68.

Chavkin, N.F. and Williams, D.L., Jr. (1989). Low-income parents' attitudes toward parent involvement in education. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare.

Davies, D. (1991). Schools reaching out: Family, school and community partnerships for student success. Phi Delta Kappa, 72(5), 376-382.

DeKanter, A., Ginsburg, A.L., Pederson, J., Peterson, T.K., and Rich, D. (1997). A Compact for Learning. Partnership for Family Involvement in Education, U.S. Department of Education.

Hester, H. (1989). Start at home to improve home-schools retention. NASSP Bulletin, 73(513), 23-27.

Jesse, Dan (1986). Increasing Parental Involvement: A Key to Student Achievement.

Liontos, L.B. (1992). At-risk families and schools: Becoming partners. Eugene, OR:ERIC, Clearinghouse on Educational Management.

National Council on Disability (1993). Meeting the Unique Needs of Minorities with Disabilities, A Report to the President and the Congress, April 26, 1993.

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1993). Parenting a Child with Special Needs: A Guide to Readings and Resources. NICHCY News Digest, Volume III, Number 1.

Smith, T.M. et al. (1995). The Condition of Education 1995. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. Department of Education (1996). Reaching All Families: Creating Family-Friendly Schools [On-line]. Available: http://www.ed.gov/pubs/ReachFam/iraf.html.

Vandergrift, J.A. and Greene, A.L. (1992). Rethinking parent involvement. Educational Leadership, 50(1), 57-59.